Shul Crawl: North Western Reform Synagogue (Alyth)

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".


The North Western Reform Synagogue, commonly known as "Alyth" is old by North London standards, having been founded in 1933.

Since then it has undergone a refurbishment and as a consequence the sanctuary was modern, but the stained glass windows and the 1930s brickwork helped retain the grandeur of an older synagogue.

We visited on a Friday night when the turnout was some 60 men and women. At least half of them were teenagers or young families, a part of the community that many synagogues struggle desperately to attract.

The service began with a member of the congregation lighting the Shabbat candles and reciting a traditional blessing. From then on Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner was clapping, singing and bringing her congregation "on a journey into Shabbat".

The more enthusiastic attendants, many of whom were fresh from Alyth's own youth summer camp joined in and listened enthusiastically to the service.

Even those less able to follow the service were still humming the familiar tunes. Congregants were keen and happy to be there. Rabbi Janner-Klausner led the service with a light touch, and two visitors from Israel gave a brief speech in place of a sermon.

The synagogue, like most, has its own little quirks and traditions. The youngest members of the congregation took leave at the start of "Lecha Dodi" in order to open the doors at the back of the sanctuary, as the Sabbath bride is ushered in during the final verse of the song. It was not only adorable, but also an original and good way to get even the most junior members present involved with the service.

The service had an air of warmth to it, feeling at times reminiscent of people sitting around a campfire singing into the night. Despite boasting one of the largest memberships of any shul in the UK, Alyth manages to come off as a very personal synagogue, visibly emphasising the importance of not just coming to shul, but being there as a family.

Judging by the announcements there are activities to suit everyone, from bike rides to lectures and a multitude of music societies.

Alyth is the place to be if you're looking for a large community which is traditional but always looking for people with new ideas and who are ready to put themselves out to make a difference.

    Last updated: 9:33am, September 28 2011