Friday 15 February 2019

The Jews in Ireland: Why tech giants are adding strength to a once shrinking community

The new count of 2,557 Jews marks a 29pc jump from the last census and a 46-year high for the Jewish population

Dual identity: Lisa O'Connell with her family, husband Con O'Connell and children Liam (14), Sophie (12), Ben (11) and Aimee (8) at their family farm outside Cork City. Photo: Clare Keogh
Dual identity: Lisa O'Connell with her family, husband Con O'Connell and children Liam (14), Sophie (12), Ben (11) and Aimee (8) at their family farm outside Cork City. Photo: Clare Keogh

Graham Clifford

As the doors of Cork's only synagogue creaked to a close for the final time last year, after over a century of serving the needs of the city's Jewish population, the hum of a low-flying plane could be heard overhead.

Young, energetic, well-qualified Jewish migrants have been jetting into Ireland in big numbers in recent years to work at hi-tech giants such as Google, Facebook and others. They've touched down to set up home not just in Dublin but across the country in Cork, Galway, Limerick and elsewhere.

Israel itself has earned the title 'start-up nation' and cities such as Tel Aviv are producing some of the world's brightest minds, designers, engineers and innovators in this fast-paced sector. Not surprisingly then, Ireland has become something of a hot destination for young Jewish graduates to migrate to - and hundreds have.

So as the 'indigenous' Jewish population has dwindled somewhat, the number of Jewish people actually living and working in the country has grown. Many Irish-born Jews who left in previous decades and during the downturn have also returned to start families and businesses.

The latest census figures show a remarkable increase in the community in Ireland in just five years. Though there is no 'Jewish' tick-box option on the census form (a major bone of contention for the Jewish community), a total of 2,557 ticked the 'other' box in the 'religion' column and manually inserted the word 'Jewish'.

That's an increase of 573 on the previous census findings of 2011 - or a jump of 28.9pc, making it one of the fastest growing religions in the state.

Highest in 46 years

According to census records, the current Jewish population in Ireland is at its highest in 46 years - since the 1971 census results found that 2,633 Jewish people were living in the country.

"The reality is that the accurate number of Jewish people living in Ireland today will be easily in excess of 3,000," believes Maurice Cohen, the chairman of the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland.

"When you take into consideration those who are not practicing regularly and those who are in mixed-religious marriages, I'm sure the actual number of Jews in the country is higher than that reflected in the census," he tells Review. "Then there are a few who, for one reason or another, will not put down 'Jewish' for personal reasons. Indeed, we're getting to a stage now where the new wave of incoming Jewish migrants may outnumber the traditional population which have been here for so long."

Amongst those who have returned home is former Ireland cricket captain Jason Molins and his wife, actress and star of the West End, Aoife Mulholland. Jason was brought up in an Orthodox Jewish household and Aoife, from Galway, converted from Catholicism to Judaism when the couple married in 2009. They returned to Ireland from London almost two years ago with their three young sons.

Another positive sign for Ireland's expanding Jewish population.

The varied shades of Judaism

The problem for Jewish community leaders though is bringing together the varied shades of Judaism. Observant Jewish Orthodox members and those younger migrants, who consider themselves progressive or reformist Jews, operate in separate worlds - even on our small island.

For people like Maurice Cohen, and others, the challenge is to find a way to attract the young migrants to the rooted Jewish community for whom Ireland has always been home.

"From a community point of view, the influx of young highly-educated Jewish migrants creates huge problems for us in knowing how to engage with these younger people on a cultural level. While perhaps 5pc of them are keeping the religious traditions, many are not. So this leaves us, the indigenous Jewish community, with a conundrum as to how to integrate either them with us, or us with them to form a unified group.

"You see modern Jewish Orthodoxy has no problem with integrating into society but does have a problem with assimilating as it is believed both our religion and culture may be lost as a result," he adds. "Finding a way to cater for those who are not Orthodox in their faith is not always easy."

The challenge of course is not unique to Judaism but for a community of limited number, every single member of the community is crucial for its survival, prosperity and evolution.

The first Jewish settlers to attempt to settle in Ireland, five families, were turned away in 1079 we're told, but a second group fleeing the Spanish Inquisition fled to Youghal in Co Cork in 1496 and remained. Portuguese Jews established Ireland's first synagogue opposite Dublin Castle in 1660.

Up until 1880, Dublin's Jewish population was 350, but pogroms in Eastern Europe swelled these numbers to 2,000. In 1946, there were just under 4,000 Jewish people in Ireland, and a peak of 5,500 after World War II.

A sporting tradition

Saul Woolfson recalls a time when Jewish identity thrived in Dublin. Not just in the synagogues but on the carpet-like sports pitches of the Dublin Maccabi club. Cricket, soccer and a host of other sports were played at the renowned grounds on Kimmage Road West. A Ben Dunne Gym now sits on the site of the one-time theatre of dreams.

"The pitches were superb. Shortly before it closed, I remember Jack Charlton would bring the Republic of Ireland team to train there in the late 1980s," explains Saul - now a human rights lawyer.

"It was a hub of activity and a place where our culture and identity was strong and celebrated. They used to have cabaret nights and sing-songs there going back to the 1950s. Our football team played in the Dublin Amateur Leagues and formed the majority of the team which represented Ireland in the Maccabiah Games in Israel in 1981," recalls Saul, who was captain of the international team which included players such as RTÉ soccer commentator Stephen Alkin.

The Maccabiah Games, something of a Jewish Olympics, are held every four years where, on average, 8,000 athletes representing over 70 countries battle it out across a huge range of sports.

In 1981, Ireland sent a large team comprising a soccer side, cricket team, table-tennis and wind-surfing competitors and many more. It sent a message to the world that the Jewish population in Ireland was strong, youthful, organised and ambitious. The 20th Maccabiah Games take place this July in Israel - it's not clear if Ireland will send any competitors.

"Over time things change. Like I was brought up in a Jewish Orthodox household but my wife Aisling isn't Jewish. Indeed, of the four children in our house, none of us went on to marry a Jewish person, which I suppose was hard for my father to take initially, but he got over it," explains Saul.

"Lots of my friends moved away for work, some moved away to marry other Jewish people and, bit by bit, the population dipped, the sports clubs closed and that aspect of our community ebbed away."

He tells me his eldest daughter, Rosie, who studied in Trinity College and is now completing her Masters in history at University in Manchester, has a particular interest in Holocaust and refugee history. "Our faith, culture and history is still very important to us, of course. It's part of who we are and will always be," explains Saul.

The same is the case, it seems, for the 2,557 Jews who call Ireland home today.

The challenge now is finding a way to bring together all Jews and aspects of Judaism on the island - a task that seems much easier said than done.

There has never been conflict between the two religions at home

By Graham Clifford

* Lisa O'Connell, mother, physiotherapist and co-founder of the Munster Jewish Community in Cork

It's just right that chance brought Lisa O'Connell (née Gunzburg) back to our shores. Though born in South Africa and brought up in Australia, this country is in her blood.

"My father's mother was born in Limerick in 1904. She was part of the small Lithuanian Jewish community in the city. In later life, the family moved to the UK and further afield," she explains from her farm outside Ballincollig in Cork.

Lisa grew up in a close-knit Jewish orthodox community in Perth. "It wasn't until I was about 12 that I realised the rest of the world wasn't Jewish," she tells me with a smile.

In early 2000, while working in England as a physiotherapist, Lisa spotted an advert for a vacancy in Cork. She applied and got the job. Two years later she and Con, then a dairy farmer, started seeing each other and before long, the couple were building a family.

"Con is a Catholic and his faith is very important to him, he's a Eucharistic minister in the local Catholic Church. Our families were very supportive of our marriage though it probably wasn't always easy for them. Con's mother taught in a Jewish school in the UK when she was younger and that certainly helped," says Lisa.

The O'Connell children, Liam (14), Sophie (12), Ben (11) and Aimee (8) are brought up with a "dual-identity" explains their mother.

"They have all received the Catholic sacraments. At times, I've struggled with that. When we were deciding if Liam, our eldest, was to make his first Holy Communion, we sought the advice of an Orthodox Rabbi in Australia and he advised me that as Judaism is passed through the maternal line, our children will always be considered Jewish no matter what other religious ceremonies they partake in.

"The children participate in all of our Jewish celebrations and festivals. There has never been any conflict between the two religions in our house, and actually the ethical foundations of Catholicism and Judaism are so very similar."

When Cork's only synagogue closed in February 2016, Lisa and a group of Jewish friends decided to set up their own community.

"It's very important to us, for our identity, heritage and culture, that we get together to pray and celebrate. So we meet at different times of the year in each other's houses, like at Passover and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), to pray and be together. We had in excess of 40 people from around Munster at our Jewish New Year celebrations and sometimes have visiting rabbis. For me, it is more about the culture and spiritual element rather than the strict religious doctrine," says Lisa.

"Of course, having had such a staunch Jewish upbringing, I'm a minority in Ireland as a person of Jewish faith, but I've never felt anything but welcome. Normally when people find out I'm Jewish, they greet that with interest and curiosity rather than anything else. Our family doesn't fit into a neat bulk and we're happy with that. We're Catholic, we're Jewish, we're family."

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