Thursday, March 12, 2020
Boys in hoodies dance on roofs, clutching bottles of cheap wine as their tzitzit jiggle. An elderly man wearing a black coat that fans out behind him dances with nobody in particular. Gangs of young men dressed as Redcoats rampage through the streets. The biggest fox you have ever seen crosses a road clutching bags of candy.
Welcome to Gateshead during the Jewish holiday of Purim.
This postindustrial town sitting across the Tyne river from Newcastle is the last of Europe's great yeshiva towns, often referred to as the Oxbridge of Britain's Jewish community. Its 8,000 Jewish residents – almost all ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) – are concentrated in about a dozen streets in the Bensham neighborhood, huddled around Gateshead Talmudical College, aka Gateshead Yeshiva. The college is among the most prestigious in the Orthodox world, and the largest in Europe.
Gateshead Yeshiva and a host of other educational institutions have sustained and nurtured Gateshead's Jewish community for almost a century, providing a constant stream of scholars and families who have invigorated the local Jewish community. During term times, Gateshead's Jewish community swells as it welcomes some 1,500 students – many from London and other local Jewish communities, but also from across Western Europe, Latin America, South Africa, north Africa and Australia.
Gateshead is the outlier in northern England: a dynamic Jewish population that has doubled in size since 2008 as larger and more prosperous communities faded away. The Jewish community in nearby Sunderland, 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the southeast, has all but vanished, for example. At the end of the 1980s, in a sad end for a community that once saw itself as a more open and diverse intellectual peer than its local rival, the Sunderland Talmudical College (aka Sunderland Yeshiva) relocated to Gateshead – pushing that town's reputation as a center of excellence for religious study still higher. Sunderland's last synagogue, Beth Hamedrash, shuttered in 2006, and now just a handful of Jews remain in the city.
On the streets of Bensham, it is clear to see why the town has become a magnet for Haredim. An ample supply of cheap housing, often managed and purchased through communal organizations and housing associations, has encouraged ultra-Orthodox families from Manchester and London, many of whom previously studied here, to relocate to the northeast. "Sold" signs dominate row houses on the edges of the "Jewish streets" here.
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