London Haredi Community Find Room and Open Spaces on Canvey Island

Two weeks after Joel and Mindy Friedman moved house, all but a handful of the boxes have been unpacked. A new trampoline for their six children has been put up in the back garden and Joel’s collection of religious texts are already sitting on new bookshelves.

A few days after the move, an older couple living beside the Friedmans’ new home put a welcome card through the letterbox and the family on the other side invited the children over to play.

The Friedmans are delighted. “You can hear the birds sing,” said Joel, drinking orange juice in his garden as workmen finished alterations to the kitchen. “Did you see the cows and horses in the fields? We’re more connected to nature here. And the neighbours are lovely.”

The Friedmans are one of seven ultra-orthodox Jewish families who have bought houses on Canvey Island, Essex, in a bold experiment to set up a satellite community 35 miles from Stamford Hill, the overcrowded, overpriced area of north-east London that is home to Britain’s biggest Haredi population.

Their choice of Canvey Island – in one of the 10 most pro-Brexit boroughs in the UK, one of Ukip’s target seats in last year’s general election and among the most monocultural places in the country – may seem surprising, but the fledgling community is optimistic about the move. Indeed, they hope that 50 Haredi families will be living on the island in the Thames estuary within a year, amid a local population typified by retired former East Enders.

Rabbi Abraham Pinter of the Stamford Hill Haredi community says the impulse was a 4% net population growth in the north London neighbourhood, in a community already numbering over 30,000. “By next year we’ll have another 1,200, and another 1,200 the year after,” he told the Observer. “It’s not a question of whether young families want to stay within the [Stamford Hill] community – they don’t have a choice.”

A shortage of available housing, combined with the soaring costs of buying and renting, had forced the community to look outside London. A family with seven or eight children needing a four- or five-bedroom property faced house prices of up to £1.5m in Stamford Hill.

“People are desperate, and the pressures are immense. So we’ve been talking about expanding the community farther afield,” said Pinter.

The Friedmans had already been priced out of Stamford Hill itself and had rented a “two-and-a-half-bedroom” house in Tottenham for £350 a week (the rent was raised to £500 when the family moved out). They paid £380,000 for a modern, five-bedroom house in Canvey Island, with double garage and conservatory.

All seven Haredi families managed to buy properties within a 20-minute walk of each other, and they moved in over the same weekend. Friedman hopes other Haredi families will be able to buy houses nearby, pointing out that many potential buyers were deterred by the island’s “flood zone” status.

But the group also needed community infrastructure: a synagogue, a Jewish school and a kosher shop. A clincher for Canvey Island was an empty school on a 3.5-acre plot which – thanks to a philanthropic donation – the community bought from the council for £1.7m. For now, the assembly hall acts as a makeshift synagogue and a temporary kosher shop opens for a couple of hours a day on the premises. In September, they hope to launch an independent Jewish school for 35 children, with capacity expanding as more families move to the island.

The new community is highly visible. Haredi men wear traditional black coats and hats, and grow beards and peyot (sidelocks); the women dress modestly and cover their hair with scarves, hats or wigs. According to Friedman, who now spends two hours a day commuting to his job at a Haredi charity in Stamford Hill, local people are mostly positive. “People have been very welcoming, apart from one case of a driver hooting at us,” he said.

Both he and Pinter accept that a different religious or ethnic minority community might have faced a more hostile reception. “A lot of these ex-East Enders are saying, ‘We know you: we’re very familiar with the Jewish community’,” said Pinter. Friedman added, “They know Jews don’t make any trouble.”

But one long-time resident said that some local people were worried. “They think they’re a cult, that they could take over, buy up all the houses,” said Jean, who has lived on the island for 43 years. “There are two ways of looking at it – it’s good if they generate trade and business, but the island infrastructure can’t take an influx. The roads are already a nightmare.

“I’m not dead against it; it’s better than properties being empty. I have no objection to people having their own temples and so on, but basically this is a Christian country. I don’t mind any community coming here as long as they integrate.”

Ann Horgan, head of civic governance at Castle Point council, said: “The council is working with representatives of the Jewish community and Canvey Island and other agencies to make sure this new community is welcomed. We hope this will be to all our mutual benefit and have a positive impact on the local economy.”

Members of the Community Security Trust, a charity that provides security to the UK Jewish community, had met local police to offer “cultural training”, said Friedman.

Another Stamford Hill group is planning a new satellite Haredi community in Harlow, Essex, and a number of orthodox Jewish families from Golders Green are considering relocating to Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire.

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