“Canvey Island: A Beacon of Hope for London’s Haredi Community”

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    The New York Jewish Travel Guide recently had the privilege of conversing with Joel Friedman, a founding member of the Haredi community in Essex, London. In this exclusive interview, Mr. Friedman sheds light on the rich history, unique dynamics, and challenges facing the community of Canvey Island, in Essex, a seaside town just an hour away from London.

    For the past decade, Haredi Jewish families in East London have grappled with the daunting task of securing suitable housing. With the significant cost involved and considering that Haredi families often have seven children, finding a suitable home has become increasingly difficult. This challenge prompted them to explore alternatives, one of which was Canvey Island. London’s ultra-Orthodox community embarked on a search for a new home near the capital, where many spacious houses were becoming available on the market.

    The roots of the Charedi presence in the UK stretch back centuries, with a notable increase following the Second World War. Many within the community are Holocaust survivors or their descendants, fiercely preserving their identity and heritage. While English serves as a second language for most, Yiddish remains their mother tongue, cherished as a cultural treasure.

    Joel Friedman, New York Jewish Travel Guide

    The UK boasts a vibrant Charedi community and a significant presence within global Charedi populations, alongside those in Israel and the United States. This community is primarily centered in London, Manchester, Hackney, Haringey, Barnet, and Gateshead. According to the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, estimates indicate that there are approximately 75,500 Charedim in Britain, which will represent around 40 percent of British Jewry. Projections suggest that by 2040, Charedi Jewry could comprise approximately 23 percent of the world’s Jewish population, up from the current 14 percent. Belgium and the UK stand out with the highest proportions of strict Orthodox Jews, at 35 percent and 25 percent, respectively.

    NYJTG: Could you provide insights into your background and involvement in the establishment of the Canvey Island community? What factors made Canvey Island an appealing choice, and when did this decision take place? Additionally, how long was the process of finding a suitable location? What motivated the creation of the ultra-Orthodox community on Canvey Island, and in what ways did it differ from comparable communities in the United States?

    Joel Friedman: As a British individual originally from Manchester and currently residing in London with my wife, we were part of the Stamford Hill community for a few years. However, as it leaned more towards a Hasidic community, it no longer suited our needs. To provide a brief overview of Jewish communities in the UK, London encompasses various types of communities, including Stamford Hill, which is predominantly Hasidic. The housing crisis in London has been escalating over several decades, prompting discussions about establishing communities outside the city that are still within reasonable proximity. Manchester and Gateshead have historically been considered more affordable options. In Manchester, where I have roots, there is a diverse mix of Jewish communities, and it has consistently been a more budget-friendly alternative to London.

    In March 2015, there were discussions among several individuals about moving out of London due to the worsening housing crisis. The lack of available housing stock, coupled with soaring prices, exacerbated the situation. It’s crucial to recognize that the housing crisis is not unique to the Jewish community but affects all London residents, regardless of religion. However, for those on the more religious end of the spectrum, moving away from their community poses additional challenges. The tighter-knit nature of Orthodox Jewish communities means that individuals may have limited options for relocation. As religious observance increases, the importance of proximity to the community becomes more pronounced, making decisions about moving away more complex.

    There are numerous factors to consider when exploring relocation options, especially within a close-knit community like ours. People naturally desire to live near family and work, which are typical constraints regardless of one’s religious affiliation. However, being part of a religiously influenced community adds an extra layer of complexity. The entire infrastructure of our community, including schools, Jewish clothing stores, bookshops, kosher food outlets, and synagogues, creates a strong sense of cohesion that makes it challenging to contemplate moving away.

    As discussions progressed, various groups explored different locations with differing degrees of success. When I became involved, the search had already reached an advanced stage, with several potential locations under consideration. As a committee, we established specific criteria to guide our search. While affordability was a primary concern, we recognized that solely focusing on the cheapest options might lead us too far from London. Therefore, we set a maximum driving distance of one hour from the city, allowing for a manageable daily commute.

    Like the concept of a new Kibbutz, our vision involved building houses from scratch. However, due to constraints such as limited manpower and financial resources, we couldn’t pursue this as a large-scale initiative. Unlike some ventures in America where big developers bought vast expanses of land, we operated on a grassroots level. With the UK Jewish community being relatively small, our approach was more modest, allowing individuals to purchase or rent homes on an individual basis rather than as part of a collective effort.

    Canvey Island, New York Jewish Travel Guide

    We focused on finding an already established location, ultimately settling on Canvey Island after considering around 15 different options. This choice aligned well with our criteria, offering sufficient housing options and being within an hour’s drive from London. In late 2015 and 2016, the first two homes were purchased, including one by my family, and by June 2016, six families had relocated to Canvey Island.

    While starting with a small group, we managed to gather enough people for Minyan services, especially during holidays. Shortly thereafter, we invited a renowned yeshiva, previously located in Lucerne, to join us on Canvey Island. This move not only bolstered our Minyan but also added a spiritual dimension to our community’s growth.

    Around August or September of that year, the yeshiva joined our community, and gradually, our numbers expanded. Currently, we have grown to between 100 and 125 families, which, in the UK context, is considered significant growth, given the slower pace of relocation compared to other regions. Over time, we’ve been diligently establishing educational institutions, shops, and other essential services to cater to the needs of our community. It’s a joyous atmosphere as we continue to experience growth and sustained interest.

    Our community, though small, resembles a miniature version of Stamford Hill, with a predominantly Hasidic population. Many residents commute to London daily for work, including myself. While we have one kosher shop, we face challenges in accessing a broader range of kosher products due to our smaller size. However, being just an hour’s drive from London allows us to access additional resources and amenities as needed, making us a satellite community rather than an entirely independent one.

    Despite our proximity to London, we recognize the importance of having our own synagogue and educational facilities. It’s a delicate balance because being too close to existing communities might discourage the development of our own infrastructure. However, being too far away would hinder our independence and growth. Therefore, we strive to find a middle ground, ensuring that we are self-sufficient while still benefiting from our connection to larger Jewish communities nearby.

    Even if you consider South London, housing tends to be on the smaller side, particularly in more central areas. For instance, a modest two-and-a-half-bedroom house could easily cost a million pounds. In contrast, on Canvey Island, you can find similar-sized homes for around £300,000. However, most newcomers to Canvey are willing to invest around £550,000, which affords them significantly more space compared to London.

    Synagogue at Canvey Island, New York Jewish Travel Guide

    Living on the beach offers a unique lifestyle characterized by tranquility and scenic beauty. Despite these advantages, every individual who relocates makes a sacrifice. Being away from immediate family means missing out on gatherings such as Shabbat dinners or Passover seders. Even attending a bar mitzvah can require careful planning and travel logistics. While we’re fortunate to have shuttle services connecting us to nearby areas, the distance from loved ones remains a challenge.

    Initially, the sacrifice of moving to Canvey Island felt more significant for a few families. However, as our community has grown, with 13 families now residing on our street alone, we’ve built a supportive network of neighbors and friends. Nevertheless, the need to travel for essentials and the absence of shops on our doorstep serve as reminders of the sacrifices made for our new way of life. Yet, with each new family that joins us, the burden becomes lighter, and the sense of community strengthens.

    The abundance of houses for sale in the Canvey Island community is primarily due to its aging population. Constructed roughly 30 to 40 years ago, the neighborhood boasts hundreds of homes. While some might perceive Canvey as lacking in entertainment and nightlife, these characteristics benefit our community. The absence of pubs and bustling nightlife aligns well with our lifestyle and preferences. Consequently, house prices in Canvey tend to be lower compared to neighboring towns, making it an attractive option for our community members.

    When considering house prices in Canvey, we aim for them to be lower than those in adjacent towns of similar quality. This ensures that our community remains affordable and accessible to our members. It also serves as an indicator of the influence we have on local property values. By maintaining a lower price point, we prioritize affordability and strive to make our community accessible to all who wish to join.

    NYJTG: How does the commute of the community members between Canvey Island and Stamford Hill affect daily life and community dynamics?

    Joel Friedman: In the UK, driving long distances for work, as is common in some parts of the US, is less typical. Hence, we aimed for a one-hour radius to ensure feasibility for our community members. Additionally, we prioritized areas where housing prices were more reasonable but still offered accessibility to London. It was essential for us to find an area with an existing housing market rather than create a new establishment from scratch. These criteria helped guide our search for a suitable location that would meet the needs of our community.

    For more information:

    Story by Meyer Harroch, New York Jewish Travel Guide.com, and New York Jewish Guide.com

    To access the second part of our conversation, kindly click on the following link.

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