Shul Crawl: The Oxford Jewish Congregation
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 Oxford Jewish Congregation is a unique synagogue, and one which other English synagogues can learn from. For a start, it hosts a mix of religious denominations – we were there for an Orthodox Shabbat service, but Masorti and Liberal groups also meet under the same roof.
The community finds plenty of common ground when they come together for Kiddush after the service. Also, it's not too formal – the much-loved president, Simon Ryde, stood up and told a joke we wouldn't dare print in a family newspaper.
Admittedly, the only reason he gets away with it is because the community chooses not to employ a Rabbi. Instead it gains its sense of spiritual direction by having an extremely well-educated and devoted lay community, supplemented by students during university terms and by scholars from the nearby Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.
Services have lots of nice touches, like a children's blessing, and a prayer for Israel's captured soldiers.
The building disguises itself from all potential threats by looking like a swimming pool, aside from the large Star of David decorating the gates. Inside it is well-equipped, housing a successful cheder, regular community group meetings and dedicates a large lounge upstairs for the students to use.
The Shabbat service that we attended was during the festival of Succot: consequently the service was extremely long and led from a Routledge siddur from the 1950s.
Not even the reader Daniel Paul's sublime and tear-rendering rendition of Ecclesiastes mitigated the fact that the service ended the wrong side of 1pm, and we were hungry.
Fortunately the OJC helps provide regular and affordable kosher meals – for example, the cholent simmers away every Shabbat lunch for students, visitors or regulars of the community.
Jewish life in Oxford is thriving. What's most striking about the OJC is its cohesion –it's reassuring to find a community which has the humility to be united in their Judaism.