By Jan Shure
December 15, 2008
I have just been to one of those synagogue events which have sprung up in the past decade, a baby blessing. Almost certainly imported from the USA, baby blessings are designed to demonstrate the fecundity of a congregation and, by association, the thriving nature of the shul and its contribution to the future of the Jewish community.
I recall the earliest being held at Mill Hill Synagogue in about 1998 (as a former community news editor of the JC, I was required to be aware of such things), and since then, they have fanned out across the synagogue organisations and the country.
I was taken by surprise by two aspects of the one I attended: the irresistible charm of the occasion (though I am slightly biased, my own grandson being one of the babies blessed) and the sheer number of babies born in the past year in this particular congregation.
And if you are from London, and were born any time before, say,1955, you may be astonished to hear that the synagogue was Brondesbury Park in Willesden, North London, and the number of babies born to its congregants in the last 12 months was a breathtaking 27.
I doubt that there are many UK synagogues outside of the Charedi world – and certainly not one which, 10 years ago was on the verge of extinction – has seen 27 babies born in one year.
If I say that the number of babies in that community is a tribute to the charisma and boundless enthusiasm of its young minister, Rabbi Baruch Levin, I should probably clarify the statement, since I don’t wish impugn the rabbi’s reputation nor that of any of the young mothers.
For it is Rabbi Levin who has, almost singlehandedly, overseen a revival in Jewish life in an area that was, Jewishly speaking, almost moribund.
As with many “inner” suburbs, Willesden and Cricklewood were deserted by a post-war generation seeking greener, airier spaces with newer schools.
Their parents either followed them out or stayed put to become a minority in an area gradually becoming Judenrein. In 1951, there were three synagogues then flourishing in the area – one of which had two separate sites – while by 1990, there were just two, neither with sufficient numbers to properly function.
When the iconic Cricklewood Synagogue on Walm Lane was closed by the United Synagogue its elderly community was merged with that of Brondesbury, to become Brondesbury Park, slap bang in the centre of an area which was undergoing an interesting demographic shift, gradually being colonised by young, professional Jewish individuals and families who rejected the suburbs of Stanmore, Borehamwood and Chigwell in favour of an edgier less suburban environment which – ironically - Jews had left, seemingly for good, 30 years before.
And the US, in one of its more inspired moves, appointed as part-time minister to the new Brondesbury Park Synagogue, Rabbi Levin, one of the five sons of the equally extraordinary Rabbi Shlomo Levin, who pulled off a similar revival at South Hampstead. With his equally enthusiastic and seemingly tireless wife, Kezzy, Rabbi Levin has inspired and enthused these young couples to the point where Jewish life is undergoing an astonishing revival.
The old Brondesbury Synagogue – squat, grey and irredeemably unattractive from the outside – positively shines metaphorically and literally inside. The fabulous art deco aron kodesh, has been polished and renovated, the gorgeous stained-glass windows – invisible from outside – gleam. But, most of all, 27 young families belong to what is now a flourishing, inner-London synagogue which a betting person would have made an odds-on candidate for demise just a decade ago. It is a shining example of what can happen when the right rabbi is appointed to the right community at the right moment.