For the first time in generations, the Emerald Isle’s Jewish community is growing — with Israelis seeking greener pastures
DUBLIN — The one-way traffic of young Jews out of the country in search of partners and careers may be over. According to Dublin-based Israeli lawyer Mattan Lass, the Emerald Isle now has one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in Europe.
“The story of Irish Jewry has too often been depicted as a community in decline,” says Lass, “but not anymore. There are now more than 1,500 new Israeli Jews here working in the IT sector.”
According to Lass, this influx could amount to over half of the Jewish population in Ireland.
“There are crèches [preschools] here where Hanukkah gets as much attention as Christmas and I often hear Hebrew spoken in restaurants,” he says.
Crucially for the local community, the newcomers bring with them an injection of youth and vigor along with the possibility of a new future.
In the past, Jewish immigrants to the country came mostly from Eastern Europe. At its peak in the 1950s the Jewish population on the island numbered more than 5,000, but that figure was down to 2,000 in the last census.
‘I’m like the wandering Jew’
Born in Israel, Lass grew up in London before returning to his homeland. Then he upped stakes again to follow his partner who took a position in the Dublin IT sector.
“I’m like the wandering Jew,” he quips, which is something he feels that Israelis have in common with the Irish.
“What’s changing now is that Israelis are putting down roots and having families,” he explains.
Lass and his partner were married in the city by Chief Rabbi Zalman Lent.
“The future of the Jewish community in Ireland is inextricably linked to the new Israeli diaspora,” Lass says.
Connecting Irish and Israeli businesses is Lass’s day job: He is pleased to highlight the fact that his legal firm has a Hebrew desk.
‘The synagogue is the center of communal life for diaspora Jews… cultural and social events are what brings Israeli Jews together’
He is also active in the Irish Israeli Business Network (IIBN), one of whose ambitions is to encourage the creation of a direct flight from Dublin to Tel Aviv.
However, the influx of Israelis to work for the likes of Facebook, Google and Intel hasn’t proportionally swelled membership in the three remaining synagogues in the capital.
“Being a secular Jew is different,” Lass explains. “While the synagogue is the center of communal life for Diaspora Jews, cultural and social events are often what brings Israeli Jews together.” For example, the local Jewish primary school has seen a healthy boost in numbers — mostly Israelis.
Ireland’s fading Jewish congregations
Dubliner Jenni Harrison, the chairperson of rites and practices with the Progressive community believes that the Jews from Israel could be a lifeline for the Irish diaspora.
“We do find them fascinating,” she jokes. “They are so different to us. However, we need to find common ground with them, and it’s not always about religion.”
“Our shul is growing each year, but it is still only at times like Yom Kippur or Hanukkah that we a have a full house,” she explains.
Harrison feels that Irish Jews are probably more laid back than their Israeli counterparts and also that older members are perplexed why more of them don’t attend synagogue. But she sees differences as just a challenge to be overcome.
“Ireland has become more multi-cultural in recent years,” she says. For example, Harrison is a member of a women’s group called the Irish Sisters of Faith for Peace.
‘I don’t think the Irish are anti-Israeli, they are just pro-Palestinian’
“We are Jews, Christians and Muslims, we visit each others’ centers, or sometimes we just spend time advising each other on the best schools in the area,” she says.
Unlike reports from abroad, Harrison believes that there is no anti-Semitism in Ireland.
“I feel very comfortable being openly Jewish walking to synagogue wearing my kippa,” she says. “I don’t think the Irish are anti-Israeli either, they are just pro-Palestinian.”
Following the recent closure of a synagogue, now leaving just three, Harrison believes that the community will have to adapt.
“We have to reach out to the Israelis but if we succeed at least we will have a community,” she says.
Maurice Cohen, chairman of the Jewish Representative Council is stoic about the upcoming changes in his community.
“In days to come,” he says, “Irish Jewry will be represented by people who were not born in the country. They too will have to grow their own Irish roots.
‘Irish Jewry will be represented by people who were not born in the country. They too will have to grow their own Irish roots’
“The new Israeli Jews are very sophisticated and highly educated. They have come here for different reasons than those in the past. There are no pogroms,” says Cohen.
As the majority of native Jews are over 60 years old, the future of the three remaining synagogues is on the minds of the community’s elders.
“We need to keep the religious traditions going and we are hoping that the newcomers will feel the same need in the future,” says Cohen.
Are the Israelis up to the challenge?
Oren Sphigel, who originally hails from a town near Tel Aviv, has two children with red hair.
“They could be Irish — until they start to speak,” he jokes.
The 46-year-old came to Ireland a year ago with his wife and their four children when she was offered a new appointment. Leaving jobs in Dell and Oracle, they wanted a new challenge. Sphigel, a sales director, is starting a new job next week.
“We were excited to experience European culture,” he says, “and Ireland is also English speaking.”
“The people here are very welcoming.The neighbors want to know about our festivals. At work my wife lit candles during Hanukkah,” Sphigel says.
He observes that “the tempo is faster in Israel, and people are louder. The Irish are very polite and life is more tranquil.”
‘My son has Chinese, Spanish and Polish classmates and they all sang Happy Birthday in their own language for him’
And Ireland’s diversity excited him as well.
“My son has Chinese, Spanish and Polish classmates and they all sang ‘Happy Birthday’ in their own language for him,” he says.
He says that while the Israeli families get together festival days, he does also attend a local synagogue where he meets Irish Jews.
”My wife and I had visited Ireland before we moved and we got a lot of information from Israelis already here,” says Sphigel.
Ironically he likes the two things he was warned about — the weather and the pace of life. But would he encourage other Israelis to join him?
“I don’t have to,” Sphigel says. “They’re already on their way.”