For many people, a quiet beachfront town is an ideal place to live.
But does it have the same appeal for a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews? A new BBC documentary, Canvey: The Promised Island, that will air Tuesday evening examines the impact of the nascent hassidic community on Canvey Island, a quiet town in Essex, in the south of England.
For just over a year, British hassidim have been slowly trickling into the sleepy beachfront parish and setting up the infrastructure crucial to their community. That includes a synagogue, school and of course kosher food. Driven out of the heavily hassidic Stamford Hill neighborhood of northeast London by overcrowding and astronomic housing prices, the pioneers are looking to fashion a new center for ultra-Orthodox life.
Many are considering the move, but it’s hard to agree to take the plunge to a location just over an hour’s drive away, and far from the necessities of religious life: “I’d go, my wife doesn’t wanna,” says one man.
But director Riete Oord set out to discover just how the burgeoning community – which started out with just seven families and is slowly growing – is being welcomed.
While hassidim are a fairly insular group, some do agree to cooperate for the film, in part because of their conduit, Steve, an observant but modern Jew who lives nearby. The film focuses mostly on Naftali and Miriam Noe and their four children, who are gearing up to make the move.
They are a traditional hassidic family, though it’s clear Naftali might be a bit open-minded, describing his interests as flying, cello and Tae-kwon-do. Miriam also agrees to speak on camera, and Oord does an admirable job of also including women’s voices in the film.
IT’S CLEAR from the outset that the documentary is gearing up for a clash. It paints Canvey Island not just as a homogeneous, traditional English town – the narrator emphasizes that 73% of islanders voted for Brexit, setting up the question of how friendly they would be to a group of seeming outsiders.
That portrayal was a concern to some residents long before the documentary even aired. In August, a petition was set up by a group of Canvey locals calling to scrap the documentary, concerned it would portray islanders as closed-minded, unwelcoming and racist.
“Rest assured, this documentary will not paint Canvey in a positive light,” read the petition, which gained 1,850 signatures. “As we are learning to adapt to the presence of a [hassidic] Jewish community, the last thing we need is the BBC hunting around for a story that doesn’t exist and bringing negative press coverage to our island.”
Of course the BBC did not scrap the documentary, but perhaps it did pay some heed to this sentiment. Because Oord’s portrayal focuses mostly on the efforts of a group of islanders to forge ties with the newcomers and make them feel at home.
The ringleader is Chris Fenwick, a native, hotel owner and manager of Dr. Feelgood, the band of hometown boys who made it big.
Fenwick and deputy mayor Barry Campagna discuss how and if they can bridge the differences between the communities, and become if not friends, then at least neighbors.
“How much will their religion allow them to be part of the community?” Campagna asked, hitting the nail right on the head of their difficult task. Fenwick admits they face an uphill battle, since “in a way I feel they choose to distance themselves, they are used to being looked at all of their lives.”
But Fenwick forges ahead, inviting a group of hassidic men to a Dr. Feelgood concert in town. Not surprisingly, they don’t show up. They do eventually agree to a walking tour of the island, and it’s hard not to laugh when Fenwick wonders why the latecomers are “slightly behind schedule.” Later, waiting for them once again, he mutters, “I know what I’m going to get this lot for Christmas: watches.”
The climax of the film is a dinner meeting set up for about 30 people, half hassidim and half natives. Fenwick jumps through all the hoops to get the ultra-Orthodox Jews to show up, including bringing in their chef to prepare the food.
It’s a bit silly to see the women explaining the “exotic” kosher food – namely spring rolls and fried fish – but it’s still a heartwarming moment at hand. The evening is separate seating, but without a visible mechitza, or barrier, between the men and women.
One woman explains that normally, they wouldn’t attend an event like this, but they’re making an exception for the day.
The attendees converse gamely, discussing child-rearing, business and their differing lifestyles. Most appear to leave the dinner with positive feelings, and one local has a request for the hassidic chef: “Please open up a bagel shop!”