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‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ Jewish Communities Dying Out

July 5, 1995

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ After more than 70 years of agreeing to disagree, the ``Protestant″ Jews of Belfast and the ``Catholic″ Jews of Dublin now concur on one issue: Their communities won’t see out the next generation.

``People are anxious to leave here because they don’t want to be the ones known as the `Last Jews’ in Ireland,″ said Noomi Jonas, a youth worker in Dublin’s 1,000-member Jewish community.

David Warm, senior warden at Belfast’s only synagogue, which serves barely 350 Jews, agreed. ``The next generation is likely to be vulnerable to extinction. It’s a struggle to maintain already.″

It would mean the end of a tale of two Jewish communities that oddly echoes Ireland’s own divisions.

Aside from half-jokingly referring to each other as ``Protestant″ and ``Catholic″ Jews, both communities gave their towns Lord Mayors. Belfast’s Sir Otto Jaffe (1899 and 1904) reveled in his Britishness, while Dublin’s Robert Briscoe (1956 and 1961) started out by running guns for the Irish Republican Army.

In Ireland, Asher Siev and Gerald Goldberg made names for themselves as top lawyers by defending people charged with terrorism. Belfast’s prosecutor, Ronnie Appleton, has spent much of his career putting terrorists behind bars.

``The communities are a paradigm of what went on in Ireland,″ said Rabbi David Rosen, who served as Ireland’s chief rabbi in 1979-1985.

The communities date from the 1650s, when Oliver Cromwell’s commonwealth allowed Jews to return to Britain 350 years after their expulsion. They were reinforced in the late 19th century by refugees from eastern Europe.

All the communities quickly adopted British customs, ending Sabbath services with a prayer for the royal family and a rendition of ``God Save the King.″

Trouble started stirring after the Irish uprising against British rule in 1916. In synagogues in the south, congregants began to refuse to rise for the anthem.

``They said they objected to being dominated by an alien power,″ Siev said.

Loyalties ran equally deep in Belfast. When the island was partitioned with Irish independence in 1922, all other religious denominations chose to maintain islandwide dioceses.

Belfast’s Jews would have none of it. They declared that they would not take orders from a Dublin rabbinate, that their fealty was with the British chief rabbi.

``As a result, I was the only religious leader in Ireland responsible for just 26 out of 32 counties,″ Rosen said.

The primary reason for the split is the Jewish tradition of being loyal to the state, said Belfast’s Warm. ``It’s written into Jewish law,″ he noted.

Rosen suggested southern Jews also feel much kinship toward the Irish.

``There is a similar ethos, resulting from the tension of being deeply rooted in religious tradition and the desire to function in the modern world,″ he said.

Jews felt comfortable in Ireland because ``by encouraging religious expression, Irish society encourages religious pluralism,″ Rosen said.

Brian Quinn, the Roman Catholic chairman of the Ireland-Israel Friendship League, agreed. ``We’re both small nations who have survived.″

Another trait Irish Jews share with their countrymen is their tendency to leave.

``I can prove I’m an Irishman because all my children have emigrated,″ Goldberg once told The Sunday Telegraph of London.

Both communities have withered since their peaks in the 1960s, when about 4,500 Jews lived in the Irish Republic and 1,400 were in Northern Ireland.

Those leaving are mostly young people who, despite their loyalties, say they still feel there are lines they will never be able to cross as Jews. Favorite destinations are Israel and Britain.

``The Protestant tribe would ultimately exclude me,″ said Michael Appleton, sipping coffee at a diner in Belfast’s Shankill Road, strictly Protestant territory where Catholics still not dare venture.

Son of the prosecutor and a graduate of Northern Ireland’s premier Protestant school, Appleton has had Jewish friends leave and has thought about going himself. He offered an anecdote to explain why there are Irish experiences that will always remain beyond Jewish understanding.

He had just finished filming a documentary about a teen-age blind Catholic girl believed to be a seer. A Catholic family called on the girl to banish the ghost of Jackie, a 60-year-dead Protestant, from the house they had just moved into.

Appleton’s crew went along for the seance. ``She started channeling _ her voice dropped _ and she said, referring to herself, `Who is this Mick?‴ he said. ``At that point everyone else in the room, Protestant and Catholic, could see Jackie’s ghost shimmering by the stair.″

``I could not,″ Appleton said, sighing. ``But I spoke with him, as one would.″

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