The second everyone reads Luton, they switch off. But please don’t. You have no idea what you will miss.
Jews have been in Luton for well over 100 years and a century of Jews influenced the town in many ways. The traditional straw hat factories and shmutter establishments may have long since disappeared, but they brought prosperity to the town.
Until very recently there were 3 Jewish magistrates, more if you include those who are of a lapsed faith. We’ve had, and still have, town councillors, Mayor, numerous school governors and teachers. Even the local airport, made famous by both Lorraine Chase and more recently Specsavers, has a Jewish board influence. Overall a significant influence on local affairs considering we make up a relatively small proportion of the local community.
Today the name Bury Park conjures up many images but above all it is a thriving and interesting Asian community but not so very long ago, within my childhood memories, this area was a well established Jewish area. A large place for worship and communal meetings was needed and the old Empire cinema in Bury Park was acquired. It seated over 300 persons, and on Yom Tovim it was standing room only.
As is the way of most immigrant communities, they prospered. They outgrew their roots. They shun the memories of perhaps not being seen as affluent and middle class. They moved away.
London – the big beckoning metropolis was just around the corner. Even back in the late 50’s and early 60’s it wasn’t really that far away, and was already established as a large centre for Jews. Its draw was overwhelming for those no longer happy with their provincial roots. However, those Jews that remained behind persevered and kept alive the Jewish influence and community, albeit slightly smaller than in earlier times.
Luton may well be a small provincial community but what we lack in size is more than made up with our warmth and enthusiasm. We moved from our oversized and unwelcoming shul in Bury Park and now have a smaller but very comfortable shul. Those who may recall the stained glass windows will know how uninspiring they were, stuck up on the wall. Now the light shines through and everything comes alive. The old imposing Ark has been replaced with a modern custom made item of inspiration and beauty.
Luton continues to boast its own resident Rabbi. Rabbi Yossi Schwei, and his wife Rivkah, continue to inspire and support, even after 20+ years of unflinching service. Shabbos services, cheder, social groups for the young, and not so young, adult education and discussion groups are all regular weekly and monthly events.
But we are not resting on our laurels. The U.S. is after new members and so are we in Luton.
Luton provides a raft of excellent opportunities. The bane of everyone’s life, the M1, is all but completed and journey times to Edgware, Stanmore, Kenton, Golders Green are only around 20 minutes. The City and West End are within easy commuting distance by train: 25 minutes to St.Pancras and all underground stations.
New technology parks, business centres, University and Colleges have replaced the straw hat factories and Vauxhall Motors, providing new business and employment opportunities.
Whipsnade Zoo, Woburn Safari Park, Dunstable Downs (Chiltern Hills), forests, rolling countryside and numerous golf courses are all but minutes away, and easily enjoyed from affordable and good quality housing in and around Luton and Dunstable.
And, as for the Jewish community: - those that know me will also know that I rarely follow the “party line”. With the forthcoming election for a new Chief Rabbi I have listened to the arguments for a Left leaning or Right leaning new Chief. I think I can be honest and question “will this affect Luton?” And my honest answer is – not very much.
Luton prides itself on welcoming any (halachic) Jew. Our philosophy is to be really inclusive. No lip service. I have been amazed at how many young people have been put off shuls and supporting them because they fail to see the relevance – to them. They feel ostracised by those that will only preach the Shulchan Aruch and who show little understanding and support for those that question or do not have unreserved faith. I believe there must be a place for us all and under the guidance of Rabbi Schwei, we uphold all the tenets of Orthodox Judaism, but equally recognise that not everyone has unreserved faith – but their Jewish roots are still there and must be nurtured. We hope that we can make anybody feel welcome, and free to participate in our small, welcoming and inclusive community.
And what of our Muslim neighbours? Compared to many London boroughs, our relation with all other faiths is excellent. We all respect one another and meet on a regular basis. We have lit Chanukah candles in the town square for several years, hosted open evenings in the shul and many school visits. Our reputation is good and requests for visits and community celebrations continue to come in. Whilst we listen to the CST and take sensible precautions, support from the non-Jewish community is fantastic. Ignore the media hype on Extremist Luton. They are only trying to sell newspapers or gain viewer ratings.
Visit our shul any time and see for yourself how small can be good for the family and soul.
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