Some years ago I went to Omaha, Nebraska, to write about the annual jamboree held by legendary investor Warren Buffett. I arrived on a Friday afternoon at the hotel on the fringe of town close to where the meeting would be held. When I asked at reception if there was a synagogue nearby, I was told there was a Jewish centre in walking distance.
When I headed off to services, I was amazed to find there was a whole campus including sheltered housing for the elderly, a school and sports facilities. The architect-designed shul building that housed two sanctuaries was all glass and light wood and the walls adorned with magnificent designer silk fabric. The young Conservative rabbi, spotting a stranger, told me there was a Shabbaton dinner for cheder parents that evening if I cared to join them.
Always glad to be at a Shabbat table and fascinated by the fact that there, in the middle of the hard-bitten prairies, was a Jewish campus to die for, I wanted to know more. The former rabbi of the community was a keen bridge player and for years had played with Warren Buffett. When the rabbi’s aunt left him a modest sum of around $10,000, he asked Buffett how to invest the money. Buffett told the rabbi to give him the money to look after it.
The rabbi did just that and, a couple of decades later, the soaring value of stock in Buffett’s company, Berkshire Hathaway, had turned the small investment from tens of thousands to tens of millions. The rabbi became a benefactor, building the new community centre and had enough cash left over to donate a library at Yeshiva University in New York where a retired Jonathan Sacks would teach.
I was reminded of all this when I read about the new development taking shape on New Church Road in Hove on a large site that was the West Hove home of the old established Brighton & Hove Hebrew Congregation. In lockdown, the New Church Road Shul had been demolished alongside a couple of nearby old mansions that had served as the cheder, a community hall and the rabbinical residence.
A new facility is being built at pace. At its core will be a new, smaller, modern shul with flexible space. There will also be a mikveh, a community hall, an Israeli-style kosher restaurant and a complex of homes designed to attract young, aspirational Jewish families to the area.
Such ambitious projects don’t usually happen in shrinking, increasingly secular regional communities. The Hove project, having overcome planning objections, has been made possible by local hero and philanthropist Tony Bloom. Scion of a well-known Brighton family, Mr Bloom is the gaming entrepreneur who has a history of rescuing local institutions from the depths. He helped bring back from ruin Brighton & Hove Albion, nicknamed the Seagulls, of which his grandfather was once chairman. He was the driving force behind the magnificent Amex Stadium built into the South Downs outside Brighton and financed the club’s renaissance from the lower leagues and helped make it a Premier League club.
For as long as I remember, the Orthodox communities in Brighton have been riven with rivalry. The original 1856 Middle Street synagogue (where my uncle Philip served as chazan) spawned West Hove. Hove Hebrew Congregation on Holland Road, which was formed in the 1929, was less Anglicised and a haven for Eastern Europe Jews.
Countless efforts down the years to forge a merger have stuttered. I wonder of if the rise of the spanking new community centre will encourage the ‘Yad’ to be buried and the shuls to come together. Engineering such a merge could prove trickier than rescuing the Seagulls.