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Lost tribe of Belfast

Northern Ireland's Jewish population once numbered 1,500 but now there are barely 300. Rabbi David Singer has a big task ahead in rebuilding his community but, says Alex Kane, he's equal to it

Published 30/01/2016

Rabbi David Singer
Rabbi David Singer

According to the last census - in 2011 - there were 335 people in Northern Ireland who declared themselves to be Jewish, but with less than a third of them members of the Belfast Synagogue, the only one in Northern Ireland.

A recent BBC documentary, The Last Minyan: The decline of Belfast's Jewish community, painted a very gloomy picture of falling numbers and the particular absence of young people.

Michael Black, chairman of the Belfast Jewish Community, noted: "The big problem is: will there be enough people here to bury the last few?"

Yet, at its peak, the Belfast Jewish Community had around 1,500 members and produced Chaim Herzog, who became president of Israel in 1983.

The Jewish community is among Northern Ireland's oldest ethnic and religious minorities. During the 1860s, a small number of German-Jewish merchants arrived here and began to export linen products across Europe and further afield.

They built their first synagogue in 1871, on Great Victoria Street, and the community's founder, Daniel Joseph Jaffe, is commemorated by the drinking fountain located at the entrance to the Victoria Shopping Centre.

The decline of the linen industry after the First World War depleted the German-Jewish community, some of whom, including the Jaffe family, were forced to leave Belfast because of anti-German hostility during the war.

But there was still a thriving community, many of them living in north Belfast.

In 1904, the Jaffe family had built a new synagogue in Annesley Street, off Carlisle Circus, along with a school at the bottom of the Cliftonville Road, which was open to Protestants and Catholics, as well as Jewish children.

Smaller Jewish congregations had also been established in Lurgan and Londonderry, but both had closed down by the end of the Second World War.

Numbers continued to decline from the Fifties onwards, even though the community included prominent members of the legal and medical professions, like Ronnie Appleton QC (a senior crown prosecutor), Ivan Selig (of the Mills, Selig law firm) and medical consultants Louis and David Hurwitz and Dennis Coppel.

The building of a new synagogue on the Somerton Road in 1964 didn't stop younger members of the community leaving for larger communities in England, America and Israel in search of jobs and marriage partners.

The decline became worse in the Seventies and Eighties as the political unrest made Northern Ireland - and Belfast in particular - an uninviting place for "outsiders". The community also found it difficult to attract the services of a full-time Rabbi.

So a heavy burden rests on the shoulders of Rabbi David Singer, who was appointed the latest Rabbi of the Belfast Jewish Community in March 2013.

He acknowledges the scale of his task: "Over 300 people have declared themselves to be Jewish in Northern Ireland, but there are only 90 members of the shul (synagogue), so if we can make it known that we're here and people were open to being approached, then maybe we can enhance their identity.

"That does not necessarily mean expecting them to come to shul, but at least to be involved in Jewish things."

David Singer was born in Birmingham in 1954. His mother, now retired, was a teacher in the King David School, the Jewish primary school in the city and his father, also retired, was the administrator of the Singers' Hill Synagogue in Birmingham.

He was educated at King David School, Lordswood Boys' Grammar School and then the London School of Jewish Studies (founded as Jews' College in 1855) to begin formal Rabbinic studies: "I knew from the age of eight that I wanted to be a Rabbi."

In 1981, he gained "Smicha" - Rabbinic ordination - from Yeshivat Hanegen in Netivot, Israel. Apart from a brief period between 1991-94 as the assistant Rabbi to Birmingham Hebrew Congregation, he was to spend the next 30 years in Israel.

"I have had many positions as a Rabbi in the teaching field, with experience of teaching from infants through to adult education. I have a degree in education and a diploma in psychology. I have other Jewish religious qualifications, too - a mohel - to perform circumcisions, a shochet - to perform Jewish ritual slaughter for kosher meat, a scribe - to write and examine Scrolls of The Law and other religious writings, an advocate for Jewish Rabbinical courts, a cantor - to know and perform the liturgy of the services."

In Israel, he trained as a medic and ambulance driver with the Magen David Adom ambulance service and volunteered with them for 22 years: "I doubt if there is much in the emergency medical field that I have not encountered."

He has passed the advanced cardiac life support course at Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital and he is also one of the founding members of the Israeli branch of Hatzolah, the emergency medical services organisation - sometimes known as Chevra Hatzolah, whose name loosely translates as "group of rescuers".

He and his wife, Judith (they have 10 children and 20 grandchildren in London, Gateshead and Israel), arrived in Belfast in March 2013.

"Our youngest son lives here in Belfast with us. Our time in Belfast, so far, has been an experience of warmth and friendliness from both the Jewish community and the larger Northern Ireland community.

"We have been made most welcome, wherever we have been. I have a busy schedule, so there is not much time to relax, but occasionally I work out in a gym, usually to remember that once upon a time I was fit.

"I do like to go for drives around the beautiful countryside and include good hikes on the tour, too."

Given the fact that it's the time of the Holocaust Memorial, I ask him if he thinks that today's younger generation fully understands what happened to Jews under Nazism.

"Not only do the younger generation not fully understand, or comprehend, the era of the holocaust, a great number of adults don't understand the Jewish perspective of it, either.

"I do feel, though, that there is a genuine thirst to understand in order to gain more knowledge and, therefore, to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. Maybe from this sort of education can greater understanding and tolerance spring forth."

He doesn't buy into the argument that there are parallels between Middle Eastern politics and politics in Northern Ireland: "I think that is a basic misunderstanding. Anyway, as a Rabbi, I steer clear of politics and concentrate on the pastoral.

"Since our arrival in Belfast, in particular, and Northern Ireland in general, my contact with religious leaders of other faiths has been more than cordial.

"I have been welcomed as an equal and am most grateful to my many colleagues from all the faiths with whom I have come in contact.

"I would like to say, as well, that the initiative, originally of Mairtin O Muilleoir as Lord Mayor of Belfast and followed through by his successors, of a chaplaincy within the framework of the city council, has been a great success and both at the level of chaplains and through that to our parishioners and congregants we are able to have a beneficial effect on the people of the city - an ever-more diversified city with ever-increasing understanding. I feel privileged to be a part of that.

"I don't worry too much about the increase in secularism. To concentrate on 'getting on with each other' is also a factor of Love Thy Neighbour. It's a strong belief."

Rabbi Singer has his work cut out for him. The majority of the Jewish community in Northern Ireland are aged 50 and above, with most of the younger ones having left to meet their counterparts in other countries with larger communities.

They haven't been returning during the peace process and it seems unlikely that they will. Yet, for a community their size, they played an important part in our social, professional and commercial history.

The Rabbi belonged to the "Group of Rescuers" in Israel: he is faced with a much bigger rescue operation here. But he seems to be well able for the task.

A life so far

Rabbi Singer was born in Birmingham

He knew from the age of eight that he wanted to be a Rabbi

He is married to Judith: they have 10 children and 20 grandchildren

He has trained as a paramedic and ambulance driver

He came to Belfast in March 2013

There are probably only 300 members of the Jewish community left in Northern Ireland

Belfast Telegraph

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