BBC presentsBBC presents

Belfast’s last Jews shown on the Beeb

Filmmaker Aaron Black documents the twilight years of his own Jewish community in Northern Ireland

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Elliot, Sammy and Alan Matthews who feature in True North: The Last Minyan – A Belfast Jewish Story on BBC One Northern Ireland (courtesy of BBC Northern Ireland)
Elliot, Sammy and Alan Matthews who feature in True North: The Last Minyan – A Belfast Jewish Story on BBC One Northern Ireland (courtesy of BBC Northern Ireland)

Aaron Black, one of less than a handful of young Jews remaining in Belfast, Northern Ireland, holds out little hope for the survival of the city’s Jewish community. As a non-practicing Jew, he takes the drastic dwindling of numbers with considerable equanimity. As a filmmaker, however, he is passionate about documenting the community’s demise before it disappears completely.

Black, 33, focused his lens on the tiny Belfast Jewish community to make “The Last Minyan — A Belfast Jewish Story,” which premiered this week on BBC One Northern Ireland. The hour-long film is part of True North, a series of new, revelatory and uniquely personal single documentaries.

“It’s essentially a film about family,” Black tells The Times of Israel by phone from Belfast. Indeed, he frames the film as his own quest to understand his heritage and many of his relatives appear on camera. Some have stayed in Belfast, but others have joined the Irish Jewish Diaspora in Israel, the UK and other English-speaking countries around the world.

Jews have lived in an organized fashion in Belfast since 1860. The community grew considerably at the end of the19th century with an influx of Jews from Eastern European. (Dublin, Cork and Limerick also absorbed many of these immigrants.) At its height in the mid-20th century, the Belfast Jewish community numbered around 1,500.

Now, fewer than 80 affiliated Jews are left (although 300 people identified as Jewish on the most recent Northern Ireland census). If any of them want kosher food, they need to bring it in from Manchester. The same is true for the small Jewish community left in Dublin.

‘Don’t forget, we had the Troubles’

“Don’t forget, we had the Troubles,” Black says, referring to the violent ethno-nationalist conflict between Protestant Unionists and Catholic Republicans that lasted for three decades. “Many Jews left during the 1970s because of that, and also for social and educational reasons.”

With so few Jews remaining, it has been a challenge hanging onto a rabbi. “The Last Minyan” shows Rabbi Menachem Brackman and his young family leaving after a 5-year stint, and the older Rabbi David Singer and his wife Judith arriving from Israel in March 2013. Although none of the synagogue members are religiously observant, they still want an Orthodox rabbi and an adherence to tradition.

“Today, it’s a struggle to get a minyan,” says Black, who, until making this film, had not been to services since his bar mitzvah twenty years ago. At the end of the film, he makes up a minyan at Belfast Hebrew Congregation so that his father Michael Black, chairman of the Belfast Jewish community, can say kaddish for his father.

“I really don’t know how long the community has,” offers Black. “But the Jews have been highly regarded here in Belfast and those who are left have a positive attitude and know they are leaving a legacy. They’ve left a fantastic mark.”

Black himself feels very comfortable in Belfast and has no plans to leave. “This is my country. This is where I want to work, live and raise my family. I’m happy to be here.”

While Black has no desire to lead a religious life, he has come, through making this film, to a better understanding and appreciation of his unique Belfastian Jewish heritage and the importance of holding on to it.

“It’s about tradition and rituals. Now I get it,” he says.

Most Popular
read more: