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".
Reading Hebrew Congregation is a small but dedicated community of friends. They might not like Friday night services (when we went, nobody else but the rabbi and his family turned up), but on Shabbat morning there were around 40 Jewish men and women – a rather impressive proportion, given the membership of under 150.
It's a proud synagogue – proud of its 110 year history and its connections to AJEX, its newly revived Cheder and its collection of single malt whisky it serves for Kiddush. It's also surprisingly active – the president announced a WIZO event, friendship club, interfaith and Mitzvah Day, all happening in the next week.
The RHC is under the auspices of the chief rabbi, so its marriages will be recognised by the Orthodox community as a whole – but it's not too frum. For example, a woman on crutches was unable to climb the stairs to the women's section upstairs, and quietly assumed her own row in the back of the men's section. The building itself is a Grade II listed Victorian synagogue, with five sifrei torah on display. We were pleased to see that the community was able and keen to participate in the service – Rabbi Zvi read from the Torah, but the haftorah was done by a lay reader and one of us was asked to lead musaf, which we did splendidly.
With all this in its favour, it must be said that Reading is not as lively and youthful as we would like it to be. Many of the keen twentysomethings have moved to London – either in search of a kosher shwarma, or because a previous rabbi lost faith in the future of Reading and encouraged those who were able to leave. It has set back RHC quite a bit – but the incumbent Rabbi Zvi and his wife Shira Solomons are doing their best to ensure the future of a lovely community. We'd like to encourage all local Jews to consider joining a friendly and welcoming environment. It's a synagogue where new faces are noticed and appreciated.
Also, for the first time yet, our cover as secret JC reviewers was blown. We were eating lunch at the rabbi's.
"What brings you to Reading?" asked Rabbi Zvi.
"Oh, just travelling…" I replied, hoping to change the subject pretty quickly.
"Oh yes? Do you visit many communities?"
"Erm, we've been to a few…"
"Great! Are you writing a book?"
"Well, not exactly…"
"…are you writing for the JC?"
Rats. Our notoriety preceded us, and much to our displeasure we were offered a glass of a spectacular 25-year-old single malt.