Two Oxford University students have set out on an ambitious project to review every synagogue in Britain. Danny Kessler and Joshua Felberg will make light-hearted assessments of hundreds of communities, based on the standard of the kiddush, the rabbi's sermon, decorum, and "peculiar customs".
We started our synagogue reviews almost alphabetically, which meant first stop was Alei Tzion (sorry Aberdeen), a small but growing satellite of the United Synagogue.
We walked in an hour late to find everyone else listening very seriously to the Torah being read.
The community is young – the oldest men there were about 40, and there was an extensive collection of prams waiting outside.
Something is gained by having such a young crowd – it feels exciting, energetic and passionate. It's also, for the United Synagogue, very frum: one planned event is women's-only sushi-making. Presumably this is to be followed by a men-only sushi-eating session, then a women-only tidying-up session shortly after.
The average congregant is a knitted-kippah enthusiast, with an admirable knowledge of Hebrew and Jewish thought. They keep kosher and observe Shabbat. After the service we were treated to an engaging sermon, where an all-Hebrew source sheet was given out and the community listened passionately and asked questions.
We were hoping for all this enthusiasm in a traditional Anglo-Jewish synagogue, but we didn't find it. The service was conducted using an (American, right-wing) Artscroll siddur, and the Prayer for the Queen was conducted in Hebrew, which rather defeats the point.
Instead, you have a community influenced by their gap year in Israel – who would rather pray during the services than chat about the football. The synagogue itself is in a bland side-room of the aesthetically parev LSJS building in Hendon – a substance-over-style synagogue.
As far as the kiddush goes, Alei Tzion made up for its lack of patriotism with Ben & Jerry's ice-cream. It was a warm day, and kiddush was outdoors. We were pleased to be welcomed warmly by a smiling Rabbi Daniel Roselaar.
It was not the standard US that we are used to – no chatting during the services, no pews to sit in and no chazzan with a silly hat.
Instead Alei Tzion will offer you a friendly and youthful "work hard, pray hard" community. If you take your Orthodox Judaism seriously, you are 20 to 35 and you miss B'nei Akiva, this is the place for you.