Gateshead's Orthodox community bucks declining trend to double in decade

Orthodox Jews are flocking to the city, drawn by world class Jewish education and low cost housing.

yeshiva students  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
yeshiva students
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
The Orthodox Jewish community of Gateshead, England, is thriving in sharp contrast to many British communities, thanks to outstanding Jewish education, a dynamic New York rabbi and cheap housing.
Like most northern English cities, Gateshead, located on the River Tyne, has struggled since the 1980s with the loss of the manufacturing industries that once made the region Britain's economic powerhouse.
But whereas in most northern towns formerly vibrant Jewish communities drifted away along with the jobs and economic prospects, leaving a wasteland of deprivation, Gateshead is reversing that trend. It's Orthodox community has doubled over the last decade. 
“This is the only [strictly Orthodox Jewish] community outside London and Manchester that is growing, thriving, dynamic and forward-looking. It’s expanding day by day,” Joseph Schleider, the community’s historian and Gateshead native, told British daily The Guardian.
The regular community of several thousand Jews is augmented each semester by 1,500 students who flock to the city for its outstanding Jewish education. “Gateshead is the Oxbridge of the UK Jewish community,” said Rabbi Shraga Feivel Zimmerman.
Around 350 young men between the ages of 16 and their mid-20s attend the Gateshead Talmudical College, the most prestigious of the city's religious educational establishments. There, they study Talmud in pairs for around 12 hours a day, living in dormitories on site with no access to smartphones, mainstream newspapers or television, and limited internet access.
“This is a serious time of study,” said Rabbi Gershon Miller, a senior member of staff. “There are prayers at 8am and study [in English, Yiddish and Hebrew] goes on until 10pm or later.”
Dovid Belovski, 19, a Londoner in his second year at the yeshiva, said: “It’s intense, I can’t deny that. But I came here to be challenged, I never expected it to be easy. It’s the foundation for my life.”
Although the study is intense, Miller says poor behavior is rare. “No one is being watched or monitored. You get a little fraying at the edges from time to time, but for most this is the lifestyle they want to pursue.”
For those for whom yeshiva life is not a good fit, there are other avenues available. “Not everyone is cut out to be a rabbi or a teacher," David Schleider, who runs a youth club for boys in the community, told The Guardian. "We want to encourage those who aren’t to be skilled up while maintaining a full religious lifestyle. We have a very good relationship with Gateshead College, which provides culturally sensitive and accessible training.”
Meanwhile, bright girls, who cannot become rabbis under Orthodox Judaism, are encouraged to go into teaching. Around 450 girls aged 16 upwards, of whom a quarter hail from abroad, study at the Jewish Teachers' Training College in Gateshead. The college offers A-level qualifications in a range of subjects from math and biology to art to biblical Hebrew, as well as teacher training.
There is also a girls seminary in the city with a more vocational bent, offering courses in health, childcare and information technology.
Low-cost housing has also benefited the community greatly, helping to grow the community.
“Housing here is significantly cheaper than in London or even Manchester. But lots of families are low-income households, in receipt of benefits, and we tend to have bigger than average families. So there is a big demand for large affordable homes,” Shlomi Isaacson of the Jewish Community Council of Gateshead (JCCG) told The Guardian.
One local man who moved from London was able to buy a six bedroomed house in the city for £150,000. It would have cost him over a million pounds in the capital.
The JCCG meets regularly with representatives of Gateshead council to ensure the needs of the community are met. “We recognized the culture and lifestyle of our Orthodox community is quite different to other communities,” said Dave Andrew, who has met with the community on behalf of the council for the last decade.
“Communication is the key, given that many households don’t engage with mainstream or social media, so we need to ensure they get to hear what’s happening. This is not an insular community, but the reason for that perception is that it’s a community that helps itself at every life stage from the cradle to the grave.”
Rabbi Zimmerman agreed, rejecting the idea that the community is insular. Rather, he said, it was merely self-sustaining. “In former times, children grew up and left, they moved on to a larger world,” he said. “Now it’s a realistic option to stay.”
The rabbi, known to his followers as "The Rov," arrived in the city in 2008 from his native Brooklyn.
Gateshead is “quite a distance in miles, culture and mentality” from his home town, Zimmerman told The Guardian, but he was drawn by the  “unique opportunity to lead a community”.
“England is a very conservative place and resistant to change in many ways. If you come from the outside, you have a fresh perspective,” he said.
Zimmerman has been credited as being the drive behind the community's growth, thanks to his focus on engagement with wider society. It is under his leadership that the strong links with the council, educational establishments, and the wider world have been forged. But he is keen to retain the sense of community currently enjoyed by Gateshead's Jews.
“One seeks a positive dynamic while still retaining a sense of community. Everyone here still knows each other, shares in each other’s celebrations, grieves together. We don’t want to keep doubling every 10 years,” he said.