Getting our spiritual fix

Even if shul’s out of favour with some, we find there are other places to pray on the High Holy Days

By Alex Kasriel, September 17, 2009
Hannah Weisfeld is celebrating Rosh Hashanah at a private service with friends

Hannah Weisfeld is celebrating Rosh Hashanah at a private service with friends

If the thought of sitting in synagogue for hours on end this New Year leaves you cold, take inspiration from others who are searching for a spiritual experience in the days ahead.

Some are finding ways to connect with the synagogue service, while others are abandoning the traditional place of worship altogether to pray in alternative groups.

Indeed, many Jews in this country are looking for more than just an excuse to get together with the family and indulge in honey cake over the chagim.

For the last five years Hannah Weisfeld, 28, a charity worker from London, has joined around 20 ex-youth movement friends to create a private service at a participant’s home for those “who don’t go in for organised praying”. They take part in discussions about certain aspects of the siddur or Chumash and sing songs, before sharing food together.

“We won’t necessarily have the traditional books but we’ll include some prayers alongside a modern-day reading,” she says. “We’ll have some Jewish texts and do some related discussion and we’ll take whatever the tenets of the text are. It’s about capturing the essence of what it’s about.

Things began to change for the better when I went to an alternative service

“It’s quite hard to deviate from the monotony of the prayer if you don’t believe in what you’re saying. We give it meaning.”

Weisfeld, an active member of the Jewish community, grew up going to a Reform synagogue but says she doesn’t “fit” in to that.

“I think that there’s something very British about religion here which is structured and formal. The service we do is about creating the space for people who feel Jewish and want to express that but haven’t found a synagogue in which they can best do that.”

But for many, synagogue still does the trick — particularly if it is their only point of reference. Zoe Brandon, 34, is a production manager who lives in Bristol with her non-Jewish husband and baby boy. But she loves attending her family synagogue, the Masorti, New North London, every year.

“I don’t practise much Judaism during the year — but I do make sure I’m in shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur without fail,” she says. “This is partly because it’s a really important time to spend with my mum, but also because I also love Yom Kippur.

“I don’t believe in God but I love reviewing the year that’s just passed, thinking about how I was, what I want to change and how I can be a better person. I think everyone should have this opportunity. Like some people do on January 1, I come away from Yom Kippur with my resolutions, but personal, spiritual ones.

“Fasting helps focus your mind. Physically you feel different, so mentally you feel different. When I’m in synagogue, it’s not about the words, but the basic message, which on Yom Kippur is repenting your sins. In shul it’s nice hearing the songs and singing along — at our shul, everyone sings along. There’s a real sense that everyone’s in it together.”

Marcus J Freed, 34, who created Bibliyoga — a fusion of yoga and Jewish textual understanding — believes that prayer is a physical activity. Blowing the shofar, he says, is the ultimate breathing exercise and, according to Chasidic lore, a metaphor for God blowing life into humans. He often blows the shofar at his family synagogue in Watford.

“I will be beginning with Bibliyoga practice before shul and continuing that physical practice during shul,” he says. “I find it essential to have some kind of physical practice. If you’re not feeling it in the body, it feels easy to get lost.”

For those looking to pray outside the synagogue, a wholly independent service makes its debut in London this year. Called Grassroots Jews, it is organised jointly by the Friday-night-service-at-home people, the Carlebach Minyan Belsize Park; Shabbat dinner meet-up group, Wandering Jews; and the residents of alternative community centre, Moishe House London.

Their pop-up services, where 100 people are expected, will take place in a private home with both mechitzah-divided and mixed seating. Women will be called up to the Torah and a chazan, conversant with the melodies of Shlomo Carlebach, has been hired to lead the singing. Meanwhile there will be meditation and discussion areas as well as places to socialise.

Zoe Jankel, 29, a government economist who admits to having a read a novel throughout last year’s Rosh Hashanah service at West London Synagogue, is looking forward to feeling more closely involved in something this year when she goes Grassroots.

“I enjoy the experience of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with my family, I just don’t enjoy the synagogue service. I find it quite dry and Rosh Hashanah is a boring couple of days,” she confesses. “It used to be quite a lot of looking at my watch. Last year I was a little bit annoyed with myself because I thought I could have just stayed at home.

“On Yom Kippur I feel a bit more engaged because I’m fasting, I’m in shul all day and there’s nothing else to do. The Neilah service always seems quite special — maybe because Yom Kippur is nearly over!

“That is one of the reasons I got involved with Grassroots Jews. We’re all involved in creating this for the first time and a lot more friends are involved so there’s the social aspect too. I think Grassroots Jews is a commentary on today’s synagogues. It’s a way to move forward and to engage in what is going on in the Jewish community. I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes.”

Daniel Silverstein, 30, director of Arab-Jewish organisation, Psychosemitic, is spending the chagim at his yeshivah in Jerusalem. “A big focus for me leading up to the holidays is being in a joyful place,” he says. “Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are meant to be deeply happy days.”

He only started enjoying the chagim after attending a service at a modern Orthodox community centre in Hendon three years ago. “Shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur used to be a non-event for me,” he says.

“It was impossible for me to find any meaning in it whatever. That began to change for the better when I went to an alternative service at Yakar run by the musician Danny Shine. It included meditation which for me is about concentrating on a thing long enough, whether that’s your breath or a mantra, to enable you to really feel or mean what you’re really turning your attention to.”

After that he attended the service at the Moishe House in Willesden where he used to live. “It came from the traditional prayer book but instead of being in a big hall it was at home,” he says. “We’d take a few of the words and really go into depth about what they mean. It’s much better to say a small amount of prayer with intention, than to say lots without intention.”

For details on Grassroots Jews go to

Last updated: 1:52pm, September 29 2009