How your shul can go for gold

By Richard Verber, August 3, 2012

As a kippah-wearer, I never cease to be amazed by how much attention I get from strangers. At Westminster station, a Bob Marley-crooning busker interrupted his set to start singing Jewish blessings. In Hebrew. In Camden, I've often had people shout "Shalom" while waving at me. Bizarre though it is, it's mostly good-natured. I do get the odd car on a quiet street honking at me, which I suspect is less friendly, but maybe they just like how I look.

One experience in particular got me. It was Saturday night in a pub in Finchley. I was with a friend at the bar when our conversation was abruptly halted by a blond, blue-eyed man in his early 20s. "Hi," he said, temporarily setting aside his Strongbow. "I wonder if you can help," he continued, in a thick Liverpudlian accent. "I know I don't look it, but I'm Jewish. I moved here a while ago and I've struggled to find any community. Do you know any synagogues?"

As it happens, I did, what with us being not too far from the spiritual heartlands of Hendon and Golders Green. It turned out my new Scouse friend (Steve) hadn't done too thorough an investigation, even on Google, but the conversation reminded me of my ongoing struggle to find a new shul.

A few months ago, I moved from the heart of Golders Green (the holy city) to West Hendon (Sin City). My housemate works for the police and fancied getting more hands-on experience around the mean streets off Station Road. We found a house that was half the price and twice the size of our NW11 hovel, recruited a Swedish bombshell to live with us and set out to make our fortune.

Moving meant leaving the welcoming community of Golders Green United, my home since moving from Brighton four years ago. And it meant a new phase of shul-hopping, which should not be confused with the more glamorous pursuit of island-hopping - fewer boats and many more coats.

It costs nothing to welcome new faces

Since then, I've sampled the delights of close to a dozen shuls, from Alei Tzion to Ner Yisrael, Raleigh Close (and its "alternative" minyan), Hendon Federation, Porat Yosef for a Sephardi flavour, to name but a few of the usual suspects.

My exhaustive research has helped me work out what I'm after: a decent service (not too long, not too quick, some good tunes), a friendly atmosphere (with a hello from the rabbi), people roughly my age (I've just turned 28, birthday cards still welcome), and a nice kiddush after the service (maybe a little something to drink, too).

More seriously, given that most shuls can't afford to be complacent when it comes to attracting members, there are a few simple ways communities could help newcomers.

It costs nothing to ask the most gregarious congregants to welcome new faces. It's intimidating to walk into a big hall for the first time. A hello and a smile removes that feeling of gate-crashing a party full of judgmental strangers. Not that smiles should be overdone; the aim is to seem friendly, not like a creepy uncle.

Likewise, a website that doesn't look as if it was built using Microsoft Paint, and which has the correct times of services, gives the impression that the synagogue is up-to-date. A Facebook page (and Twitter account to be really trendy) suggests a desire to involve younger Jews. Both tools are free, which should keep the treasurer happy.

I'm always impressed at communities that offer hospitality to visitors. Food is the glue that binds Jews together, especially on Shabbat and festivals - and I could do with the break from my housemate's "cooking".

Shuls also need to rethink membership and fees. My generation is content shopping around for the right fit. We won't automatically shell out hundreds of pounds just to ensure a Rosh Hashanah seat. The marketplace has never been greater and, with the rise of new minyanim offering free places or grass-roots-led services, traditional synagogues need to start thinking differently.

Finally, synagogue bodies could be proactive in their recruitment drives. Whether adverts at bus stops or social media campaigns, it might be worth a shot. At least then, even people like cider-swigging Steve find out about them.

Last updated: 12:45pm, August 3 2012