Dynamic Yossi is a boon to community

DAVID SAFFER meets a young rabbi with a zest for life who has quadrupled shul membership in his six amazing years at Singers Hill in Birmingham

RABBI Yossi Jacobs has shown dynamic leadership in a six-year association at Singers Hill Synagogue in Birmingham.

Shul membership has escalated fourfold to 550 with members across the Midlands.

Attendances on Shabbat, morning minyanim and children's services have improved.

Rabbi Jacobs cites the role of his wife in many activities. A ladies' shiur has membership from all Birmingham shuls while her culinary and hospitality skills are renowned.

Born in Glasgow in 1981, Rabbi Jacobs is the second youngest of Rabbi and Mrs Chaim Jacobs' six children.

"My father was a community rabbi with Lubavitch so I was always around the hustle and bustle of the Jewish community," Rabbi Jacobs recalled.

"We had a very hospitable home with guests coming for meals and staying over.

"My parents ran a bookshop, library and cheder in our house that 150 kids attended every week, which was an experience. They also ran the Lubavitch Nursery.

"Day camps every summer attracted up to 200 kids. Day trips varied from art galleries and transport museums when it rained to theme parks and camping."

Festivals were also memorable.

Further education continued at Manchester Jewish Grammar School.

"I enjoyed the freedom, but the real success was living with Max and Leah Cohen and the care of headmaster Phaivish Pink," he said..

"What was most interesting living in Manchester was seeing the different types of Orthodox Jews with differing customs."

A visit home saw the 16-year-old future minister develop a taste for the rabbinate when he led Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services at Newton Mearns Hebrew Congregation.

"My father had flu and when the replacement chazan let us down at the last minute he asked if I'd take the services," he explained. "I said yes, so he wrote me the sermons. I learned to lehen that evening and that was the start of my ministerial career.

"I remember looking around and seeing my classmates. My father gave me a joke to start off, writing in bold, pause for a laugh. I hope my messages came across.

"My father always encouraged me to get involved so when a rabbi was away in the summer I'd lehen at various shuls."

Further experience came before his 21st birthday during the High Holydays at Langside Hebrew Congregation.

Prior to this, aged 17, he studied at Lubavitch yeshivot in Toronto.

"It was a real experience," Rabbi Jacobs recalled. "At high school we did secular and Hebrew studies but at yeshiva we studied Hebrew and Talmud from 7.30am to 10pm."

Seven years in America saw Rabbi Jacobs obtain semicha and a BA in Hebrew..

Rabbi Jacobs became temporary minister at Netherlee and Clarkston Hebrew Congregation in Glasgow. The youngest-serving UK rabbi at the time when he was 22, he spurned a full-time post, opting for post-semicha studies in America, which led to meeting his wife Rochel in New York in 2004.

Married in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, the newlyweds set up home in New York where Rochel taught at local Jewish schools while Rabbi Jacobs studied in a kollel.

Evaluating a number of positions, Rabbi Jacobs accepted an assistant minister's post at Singers Hill in February, 2005, charged with reviving children's services, yomtov celebrations, educational programmes and community activities.

"What struck us most was that they really wanted a couple to come and make a difference," he said. "Rochel and I had an opportunity to lead the way."

He became the youngest chief minister appointed to Singers Hill following the death of Rabbi Leonard Tann in November, 2007.

His impact was immense.

"We celebrate a simcha nearly every Shabbat whether a diamond or golden wedding, batmitzvah or second barmitzvah," he said.

"We've reintroduced the children's service. When we first came there were eight children - today we regularly have 25 and up to 40."

Teen Scene has also been a hit with youngsters.

"There needed to be interaction between various communities," he said. "Teen Scene runs with Solihull, Leicester, Nottingham and Cardiff. It's been a great success.

"Parents then asked us to do something for younger ones so we started Youth Zone, which has been a success.

"And when our son Ari was born in 2007, Rochel started a baby and toddler group, Mummy and Me, that gets six or seven mothers each week, which is fantastic."

In 2009, a year when their second child Malky was born, the Jacobs' initiated Purely Social for Jewish singles across the UK to meet in a social setting.

"It's been a huge success," said Rabbi Jacobs. "The event attracted more than 100 people from St Andrews, Glasgow, Bournemouth, Brighton, Liverpool and Leeds.

"Being centrally based is ideal and we wanted to introduce young people. Where shrinking communities are, there needs to be more interaction. Matches were not the aim, but we had three matches from the event."

Chai Club has also been a hit, but despite the many successes, a rabbinical role is challenging.

"You find people totally unaffiliated, but we don't want members to remain 'name' only - we want everyone to be active members," Rabbi Jacobs said.

Regarding assimilation, he noted: "We have a welcoming situation. The attitude of the shul has become warmer and we are embracing families that are inter-married. The Jewish person is a member - we welcome people to shul and want them to be involved as much as they can.

"For some people it is coming once a year and we make that meaningful. We also have people who don't come on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur but do come to activities throughout the year.

"There is no one formula for two people - each person has to be taken on their own level."

Rabbi Jacobs is director of Jewish education at King David School, is a member of the Birmingham Faith Leaders Group and serves as Birmingham Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women chaplain. "At King David, the ethos is Jewish though a majority of pupils are not. Kodesh classes are separate for Jewish children but everything else is run under a Jewish ethos," he said.

"When you are able to see the fruits of hard labour it gives you encouragement."

Regarding Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in the coming days, Rabbi Jacobs noted: "They are a highlight of the year but there are very few members I don't see one way or another in the year.

"People have been very embracing. We've visited most in their homes and had most to ours.

"Singer's Hill may not have the number of Shomer Shabbat members as when I grew up in Glasgow that kept minyanim going but other people have risen to the occasion, which is fantastic.

"Bereavements and sickness I still find difficult. We have had to deal with tragedies in a compassionate manner."

Rabbi Jacobs went on: "Singers Hill is an icon in the city centre and in a prestigious location. There has always been a warm connection between the shul and community.

"The beauty of Singers Hill is you have a personal connection with people but I'm only able to do what I do due to the teamwork I have working with Rochel.

"We are people's Jewish life in Birmingham so it's a tremendous responsibility."

© 2011 Jewish Telegraph