CANVEY ISLAND, England – Jacob Gross, 31, has an unlikely pioneer spirit. In August 2017, already a father of five, he cast his young family’s lot with a risky experiment: founding a new community from scratch. Friends and family thought he was crazy: “You’re sure that you’re going?” they would ask. Few knew exactly where he was moving to; some were skeptical the plan would work.
London’s Hasidic Jews were running out of options. Their traditional stomping grounds around north London’s Stamford Hill neighborhood were becoming unsustainable. House prices were rising and families with up to 10 children were being forced to move into poorly maintained two-bedroom flats. It was clear they couldn’t continue to stay in the area.
A committee had previously been set up to survey possible options for moving out. There was a checklist of requirements: The new site couldn’t be further than an hour’s commute from London; it had to be able to grow quickly; and the houses had to be large and affordable.
Members of the community were sent to investigate towns in the London commuter belt; Harlow to the northeast proved a nonstarter; Southend to the east came to nothing; and officials in Milton Keynes to the north blocked nascent plans.
Canvey Island, an islet separated from mainland Essex by a tight network of creeks, was deemed to fit the criteria and was selected. If people have heard of the place, it is for its trailer park and reputation as a Brexit stronghold. (In 2016, more than 70 percent of locals here voted to leave the European Union.) Canvey, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) east of central London, is a town of two-family red-brick houses with well-kept driveways, drizzly winters and rusting fishing boats. Its last organized Jewish community had shuttered, after a brief existence, in the mid-1930s.
The exodus from Stamford Hill was swift. Hundreds attended meetings explaining the plans, and in June 2016 the first six houses on the island were purchased. In 2017, a Hasidic philanthropist put up 1.75 million pounds (currently $2.27 million) to purchase the abandoned Castle View School, infrastructure was laid in, a kosher store established and a new Swiss-sponsored yeshiva opened its doors there.
Jacob Gross joined the exodus.
“We were family 23. I bought a house six months after the first people arrived and moved a year later,” he recounts. “It was a very aggressive move for people to leave where they were born; they just needed that first push.” His family moved out of a cramped two-bedroom home into a mansion: six bedrooms, big kitchen, massive backyard – and he’s extending the place.
“I’m not sure if a place makes a better person, but people are more pleasant here,” he says. “We’ve moved from the jungle in Stamford Hill; it was the best-ever decision.”
Gross is now the director of Canvey Island’s Jewish community. Three and a half years after the first houses were bought, he estimates that “we’re now more than 100 homes and 75 families. That’s around 500 people.”
Better than Israel
Drilling fills the air as Gross stands behind the counter in the community store; it will be doubling in size in the next few weeks. It is lunchtime as yeshiva students, speaking Yiddish, negotiate salmon sandwich prices and women do their pre-Shabbat shopping. Gross’ tight side curls bob down along his long face as he helps the stream of customers.
“English? Pro!” says a smiley man buying an egg sandwich. Naftali, 33, standing behind him has this comment translated – and debated – in Yiddish by others. “Very great place,” he nods. “We feel the same as a religious Jew in Israel.” Gross jumps in and there is a barrage of Yiddish. He straightens up and clarifies: “The opposite. We feel much more welcome here than a religious Jew in Israel, who feels threatened there.”
Joel Friedman, 33, has acted as a spokesman of sorts for the community. He moved in with the first six families in June 2016. His story mirrors those of other newcomers: “It was a matter of quality of life. Nobody moves for luxury, but just to have their own home and their own space to grow a family. As is it, Stamford Hill is unsustainable.”
Friedman is excited about what success here will mean for the wider community in Britain. “The Haredi community really lived like this before the Second World War in Europe, in the shtetls,” he says. “We’re opening new horizons and we hope that this will be one example among other places that will start to grow.”
Britain’s Hasidic story is one of opening and reopening horizons. As the Hasidic community battled against disappearance in the aftermath of the Holocaust, refugee rebbes rebuilt their courts in Stamford Hill (which was already a Jewish stronghold in Britain). Today, those courts have outgrown their postwar homes, and – like in Canvey Island – branches are searching for new, long-term homes.
The ultra-Orthodox community, of which Hasidim make up the largest stream, comprises some 16 percent of Britain’s Jewish population and is expanding quickly – the community’s 4-percent population growth has reversed the long-term decline in the overall population of Britain’s Jews.
Canvey’s frontier vibe becomes more apparent the more you dig under the surface. Women operate shops out of their living rooms, selling stockings or shoes to their neighbors – illegally, without the local council’s knowledge, non-Jewish neighbors say. Daily shuttles keep Canvey connected to Stamford Hill, bringing in families and friends and keeping the new community intimately linked to the tight-knit Hasidic world of north London.
It seemed like nothing could stop the heady optimism of Jewish Canvey. But a setback came in December, during Hanukkah, when the candles of a menorah left unattended at the community’s Luzern Yeshiva set off a fire. The flames ripped through Torah scrolls and sacred texts; seven fire crews from across Essex rushed in. The boys of Luzern Yeshiva will be temporarily relocated to London as rebuilding begins.
Initially, Friedman was concerned about whether the new Jewish community and veteran Canveyites would gel (the islet has a population of some 40,000). “It is very, very English – one of the most ‘white British’ in the country – and the highest Brexit support,” he says. “People in Stamford Hill kept telling us, ‘You be careful out there.’ UKIP and once even the BNP had a strong base here,” he says, referring to the right-wing U.K. Independence Party and the far-right British National Party.
These worries were grossly misplaced, Friedman says. “We always believed in the vision. We couldn’t see it going wrong. We could see the place was welcoming and nice, and the homes were in good condition and well-priced.”
Above all, the fact that “a large percentage of Canvey are East Enders and remember the Jewish community from there” eased the newcomers’ arrival, he says. This has allowed Friedman to recast the arrival not as the influx of a strange foreign community, but as part of the same aspirational story. “In a sense, what I told them is that ‘This is the same story – we’re just 30 years behind. It’s the same story of why people moved out of the East End. Now we are coming to Canvey Island.”
How successful Friedman’s efforts will be in the long term is questionable. In 2018, a BBC documentary (“Canvey: The Promised Island”) looked into the new Jewish community and explored the gap with its non-Jewish neighbors. Some feel the Hasidim have rested too much on the afterglow of the documentary and missed an opportunity to reach out further.
Ray Howard, 77, is nicknamed “Mr. Canvey.” In his classic Essex accent, he tells stories of the historic 1953 floods (that killed 58 residents), not to mention the German V-2 rocket that hit his farmhouse and killed his two brothers and cousin during World War II. He has developed a “close affinity with the Jewish people” thanks to his Jewish ex-wife and the business he did with Jews in the old East End of London.
Howard offers Canvey’s new community a piece of advice: “They need to circulate more. They very much keep to themselves. I wish that they said hello to people in the street. They have to be straight with people.”
The Hasidic community’s compound certainly has a besieged feel to it. Tall gates of corrugated iron guard the entrance. Blue panels enclose it so that neighbors can’t see in. Their neighbors down the street are a Jehovah’s Witness meeting hall, an Indian restaurant and a small corner shop.
“They don’t really integrate. I suppose they don’t really want to,” says Janine Ford, 71, who is chatting with a friend working at the corner shop’s cash register. Before Ford moved out to Canvey Island, she lived with a Jewish family in Stamford Hill and was initially receptive to the idea of a Jewish community in Canvey. But she’s getting concerned.
“It’s changed the dynamics of the island; they all want to live round here,” she says. “I increasingly can’t see what the benefits are [for the island] – adding diversity perhaps – but I suppose time will tell.”
Ford echoes a point that is made across Canvey: The new residents have missed an opportunity to develop a close bond with their neighbors. “We were all very curious,” she says. “It would be nice to chat and learn some things. I thought at the time that we would be invited in to see what’s happened at the school, but that didn’t happen. How do they earn their money, for example? Most of them don’t work, right?”
Her friend, sitting in front of a wide array of spirits and cigarettes, agrees. “I won’t give my name – I’m on duty – but I think the youth are rude. They come in and they argue with me. They throw money at me.”
She is curious about one thing. “Tell me, why don’t they want anything from Israel? I thought Jews were supposed to like Israel. They come in and ask: ‘Is this from Israel?’ If it is, then they don’t want it.”
Most of the Hasidim in Canvey are Satmars, with a smattering of Bobov and Vizhnitz Hasidim. Among the strictest and most religious of the Hasidic dynasties, they are Yiddish-speaking and anti-Zionist: They oppose the creation of a Jewish state and believe that Jews should remain in exile until the coming of the Messiah.
Initially, most arrivals were concentrated at a housing complex in north Canvey – Sixty Acres – near the school. But the community has fanned out and is investigating other sites for potential growth. The community recently made an unsuccessful bid to buy a trailer park on the other side of the island and is moving into central Canvey.
Rebecca Harris, the local Conservative MP who was meeting constituents at a local pub when Haaretz visited the island, isn’t particularly worried.
“I hope I’m not being complacent, but we’re looking for a problem that there isn’t evidence of at the moment. We’re just catastrophizing,” she says. “All of this comes down to whether people are considerate to each other. These are a bunch of townies that have just moved in and ‘they aren’t doing their gardening,’ but they might come around to it. It’s little things like that.”
As she puts it, “The world is full of people being irritated with each other. I don’t see a separate pattern from anything that is going on in the rest of the world.”
Councillors Dave Blackwell, 71, and Barry Campagna, 65, are more concerned, though. Blackwell is the longest continuously serving local councillor and his party, the Canvey Island Independent Party, dominates the island. “Canvey is a close-knit community and I’ve got no doubt in my mind that eventually problems will arise,” he says.
“It won’t need much to tip it over the top,” Blackwell says. “I think really that the more and more people put on Facebook, the more it changes people’s minds.” He’s referring to mostly minor complaints – noisiness, repeated traffic offenses, trash violations – but they can change attitudes in a tight-knit town like Canvey.
“If you’re in a street [where everyone] looks after their properties, then you want your neighbors to look after theirs,” Campagna says. Alleged shortcomings in this respect have translated into mistrust.
A new kosher bakery recently opened in an abandoned bank building in the center of town, and after a brief flurry of excitement it seems the consensus among Canveyites is that it’s too expensive.
“There are rumors going around constantly about how many people are on housing benefits,” Campagna says.
The community’s expansion into central Canvey is alarming neighbors worried that a large house is being illegally converted into a synagogue. “They’re doing things that nobody knows; it’s all rumors,” Campagna adds.
“What tends to worry me is that this seems to be an experiment,” Blackwell says. Both he and Campagna are concerned about the rapid growth of the community, which they say should be more open about its plans. “They want to see whether this first phase works; I hate that word, ‘phase.’ It makes it sound like an alien invasion,” Blackwell says.
“It’s set up in sections. Phase one is almost complete, but there are going to be another two phases. They’ve got a good thing going here. They shouldn’t really spoil it. Because otherwise they’re gonna end up like where they’re living now – getting abuse from the local residents,” he adds.
“Their homes were obviously overcrowded, but that’s down to them. They had two rooms in Stamford Hill, and then they come down here and get a four-bed semidetached,” he says. “It’s got to be the promised land, innit?”