Page created: 26 February 2016
Latest amendment or revision: 29 February 2016
'Last parish before America' closes its doors
Last week, the tiny Jewish community of Cork, in southern Ireland, lost the last visible remnant of a storied presence that stretched back over 100 years when the synagogue that served as a center for prayer, meetings and celebrations for both permanent members and countless visitors held a formal de-consecration service after an agreement was reached on the building's sale.
Like many of the Cork Hebrew Congregation's former congregants now scattered elsewhere (most, like me, drawn by the prospect of richer Jewish life than could be found in Cork), I have fond memories of the many Shabbat and holiday services, lectures and educational sessions that took place within its doors on South Terrace in the city center.
For many decades, the running of the shul was the all-consuming life's work of my grandpa, Fred Rosehill, chairman of the board of trustees and the community's leader for its last few decades, whose relentless determination to see its doors remain open was the subject of admiration and interest from both Jewish and non-Jewish visitors alike.
Helping out, in whatever guise, remains part of my earliest memories, as does the feeling of an annual battle against the impossible as another successful and well attended Rosh Hashanah service was pulled off despite ever-flagging local numbers.
These services, attended by an eclectic mix of congregants and whatever internationals had miraculously swelled our ranks for the occasion (often, to barely past the point of enabling a minyan), were traditionally rounded off with a stirring oration from my grandpa, in which, year after year, he reminded the visitors of the precariousness of the community's future and personally thanked, often one by one, everyone who had traveled to attend.
How long the community - the last in a short chain of synagogues that served the needs of the descendants of Lithuanian immigrants who fled cruel Czarist decrees in the late eighteenth century - managed to defy the inevitable despite its small membership can best be understood by the 1990 Seattle Times article "Nobody visits synagogue now." It placed the community's membership at the time at a paltry nine, down from its zenith of 500 families in the mid-20th century, a membership decimated by emigration to the UK, the US and Israel.
The end could well have come sooner had the ebb and flow of temporary members of the community.- both students studying at nearby universities and those temporarily working for one of Cork's many multinational companies - not injected albeit temporarily support.
Ironically. it was often the refreshing intimacy and warmth of a community that had survived without regular weekday services, much less a rabbi, for over 50 years that attracted these visitors in the first place.
But when their tenures expired or their studies concluded. they rarely remained. In recent years, importing Chabad emissaries from London or Manchester to help conduct services became the ultimate means of ensuring the provision of Orthodox High Holy Day services, given the dearth of cantorial talent in a community comprised entirely of lay-people.
These events were inevitably preceded by frantic preparations, including liaising with local accommodation owners who were amazingly adept at facilitating the needs of our strictly Orthodox guests. Afterwards, there would he emails from all over the Jewish world (at 88, my grandpa remains a proficient tablet and desktop user, and maintains vigorous correspondences). At these moments, my family and the running of the shul effectively became one.
My grandpa's singular motivation throughout this unique but costly endeavor to sustain the dying embers of a once thriving community was to ensure that despite the otherwise total lack of Jewish amenities in southern Ireland (as one of only two synagogues in the republic, the shul had an unusually large catchment area), nobody wishing to attend a Halacha-compliant service would be denied - and certainly not for lack of money, as almost without exception, use of the synagogue entailed no charge.
The many guests who attended over the years were captivated by the history of a Jewish community that found tranquility and acceptance in Ireland, a predominantly Catholic country whose Jewish community is most commonly associated with a literary protagonist, but whose real-life characters encountered anti-Semitism to a far lesser extent than which prevailed in other countries at the time. Despite its demographic in-significance, Cork even elected a Jewish lord mayor, Gerald Goldberg.
The warm, momentary sparks of communal light that its best-attended services represented, and the long-lasting feelings of nostalgia they engendered, explain. how the shul became a staple attraction for tourists and educational groups for years.
Since 2011, the theme has been captured beautifully by an annual open art exhibition held during Hanukka in Shalom Park (sponsored, in part, by the city council), during which street lighting is activated in the sequence of a hanukkia.
The exhibition (and the community's history) were captured eloquently in a national television feature.
The mutual fondness between Corkonians old enough to recall Jewish friends from the community's heyday, as well as emigrants who cherish memories of the city they once called home, is strongly evident at this annual event, and at Irish-Jewish functions and meet-ups around the world. In large part, my grandpa's reluctance to divorce Jewish life from the city he was born and raised in and dearly loves, stems from this deep-rooted sense of attachment between the city and its small Jewish community.
The thousands of non-Jewish guests who visited the synagogue for culture nights and school tours received an important glimpse into a community that for years formed part of the city's tapes try and contributed to an important interfaith dialogue that promoted mutual understanding among Cork's rapidly shifting cultural makeup.
Speaking with my grandpa on these sometimes bi-weekly educational visits was also an important part of my up-bringing, and besides providing a useful education in public speaking, it was a welcome opportunity to communicate the community's history to groups that were unlikely to have ever encountered a Jewish person before.
Although these and the few family celebrations that took place breathed needed - but ephemeral - life back into its usually empty pews (many still engraved with the surnames of those either passed on or emigrated), the shul's finances and its membership were obviously unsustainable.
My own involvement in the shul, and seeing the beauty of Jewish communal life in its moments of vigor, ultimately led me to study in London and then move to Israel, where, despite exponentially larger communal numbers and amenities, finding a close-knit synagogue with the characteristic warmth and familiarity of Cork - where every "minyan man" made a difference - is a trying endeavor.
Despite a valiant battle to keep what my grandpa called "the last parish before America" financially and spiritually afloat, the coincidence of expired funds and a practically vanished community dealt an insurmountable blow.
The shul's memory, however, will undoubtedly live on.
For all the above reasons and more, the answer to the question that sometimes resonated in my head - "is it really worth it to keep going?" - was a profound yes. I am certain that many others would agree.
© Daniel Rosehill 2016
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