Preserving the ancient Jewish faith in Belfast

The Jewish Synagogue at Somerton Road, Belfast.
The Jewish Synagogue at Somerton Road, Belfast.

A fascinating BBC-1 Northern Ireland television documentary on the Jewish community in the province will be screened on Monday night (10.35pm).

True North: The Last Minyan – A Belfast Jewish Story tells of the disappearing world of the Belfast Jewish community, as seen from the inside.

Film-maker Aaron Black observes the ageing community as it struggles to gather the 10 men or ‘Minyan’ needed for a prayer service.

The film explores the reasons why, keeping the synagogue open and the community going, is so important to those that remain. “Small Jewish communities are dying all over the UK; this is the story of one of them,” says Aaron Black, who produced and directed this look at Jewish life in Northern Ireland.

Aaron Black grew up in the community and had his Bar Mitzvah in Belfast, but, like many of his generation, stopped going to synagogue. Now, 20 years later, he goes back to where his father Michael Black is residing chairman.

Jewish services have been held in Northern Ireland since the 1860s. At its peak, the Belfast Jewish community had around 1,500 members. Now it is down to fewer than 80.

Viewers will follow this community in its twilight years as they struggle to make the Minyan and keep a Rabbi. The film focuses on the mechanics of preserving Jewish life under difficult circumstances. Keeping hold of a Rabbi in Belfast is an ongoing challenge and this film shows why the community lose their acting Rabbi and the process of finding another one.

Viewers will be introduced to some of the key members of the community. Chairman Michael Black and Alan Matthews belong to the chevra kadisha (Jewish burial committee) and also deliver the kosher food brought from Manchester.

Both men attained positions of responsibility as numbers declined. Something they would not have chosen if there was still a large community.

The film also travels to Manchester, London and Israel where Jewish life still thrives.

As Jewish life unfolds back in Belfast, the film reveals a close and proud community bound by their shared history and traditions.

This intimate portrait of Jewish life illuminates a world which few Christians in Northern Ireland may know about.

Aaron Black explains: “This was a very personal film to make especially as it included members of my own family. I wanted to focus on the realities of keeping this tradition alive under difficult circumstances. This is something that is happening across the UK. I knew that Belfast is struggling and I wanted to document this world before it was too late.

“The process has made me understand more about Judaism as a culture and why these traditions are important.”

lJudaism began about 4,000 years ago with the Hebrew people in the Middle East. Abraham, a Hebrew man, is considered the father of the Jewish faith because he promoted the central idea of the Jewish faith: that there is one God. At the time people in the Middle East worshipped many gods.