Jewish community revived in Brighton, UK

A new community by the sea, two hours from London, attracts North London Jews.

 CELEBRATING THE center (L to R): Rabbi Hershel Rader, spiritual leader, Brighton & Hove Hebrew Congregation; BNJC CEO Marc Sugarman; Chief Rabbi of United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Ephraim Mirvis; philanthropist Tony Bloom; Natasha Isaac, trustee, BNJC board. (photo credit: Courtesy BNJC)
CELEBRATING THE center (L to R): Rabbi Hershel Rader, spiritual leader, Brighton & Hove Hebrew Congregation; BNJC CEO Marc Sugarman; Chief Rabbi of United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Ephraim Mirvis; philanthropist Tony Bloom; Natasha Isaac, trustee, BNJC board.
(photo credit: Courtesy BNJC)

In its heyday, rather like British Jewry as a whole – which swelled to 450,000 in the 1950s – Brighton reached its Jewish population peak by the mid-to-late 20th century.

A 1968 census indicates that there were 7,500 Jews in Brighton and Hove at the time. Such was the popularity of the English Riviera that nearby town Eastbourne had a rabbi, and the quaint Seaford had a Jewish community, too. There are believed to be around 2,700 Jews in Brighton and Hove today. To combat the prevailing perception that the Jewish population is aging and that there is a decline in kosher stores, British philanthropist Tony Bloom decided to take ownership of a groundbreaking, multi-million-pound sterling facility earlier this year, in partnership with the Brighton and Hove Hebrew Congregation. 

“It’s very much a case of ‘Build it and they will come,” says Marc Sugarman, CEO of the Brighton and Hove Jewish Community. The BNJC was established in 2017 to revitalize Jewish life in the popular east Sussex seaside resort, in a determination to take action to safeguard the future of the 250-year-old Jewish community. The hub now features a new Orthodox synagogue, complete with mikveh; the Shoresh nursery for 26 children aged three to five, slated to open in September; a kosher restaurant that can host up to 130 diners; plus a kosher bakery, a deli, a shop, and a gym.

The history of Jews in Brighton

Jews settled in Brighton and Hove from the mid-18th century when the city was a renowned vacation spot. The Goldschmidts, the Sassoons, and the Mocattas were famous members. In fact, in 1839 David Mocatta designed Brighton train station, completed two years later when the London to Brighton line opened.

The BNJC innovations were recently inaugurated by Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth Ephraim Mirvis, himself a “coastal” Jew (his father was a rabbi in Cape Town, South Africa). The community is relying on a mixed model which includes its loyal but aging Jewish population, Jews from London and Israel, and local non-Jews. 

 PRAYER, FOOD, learning or prayer: Unveiling the BNJC (Brighton and Hove Jewish Community center). (credit: Courtesy BNJC)
PRAYER, FOOD, learning or prayer: Unveiling the BNJC (Brighton and Hove Jewish Community center). (credit: Courtesy BNJC)

The center’s Shabbat services are currently attended by around 50 people, but one of the virtues of the modern building is flexible space, meaning that the shul can be extended to accommodate 270 people for festivals. And Sugarman pointed out that BNJC could host a sit-down simcha for 200 guests — “a chuppah in the courtyard, with its beautiful row of elm trees, will be stunning.”

It is filled with a mixture of people, some of whom have lived in the area all their life, some who retired there from London, and a sizable number who live between London and Brighton. Easily commutable, Hove, which borders the seaside city of Brighton, is under 5 km. from Brighton railway station, which has half-hourly fast trains to London, taking around 65 minutes. 

Sugarman, who commutes from London for his role, is Brighton-raised and a longstanding friend of Bloom’s. The staff are a mixture of locals and Jews from London and farther afield, including three from South Africa. 

One of the London-born contingent is Jasmin Aziz, who works as the center’s marketing and PR manager. She moved from London to Brighton two years ago because Brighton offers her “a better balance of life and the chance to live by the sea in such a creative and entrepreneurial city,” which she says “was a real pull.”

“We’re here to revitalize Jewish life in our city. Honoring 250 years of Jewish history in Brighton and Hove by building a holistic hub of Jewish culture, for Jews across the spectrum to enjoy a touch point to their faith and heritage. Be it through prayer, food, learning, or play,” she says.

The center is modeled on JW3, the first London Jewish community center; and Hakoah, a large community and sports center opening in Sydney, Australia, next year.

What stands out in Brighton is the accommodation element. There are 45 homes available either for purchase or rental, ranging from one-bedroom flats to houses. Two-bedroom apartments start from £437,000, and the five-bedroom mews houses start at £1,500,000. It’s not cheap, but then neither is North London, from where they hope a sizable exodus will take place. And so far, the portents look good: “We have residents in over 30 homes on site. A number of families from all backgrounds live on site. Plus young couples and professionals,” says Aziz.

Lindy Diamond moved to Brighton six months ago, with her husband and their three daughters of late primary and early secondary school age, to work as the center’s office coordinator. The family is from Cape Town. After living in North London for two years, they wanted something “closer to what we are used to back home. In Cape Town, there is an incredible Jewish center, which acts as a hub for Jewish life.” 

Like Brighton and Hove, Cape Town is generally a traditional but not very religious coastal Jewish community. 

“In Cape Town, when I was growing up, children tended to go to the Jewish school. Now they are as likely to go to local schools,” she says. However,  Diamond doesn’t believe that children need to attend a Jewish secondary school to stay Jewishly connected. 

“Our girls went to non-Jewish local schools in London, and they do the same here. We are delighted to see them excelling in the arts. What we find important is that, just like in South Africa where people use resources like the synagogue and community facilities, this center facilitates a strong Jewish community life, which blends easily with secular activities. 

“Another attraction is the centralized nature of Hove. The fact that most parts of the city are within walking distance is a big advantage for raising children. They can easily get around; unlike London, where activities take a long time to get to and back. And I know they will be safe walking around here, which is lovely for children’s development.”

Diamond’s husband, CEO of Mitzvah Day, the award-winning interfaith charity, commutes to London for important meetings. They live in one of the family-sized maisonettes, renting at this point.

Brighton has a healthy Israeli contingent – attested to by the recent 200-strong demonstration after Sara Netanyahu gave evidence in the city at her husband’s corruption trial. Many choose not to be involved in mainstream Jewish life. However, the center has a strong pull for families entering the area for work. 

Orthopedic trauma surgeon Dr. Omer Maron temporarily moved to Brighton with his wife and two children to take up a fellowship at a local hospital. They found short-term accommodation in one of the center’s rental units. 

“We were looking for somewhere with good facilities that is close to local amenities, and the center has been a really welcoming environment,” says Maron, who is from Herzliya and works at Kfar Saba’s Meir Hospital. 

“Our children go to nursery school down the road. They have met a really interesting bunch of people. My older child speaks a little Arabic and when he uttered a phrase in the playground, another kid said, ‘My grandpa is Arabic.’ It turns out the child has a Syrian father and a Palestinian mother. The two children became good friends. Another time I took a cab, and the driver was from Gaza. That’s what I like about Brighton – the plurality of people. And also the friendliness.”

Maron, who has just moved back to Israel, says, “I have made fantastic contacts at the hospital and would definitely be really happy to go back in the future. As the center gets busier, there will be a really strong mix of families from abroad and England.”

The city’s aging population, who support its shuls and the nascent center, will be hoping this sentiment rings true so the city can regain its status as a prominent Anglo-Jewish city. 