As Hull’s Jewish community marks 250 years, JLife’s Laura Sefton finds out more about the city and its ties with Leeds.
It is 250 years since the first Jewish person was registered in Hull and to celebrate, the city’s community has been hosting a series of events. These include conferences and dedicated services at Hull Hebrew Congregation and talks covering the ‘Jews of Hull’ at Hull Reform Synagogue.
However, although it has existed for a quarter of a millennium, the community in Hull is very small in comparison with that of Leeds. This is mostly because Leeds is geographically larger, but also because of the direction younger members of the community move in.
Hull-born Leeds resident, Ian Coupland explains this: “Lots of my generation left for university and, while some stayed, many didn’t come back. I was one of them. I left Hull at the age of 18 for university in London, where I met my wife – coincidentally, she’s from Hull too. A lot of us ended up in Leeds and Manchester and never returned.”
Ian’s father was born and raised in Hull and his grandparents had travelled over to the city from Eastern Europe. During his time growing up, Ian found that it was a bustling community. There was a deli and butchers. He was a member of BBYO, which he describes as a “thrilling” experience: “It was thriving back then in a relative sense. It isn’t – and wasn’t – anything like Leeds. Everyone knows each other there and there was never really a set Jewish area, unlike the larger cities. In that respect, you can’t really compare Leeds with Hull.”
Ian was planning on getting married and he and his fiancée decided to move back to the north. Having built a reputation in London as a lawyer, he was headhunted by a Leeds firm that is today known as Addleshaw Goddard. “I got involved with the community in Leeds and, while there are lots of differences, there are similarities too between the Jewish communities in both cities,” he says. “I think Leeds is beginning to face similar challenges to the ones Hull faced was when I was growing up. The two are like chalk and cheese, but while there were no scouts or brownies in Hull like we have in Leeds, we still went to the same schools, the same youth group, the same shul. We did stick together.”
Today, Ian will regularly make the visit along the M62 to Hull. He still has family in the city, and he was one of over 200 people who attended the recent 250th anniversary service that took place at Hull Hebrew Congregation, led by Rabbi Naftoli Lifschitz.
Rabbi Lifschitz has been the part-time rabbi – and the only rabbi – at Hull Hebrew Congregation for the past four years. He divides his time between working with the community and his role as a psychotherapist in Gateshead, where he and his family live.
“It was such a special service,” he says of the anniversary event. “People came from all over, including the Lord Mayor and MPs. It was a celebration of Hull’s Jewish community; its achievements and how much people have given back to the community.”
There are more plans in the pipeline for the anniversary celebrations, with a dinner taking place in March 2017 featuring the Chief Rabbi, as well as guests with ties to Jewish Hull from across the UK and beyond.
These commemorative celebrations serve as a reminder of the past and signify the changes that have taken place over recent decades, as Rabbi Lifschitz explains: “These recent events were a lovely way to memorialise the 250 years that have passed. It’s a small community here and its influence doesn’t have the same impact as it did in the past.” He, too, believes that the numbers have dwindled as the congregation has left for London and other big cities.
However, despite the lack of growth, Rabbi Lifschitz describes the community as being vibrant: “The ladies of the congregation play a big part. Groups such as WIZO really make a difference, plus the Shabbat services are very well attended.”
Currently, there are approximately 130 members of Hull’s congregation, although there are 400 Jews recorded in the city and Rabbi Lifschitz believes there is more than that, saying that around 40 or 50 people will come into shul at different times. One of the main reasons the community is still so lively is the Hull Hebrew congregation’s welcoming nature.
“No matter who you are or where you’re from, if you come into shul you will be welcomed,” says Rabbi Lifschitz. “This is a very warm community – unusually so. We will never turn anyone away, whether you are Jewish or not, Reform or Orthodox. We’ve even had Methodists visit us here!”
Despite its size, it is true that this is a welcoming shul. One of the community members visits schools, educating pupils about the Jewish way of life and community as a whole, while on one occasion Freemasons once held a service in the synagogue.
“The bottom line is that it meant something to them,” concludes Rabbi Lifschitz. “To me as a rabbi anyone that helps or supports the community in any way is fine by me. We always ensure that we are following Jewish laws, but we don’t have to be extreme. It’s important to follow the law, but it’s important to do this while being open.”
To find out more about Hull Hebrew congregation, visit Hullhebrewcongregation.co.uk.