VIRTUOSO violinist Itzchak Perlman was performing in November 1995 in a symphony at the Lincoln Center in New York City when, a few bars into his rendition, one of his four strings snapped. Pausing for a moment, he instructed the conductor to restart. Pearlman completed his recomposed, unrehearsed piece to rapturous applause.
Modestly, the renowned musician told a captivated audience that on occasion it is an artist’s task to discover how much music they can make with what they have left of their instrument.
Linking Perlman’s memorable anecdote to the United Synagogue Sheffield may seem bizarre, but that is not the case for the shul’s minister, Rabbi Yonoson Golomb, who likens the Israeli’s musical mindset at an inopportune time to Rabbi Golomb’s task of keeping his shrinking Jewish community alive.
“Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks told this wonderful story; we are not a big community as we once were but we will make music with what is left,” recalled Rabbi Golomb.
Rabbi Golomb’s sentiment, ignited by the former Chief Rabbi, echoes a history and ongoing challenge for a South Yorkshire shul that retains its Jewish identity against the odds.
The Steel City, as Sheffield is often referred to, prospered during the industrial revolution when Jewish traders passed through the South Yorkshire town.
Brothers Isaac and Philip Bright, Jacob Gehrwin and Abraham Gershon were the first Jews to settle in the area in the 1780s, while shochet Solomon Meyer held a regular minyan at his home and supplied meat to the early Jews of West Yorkshire neighbours Leeds.
The tale of Sheffield’s synagogues is one of hope, woe and renaissance.
Sheffield’s first shul, Central Synagogue, was established in the city centre in 1851 as Jews impacted on political and secular life.
Wilson Road Synagogue was established in 1914 following communal disputes. Boasting 970 seats, Wilson Road was the larger shul of the two for much of the 20th century.
When bombing destroyed Central Synagogue during World War Two, elongated discussions resulted in the building of a community centre and synagogue for its members in 1956. These buildings form the basis of today’s Kingfield Hall complex where services still take place.
Sheffield Jewry enjoyed a peak of 1,500 members in the 1950s. A decade on, diminishing numbers resulted in an amalgamated United Sheffield Hebrew Congregation, later renamed Sheffield Jewish Congregation and Centre.
A further decline in numbers saw the demise of Wilson Road in the 1990s.
Sheffield Orthodox Synagogue opened in January 2000 and became part of the United Synagogue in 2015. The shul is now known as United Synagogue Sheffield.
Rabbi Golomb celebrated 25 years in the post last month.
Though a clear milestone, it is not top of the agenda for a lay leader who was and continues to be inspired by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Rabbi Golomb first encountered the Rebbe as a babe in arms, then as a teenager, and following his marriage to Faige Rochel in 1985 (the couple have 12 children), annually in a family trip to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, until the esteemed rabbi’s death in 1994.
“The Rebbe inspired me to do outreach work, and I constantly find there are Jews living around the corner,” explained the 54-year-old minister, who hails from Sutton in Surrey.
“Recently I was called out to Rotherham Hospital where there was a family with four Jewish children. The mother was Jewish and they lived five minutes from our home.”
Festivals are always a hive of activity in the Golomb household.
“We have guests from backgrounds that have no connection with a Jewish community,” said Rabbi Golomb. “During Pesach we talk about the four sons at the Seder table. The ‘fifth’ is not at the table so it’s my role to find him.
“My challenge is to find Jewish people, and if you educate them, they will want to be a part of things. Not so long ago, I bumped into a non-believing couple who did not belong to a Jewish community, did not send their children to cheder, and their sons had not been bar mitzvah, yet on a family holiday they visited an ancient Spanish shul as they were interested in the history of the Jewish people.
“Jews will always connect, so you must have faith in their soul because it is inextinguishable. As the Rebbe taught me, everybody makes a difference.”
The rabbinical road to Sheffield for Rabbi Golomb started in London where he attended Lubavitch schools, then at yeshivot in Paris, London, Manchester and Montreal, where he received semichah in 1985.
Further studies continued in New York and Manchester prior to a Leeds Kollel before an opportunity came for a rabbinic position in Sheffield.
First time around, Rabbi Golomb did not get the post, but he did not have to wait long for another opportunity.
“When I first went for an interview, a number of people did not think a Chabad rabbi would be suitable for Sheffield,” he recalled.
“A rabbi was appointed but only lasted a few months, and the synagogue was extremely bruised by the experience. So a different couple from the Leeds Kollel went over on a Shabbat rota.
“After my turn in the summer of 1991 the shul restarted the recruitment process, and I didn’t harbour any grudge for not being initially chosen.”
Before accepting his biggest challenge, Rabbi Golomb sought the Rebbe’s blessing.
“The Rebbe rarely told people specifically to do anything,” he recalled.
“If you had opportunities, sometimes he would circle one, he might suggest you seek advice or he’d just give a blessing.
“I asked for a blessing on the Sheffield offer, which he gave, so I accepted it.”
Rabbi Golomb took up the position at the sole Orthodox synagogue in Sheffield in May 1992.
Lamentably, however, the community has continued to shrink down the years.
Membership has drifted from 500 addresses to less than 200 whilst actual members have shrunk from 750 to around 250 Jewish residents.
“Young people do not stay in Sheffield because resources have dwindled. The next generation have mainly gone to London and a few to Israel,” explained Rabbi Golomb.
With daily minyanim and 30-plus cheder numbers a distant memory, the United Synagogue stepped in to offer financial stability for the shul two years ago.
Despite recent challenges, life continues apace within the Jewish community.
“The United Synagogue has been a knight in shining armour,” said Rabbi Golomb. “They rescued us, and whilst we have a functioning minyan they will continue to support the shul running its facilities.
“We still have a Thursday minyan, one for yahrtzeit at any point in time, Friday night and Shabbat services. Also, a kosher butcher travels over from Manchester on a Thursday morning. We have a room set aside at a butcher’s, which we double up as a café.
“It’s a hub of activity as people come in to buy meat, challah, and have breakfast; and it’s also my surgery time.
“Socialising is a major part of any community, so whilst there is a framework for that to happen we will keep going.”
He added: “I didn’t come here with the foresight to save a dying community, but I did come with a view that I was going somewhere that was a bit distant. I wanted to bring back a little bit of Yiddishkeit to somewhere that might not have that spirit in an abundant amount.
“A shul must fire on several pistons. You need to have social aspects, religious services and basic facilities. We have a shul and hall; we run activities and will continue to do so.”
In terms of daily life, Rabbi Golomb has enjoyed bringing Chassidic traditions to a new area.
“I live and behave in Sheffield exactly as I would in Crown Heights,” he said.
“All my family events have been celebrated in Chassidic ways, within reason, and I take pride that my children can mix easily in Lubavitch circles and also speak with ease to Jews in Sheffield not necessarily as Orthodox.”
He added: “It’s an ongoing challenge because Sheffield is not like Leeds, where there is a healthy exposure to Orthodoxy.
“The first time we held an upsherin [a haircutting ceremony for a 3-year-old boy), community members had not experienced one but embraced it as they did when we made our first two daughters’ weddings here in Sheffield.
“Lubavitch weddings are traditionally very lively and nobody had experienced anything like it, but one lady told me she did not stop smiling for a week, which was wonderful.”
Judaism clearly is alive and kicking in the Steel City, as was illustrated when 80 members of the community celebrated Purim.
IDF commando Operation Entebbe Rami Sherman, a former Defence Minister of Israel and IDF chief of staff, was guest speaker.
“We had a fantastic time and it was wonderful to shake the hand of a real hero,” Rabbi Gololmb enthused.
“Rami was a lovely man and communicated his story at a marvellous event.”
Rabbi Golomb is modest in terms of the impact he has made in the area.
When it comes to his inspiration to persevere, he returns to his roots.
“The Rebbe wants us to keep ‘coals’ burning,” he enthused.
“I want the Jewish people in Sheffield to feel at home in their home.
“If you don’t enjoy your faith, why would you want to do it? And if you don’t feel welcome, why would you participate?
“I tell everyone that my secret agenda is for every person to do just a little bit more, to do another mitzvah if possible.
“It’s all about promoting, enhancing, fostering the Jewish soul that lays within, in fanning that little flame within the soul and making it brighter if possible.”