By Sean Meleady

The Jewish community in Norwich has a rich history which goes back centuries. As the Covid-19 pandemic writes a new chapter in the history of the city, one Synagogue on Essex Street has helped set up a food bank in an area sharply divided by wealth disparity.

Adat Yeshua Synagogue set up the food bank in conjunction with NR2 Skills Share following a £1,000 grant from the Norfolk Community Foundation. Local residents have donated food and money, and Norwich Food Hub, a community organisation that collects food from retailers to distribute to groups helping those in poverty, has also supplied the project.

Located in Town Close ward, the Synagogue-based food bank is located between the wealthy ‘Golden Triangle’ area and the social housing estate around Jenny Lind Park, close to the site of the original Norwich and Norfolk Hospital. According to research conducted by Norfolk Insight last year, around 15% of residents of the ward are among the most deprived in the country in relation to key factors such as employment, health, education and living environment. Around 140 children in Town Close live in families with out of work benefit claimants. According to research from the Child Poverty Action Group, in 2019 21% of children in the ward were living in poverty.

The Adat Yeshua Synagogue building on Essex Street.

Although it is a small area geographically, Town Close is very divided, with some of the wealthiest and most deprived parts of the county – if not the country – located just minutes apart. For example, Clarendon Road, one of the wealthiest 20% of areas in England, is close to roads such as Oxford Street, Suffolk Square and Rupert Street that are amongst the 10% most deprived.

Adat Yeshua Synagogue opened its doors in 2017 as a place of worship for Norwich’s Messianic Jewish community. Distinguished from the Orthodox and Liberal Reform Jewish communities by their belief that the messiah has already visited Earth in form of Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew), the community had spent 25 years meeting in rented rooms and buildings across the city prior to the Synagogue’s opening.

Adat Yeshua had made independent efforts to set up a food bank last year. This attempt was stalling until they teamed up with Town Close’s Labour City Councillor Karen Davis and Labour County Councillor Emma Corlett, as Rabbi Binyamin Sheldrake explains:

“We had this room at the rear of the Synagogue that we felt could be used for the community. Meeting people from the area, it was really obvious that there was urban deprivation and lots of food poverty. Our initial attempts failed because of legislative bureaucratic hoops.

“Last year we weren’t moving very fast with it. Then came the lockdown and at that point Karen [Davis] and Emma [Corlett] introduced us to people in the area. They had some expertise in this, so at that point we pooled resources, gave the room for the council to use and the food bank was born. We were feeding so many people during that early stage of the lockdown, people were losing their jobs and poverty was going up. We had a huge response from the local community donating food, with local pubs, cafes and restaurants also giving away their stock. We provided volunteers from the Synagogue to staff it along with local people from the NR2 area”.

Lockdown has been a very difficult time for many in Town Close. Rabbi Sheldrake recalls one case of a food bank user who had to cope with poverty, bereavement and the lockdown at the same time:

“One particular story was a couple who were at the time really struggling with universal credit and health disabilities. About 3 weeks into the lockdown she died and he was inconsolable – it was tragic. He couldn’t speak to people because of the social distancing and the lockdown. It was a very difficult situation”.

The space at the back of the Adat Yeshua Synagogue building where the food bank has been set up.

As restrictive measures to combat Covid 19 have eased, the food bank has moved from a six day a week service at the Synagogue to a one day a week delivery service.

“With the gradual return to work we’ve moved to a delivery service rather than a queuing system. It has also meant that the volunteers have been able to meet people in their own homes and see what the situation is really like.”

Rabbi Sheldrake is ambitious about the future and believes that the Synagogue can use its space for other social projects.

“Given that we have a few teachers in our congregation, we want to do a breakfast or after school club for children who need that support – children from homes with no tables to work on or possibly environments where they can’t do homework and don’t receive parental support”.

Town Close, with its social housing, student population and middle class professionals, is in many ways a microcosm of divisions within British society as a whole. The effects of Covid-19 have laid bare the inequalities of an area where council tenants live cheek by jowl with those whose houses cost £500,000+. Adat Yeshua may be a recent arrival in the area, but its efforts to provide a lifeline to its neighbours in difficult times have cemented the Synagogue’s place in the Town Close community.

All images courtesy of Adat Yeshua Synagogue

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