Name of Synagogue: North Western Reform Synagogue (Alyth)
Address: Alyth Gardens, London NW11 7EN
Denomination: Movement for Reform Judaism (Reform)
Rabbi: Rabbi Mark Goldsmith and Rabbi Josh Levy
Size of Community: 1000-1500 member households
The North Western Reform Synagogue, or Alyth as it is more commonly known, is something of a Tardis. Approached via a small cul-de-sac in Golders Green, the front of the building is fairly non-descript. It’s not until you enter the building that it becomes clear that the inside is much larger than the front would have you believe. Which is just as well, since Alyth boasts one of the largest communities in the UK, and prides itself on offering "diverse services for its diverse community".
The shul website sets out these various offerings, in a rather dizzying schedule. In fact, the website reads more like a concert venue than a synagogue. To give you a flavour of the range of services on offer, there is the Classical Service, a traditional Reform service with choral accompaniment. Alongside that, on the 2nd and 4th Shabbat of the month, there is the Kollot service, which is apparently more informal, with "accessible melodies" and "spontaneous harmony". (I think that’s code for a musical free-for-all.) Then on the 1st Shabbat of the month there is the "Tfilla Laboratory", offering an experimental, innovative service experience that ‘pushes the boundaries of Jewish spirituality’. (No, I’m not sure either.) And finally, on the 3rd Shabbat of the month, there is the "Big Bang", billed as a "world famous high-octane musical experience." I did wonder, as I planned my visit, whether it might be more appropriate to book a seat through Viagogo rather than call the synagogue office.
The only service that wasn’t included in this impressive list of musical prayer offerings was a children’s service. Which is unfortunate, since on the morning of my visit I was accompanied by my seven-year-old. Be that as it may, our visit fell on the 2nd Shabbat of the month, so we decided to check out both the Classical and the Kollot services.
The Classical service takes place in the main prayer hall, which is a beautiful space. The walls are decorated on three sides with narrow strips of exposed brickwork, and tall columns of modern stained glass art. Within the glasswork are classic Jewish symbols, the kind you’d expect to find in any shul.
Kiddush cups, Torah scrolls, fruit from the Land of Israel, a shofar, a Havdalah candle. Somehow, though, the artist has managed to hide these familiar symbols within the background design, so that they are slightly obscured. The result is a design that is subtle and surprising. In fact, in the quieter moments of the service, when my child’s concentration started to wander, we played a game of Jewish Where’s Wally, looking at each window panel in turn and searching for the symbol. It kept us entertained for a good while, although my child shouting ‘POMEGRANATE!!’ at full volume in the middle of the silent Amidah took some explaining.
The service itself was, as the website accurately described, a traditional Reform service with choral accompaniment. What that website spectacularly failed to do, however, was do justice to the beauty of that musical accompaniment. Indeed, the Alyth Choir sang so beautifully that there were moments during the service when I put down my siddur, and just sat and listened. (I might even have closed my eyes at one point.) The highlight was their rendition of Veshamru, to the tune written by the late Debbie Friedman, which was nothing short of sublime. My seven-year-old, a little theatrical at the best of times, was particularly struck by the conductor, and from our seat towards the back of the synagogue, copied the gentle sway and movement of the conductor’s arms as she directed her singers.
In the interests of journalistic research, we stepped out of the Classical service to experience the Kollot service, not least because the information sheet promised a supervised kids corner. There wasn’t a supervised kids corner. There were some tiny chairs set around a tiny Ikea table in the corner of the room. But no kids' toys or books. And nobody supervising the area. I suppose I could have sat down with my child and supervised them myself. But to be brutally honest, I’m a little too wide across the beam for the teeny tiny chairs on offer. We stayed for less than a couple of minutes, before my daughter asked if we could go back and watch the conductor again. So back we went to the Classical service.
Now, there’s only so much entertainment you can wring out of a Shabbat morning service to keep a seven-year-old amused, and after a while, restlessness set in. So, just after the sermon, we popped outside again.This time, someone kindly directed us to the synagogue kindergarten, where the service was being live streamed onto a huge TV screen. For the last half hour of our visit, I sat and watched the service, while my little companion read some books, played with the toys, and drew some pictures. It did feel a little strange, and a bit disjointed, to be watching the service on my own on the screen, rather than experiencing it live in person. But for members of the synagogue who are housebound, recovering from surgery or for other reasons unable to attend, the live feed of the main service is a stroke of genius.
After the service, Kiddush was served in a side hall; it was a nice enough spread of the usual Kiddush favourites. I can’t say that anyone came up to us to say hello. But in fairness, they’d have struggled to engage us in conversation, as my little one was wandering quite briskly around the room on the hunt for crisps and kichels, and I was following in hot pursuit. But the security volunteers on the doors were a friendly pair, and you can’t ask for much more than that. And, as the saying goes, truth can be found out of the mouths of babes. So I asked my seven year old what they thought of the shul. The answer, through a mouthful of crisps was "Good", and then after a pause, "especially the music."
So keep an eye out on Ticketmaster for upcoming services.
Warmth of Welcome 3*
Read the Secret Shul-Goer's first 19 reviews, of Cockfosters and North Southgate, Finchley Reform, New London Synagogue, Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, West London Reform, Radlett United, Kol Nefesh Masorti, Wimbledon Reform, St John's Wood Liberal, Dunstan Road, Lauderdale Road, Lubavitch of Edgware, Oxford Jewish Congregation, Kinloss, Brighton and Hove Reform Mill Hill United, Ilford, Shomrei Hadath and Woodside Park. And read her end-of-year awards for 2017 here.