SURVEYING THE spacious synagogue interior of Newton Mearns Hebrew Congregation, David Links says it has a capacity of 500 — “enough to hold everyone who comes to shul in Glasgow on Shabbat”.
The 72-year-old Newton Mearns life president recalls that at the time of his barmitzvah in 1959, the city was home to five Jewish bakeries, nine kosher butchers, a Jewish poulterer and halfa-dozen delis.
Now provision for kosher shoppers is restricted to a solitary deli and some specialist sections in major supermarkets.
Mr Links also remembers growing up in a city of 13 synagogues. A process of closures and amalgamations has reduced that number by more than half. As well as Newton Mearns, there are now just Giffnock and Newlands, Glasgow Reform and the city centre Garnethill, plus a Lubavitch congregation.
The last Scottish Census suggested a Glasgow Jewish population of under 4,000 — the community numbered 16,000 in 1960s’ heyday.
The true current figure could be as much as 50 per cent higher, given the estimates of Jews who did not state their religion on the Census form and the arrival of a number of Israeli families.
But even the most optimistic slant on numerical strength cannot dis- guise the dilemma encapsulated by Mr Links. “The community has shrunk but we still have the infrastructure of a larger community.”
That infrastructure includes a highly regarded Jewish primary school, Calderwood Lodge, which in 2017 moved to a shared site with a Catholic school in Newton Mearns, bringing it into the heart of the Jewish community. The timing was apposite, given that in recent years there has been a migration from Giffnock to Newton Mearns, a few miles away.
Major communal charities are represented in the city, as are the Zionist youth movements and Maccabi, and there are three welfare organisations.
Yet the only current rabbi among the mainstream Orthodox and Reform communities is the long-serving Moshe Rubin at Giffnock and Newlands.
Newton Mearns recently lost its pop-
The last Census suggested a population under 4,000
ular minister Rabbi Eli Wolfson, who had served from the beginning of 2015. Mr Links and fellow life president Sydney Barmack say a key factor in his decision to move to Manchester was his children’s long-term Jewish education.
“We were sorry to lose him and he was very sorry to go.” The shul is now “looking for a couple who do not have the problem of children’s education, or whose children have been through education. We want a rabbi who will put their heart and soul into it — like Eli Wolfson.”
Newton Mearns has a membership of 430 adults. Giffnock and Newlands remains the largest with more than 650 and is located on a site also housing a Lubavitch-run restaurant and the offices of a number of organisations.
Ex-chair Jeremy Freedman and treasurer Bernard Cohen insist the congregation is vibrant, with all daily services attracting a minyan and a range of social and cultural activities. Attendances are sometimes swelled by tourists stopping off in Glasgow en route to whisky tours.
“We have just formed a choir called the Bimah Boys,” Mr Freedman reveals. “Don’t ask their average age.
“Rabbi Rubin is a very big asset to us — and to the whole community.”
Like their Newton Mearns counterparts, the Giffnock and Newlands leaders can look back on an era when shuls were full to overflowing. “When we were kids, I remember having to stand at the back at Yomtov,” Mr Freedman reminisces.
Both the Newton Mearns and Giffnock and Newlands leaders acknowledge the inevitability of a merger on both practical and financial grounds. Discussions have been held periodically for years. From the Newton Mearns side, the considered response is that “progress is slow”. At Giffnock and Newlands, the question prompts sighs and raised eyebrows.
Mr Cohen stresses that a merged shul does not have to be on the Giffnock site. Mr Freedman makes the point that a move to Newton Mearns would mean a two-mile walk each way for around 20 core shomer Shabbat congregants.
But the need for streamlining goes beyond synagogues and a group of Glasgow leaders are working towards a blueprint for the future, which Glasgow Jewish Representative Council co-president Nicola Livingston hopes will be put up for discussion within six months.
The group has the unenviable task of coming up with a plan “that everyone can sign up to. We are trying to move things along but it is crucial that we get it right. Some of the buildings are no longer fit for purpose.”
Meanwhile, there is no evidence of a halt to the drift of young community members to London, Manchester or other larger Jewish centres, even if the absence of tuition fees in Scotland is an incentive for them to remain for university. Yet many parents argue that the migration of the young can be a positive.
Sue Faber is operations manager at Glasgow Maccabi, which she describes as experiencing “a slight upsurge”. She has a son in Golders Green and says she would rather he lived in North-West London and found a Jewish partner than stayed in Glasgow and married out.
Whereas a post-Yom Kippur “after the fast dance” once attracted hundreds of young people, Maccabi is this year hosting an “after the past” event. Those brought up during the community’s halcyon days can dance the night away to the sounds of 70s’ disco.
While they are in Glasgow, the young do play their part.
A successful summer scheme this year at Maccabi was led by volunteers involved by UJIA through its educational activities in Scottish schools.
UJIA’s Joanna Hyman cites the partnership between Calderwood and an Israeli school and the participation of a dozen Scottish teenagers in Israel tours this year as evidence of the community’s Zionist credentials.
There is even younger participation at Glasgow Reform — Scotland’s only Reform congregation — where one of the most popular activities is a “tots Shabbat”, which is not restricted to families belonging to the 190-member shul.
Linda Wolfson — a maternal and child health adviser to the Scottish Government, specialising in nutrition — brings policy and strategy expertise to her role as co-chair, alongside Richard Townsend.
She reports an influx of young families and returning members. Israelis bring their children to shul on Shabbat and the congregation can call on “some really experienced service takers” among the membership.
Good relations are maintained with the Orthodox synagogues. “Lots of Reform members keep very kosher homes,” Ms Wolfson notes. “And the community is too small to have all your friends in Reform or all your friends from the Orthodox.”
Going forward, the key questions “are how we support the elderly population, how we bring in and support younger members and how we provide a community for people who don’t want to be terribly religious”?
On these and wider matters, “the issue is how do we make our voice heard? But for our size we are very noisy.”
Israel has its own man in Glasgow, JNF leader Stanley Lovatt, who serves as honorary consul. He fields requests on issues such as passport renewal from Scottish-based Israelis, promotes trade
Some of the buildings are no longer fit for purpose’
and deals with correspondence from critics of Israel.
For example, “I often get letters complaining bitterly about what is happening in Gaza. I feel obliged to reply to everyone. I just tell them the Israeli point of view.”
Although heartened by the support of many non-Jews for Israel — “a large number attend JNF events” — the hostility of others is inescapable.
In November, Scotland will host Israel at Hampden in football’s new Uefa Nations League and JNF is organising a package including dinner at Giffnock and match tickets. Mr Lovatt is hopeful of a take-up of 200 but adds: “We are bussing them in and out for safety’s sake.”
Figures from the Scottish Government and Crown Office on charges for hate crime for 2017/18 include 21 antisemitic incidents (the number for the previous year was 23). Thirteen were for threatening or abusive behaviour.
Ephraim Borowski, director of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCoJeC), says that while reassuring that the numbers are down slightly, “it remains a matter of concern that Jews are 30 times more likely than others to be targeted for their religion.
“The strapline of Police Scotland is ‘keeping people safe’. But it’s really about keeping people feeling safe — to keep wearing a kippah in the street or to keep a mezuzah on their door.”
The Glasgow welfare network incorporates Jewish Care Scotland, Newark Care (offering “residential, nursing and palliative care within a Jewish environment”) and Cosgrove Care, supporting those across the age spectrum with learning disability.
At Cosgrove, chief executive Heather Gray says it supports more than 30 Jewish clients. But this represents only a small fraction of the Cosgrove caseload, another indicator of the diminishing community.
But the charity remains committed to promoting Jewish values. “New staff receive awareness training on Jewish culture and way of life. We retain that ethos and build Jewish family values into how we work within the wider community.”
Cosgrove is working with young Jews “who will need lifelong support — and we will be there for them”.
Assessing the future, Mrs Livingston adopts the glass half-full approach.
“There is no doubt people are leaving but we’ve also got people coming here — families from throughout the world.
“Some people are coming back to be closer to family or because they can’t afford to live in London.”
She adds that the investment of East Renfrewshire Council in the Calderwood building “has given the community confidence.
“Glasgow is an attractive place to live. We have a good infrastructure, an involved community, good value housing, a wonderful school and a good quality of life.”
Jews are 30 times more likely to be targeted for [hate crime]’