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Belfast Rabbi Spreads Judaism in Land of Protestants and Catholics

June 19, 2003
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There is a new religious leader in Northern Ireland’s capital, a city long divided by a Protestant-Catholic rift.

But he’s not Christian.

Avraham Citron, a 26-year-old Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi from Los Angeles, is the only Jewish clergyman in all of Northern Ireland, also called Ulster. In the last few months, he has become Ulster’s unofficial chief rabbi.

“It’s a heavy-sounding title,” Citron says, “but, yes, I guess I’m the only one.”

In a community that every year sees dwindling membership at the city’s sole synagogue, Citron is the first full-time rabbi in town in a long time.

Before Citron’s promotion — he worked in Belfast for six months on a part-time basis before his appointment — the community’s spiritual needs were met by a lay leader. But Jewish community enthusiasm and numbers were waning.

An estimated 80 percent of the Jewish community here is elderly.

Citron’s appointment was a “shot in the arm for the community,” says Cyril Rosenberg, a local businessman who leads tours of Belfast’s synagogue for local church and school groups. “We hope he can get the young people involved and deliver the Yiddishkeit goods.”

Nobody, especially Belfast’s rabbi, has any illusions that this once-large British Jewish community can ever compete with the one on the mainland, in England. But many hope that this community, which has dwindled to 600 people from a peak of 16,000 in the 1960s, can revitalize itself.

Chabad rabbis do revitalization and outreach work in far-flung Jewish communities all over the world.

“Is there a future for Belfast’s Jews? I certainly think there can be,” Citron says enthusiastically. “I think people are definitely open to having a thriving, well-organized community. Even those people we never see in shul seem quite receptive to coming to the rabbi’s house for dinner.”

Getting Ulster’s Jews into the synagogue is something the rabbi says he will have to work on: The average turnout for Saturday services is 30.

But there are signs that some younger Jews are taking an interest in Judaism. So far, 10 children are enrolled in the synagogue’s Sunday religious school, and Citron is planning to add another class, brining the student total to 15.

“It’s a small but important step forward,” Citron says. He and his wife Devorah have two young children.

There also is a concerted effort under way to reach out to local Jews who have married out of the faith — particularly women, whose children are considered Jews according to Jewish law.

The synagogue’s chief caretaker, Adrian Levy, describes the city’s lone synagogue as an “umbrella community,” though it is under the banner of the United Synagogue, an Orthodox group.

“Our services are modern Orthodox, but we’re definitely inclusive in our outlook,” Levy says.

Outside the community, synagogue authorities are concerned with keeping the Jews out of sectarian strife in this religiously divided and sometimes violent city.

Churches and congregants sometimes are targeted by religious extremists, but on the whole the Jewish community has been successful at staying out of the “troubles,” as the violence here is called.

Since the beginning of the year, anti-Semitic incidents in mainland Britain have risen by 75 percent over the previous year. But the upsurge seems to have bypassed Belfast.

There is a view here that Ulster’s own internecine conflict has deflected any potential aggression away from the Jewish community. Other ethnic and religious groups also largely have been left alone.

Belfast’s only Chasidic Jew says he feels safe.

“I’ve never had any troubles walking around,” Citron says. “Of course, people who see me often stop and stare, but I’m sure this is mere curiosity rather than anti-Semitism. After all, nobody looks like the rabbi.”

Aside from his outreach work to Jews, Belfast’s chief rabbi has picked up on the fact that in this Christian society, it makes sense to have friends in the church. Citron has become a member of Northern Ireland’s Council of Christians and Jews, and he is a communal representative in a body of municipal leaders.

Citron says he deliberately chose to take his first rabbinical post in a country with few Jews.

“I’ve always been interested in focusing on small communities,” he said. “I wanted to go somewhere where I could get to know everybody and really make my time count.”

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