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Secret Shul-Goer No 10: Oxford Jewish Congregation

    Name of Synagogue: Oxford Jewish Congregation

    Address:  21 Richmond Road, Oxford OX1 2JL

    Denomination: Central Orthodox/Various

    Rabbi: N/A

    Size of Community:300-400 member households

    On October 14, 1663, Samuel Pepys, author of the famous diary, visited a synagogue in central London. He didn’t record which one he attended, but it’s thought most likely to have been on Creechchurch Lane. Today, the building has gone, but a plaque on a nearby wall marks the street as “The site of the first synagogue after the Restoration 1657-1701.”

    Pepys’ account of that 17th Century service, in what was effectively the precursor to the Secret Shul-Goer blog, is remarkable. He describes the men and boys wearing “vayles” (tallit), which they put on while saying something “to which others that hear him do cry Amen” and he notes that the women sit “behind a lattice, out of sight”.

    As far as the service itself is concerned, Pepys writes that it is conducted “all in a singing way, and in Hebrew”. He describes the Torah scrolls being taken out of the ark, and the prayer for the King, “which they pronounced his name in Portugall (sic), but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew”.

    So far, so pretty much as you would expect.

    But then he goes on.

    “But Lord! To see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God…I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this.”

    The whole experience, writes Pepys, left his mind “strongly disturbed”.

    Early readers of the published diary were puzzled by Pepys’ report of this rowdy synagogue service, and couldn’t understand how he could describe the congregants as unruly brutes. Until someone worked out that October 14 1663 was Simchat Torah.

    What possessed Pepys to visit a synagogue on that day of all days is unclear. But, with his precedent in mind, I decided to make a similar visit. Not to Creechchurch Lane, but to Oxford. After all, if descriptions of Boris Johnson’s and David Cameron’s student days in the Bullingdon Club are to be believed, Oxford seemed the perfect destination to witness the result of fusing ritualised alcohol consumption and students.

    The shul in Oxford is referred to as the OJC. Which, according to the front page of its website, stands for the Oxford Jewish Congregation. Or possibly the Oxford Jewish Community. Or it could be the Oxford Jewish Centre. To be honest, the website is a little unclear. Perhaps you need a degree from Oxford University to work it out? Indeed, in spite of my best efforts, I am still not 100 per cent sure what OJC officially stands for.

    But, whether it’s a centre, a congregation, a community, or a bit of all three, what is clear is that the OJC is unique. As a poster on the noticeboard in the foyer explained, the OJC hosts Orthodox, Progressive and Masorti services, as well as egalitarian Friday nights, Women's services and Progressive Chavura suppers, all under the same roof. Some of these are held weekly, others monthly, and there are occasions when different services are held simultaneously, allowing congregants to choose which service they wish to attend. Crucially, members belong to the OJC as a whole, rather than to one specific religious denomination.

    The result, as I found out, is a model of Jewish community organisation that is warm, inclusive and remarkably welcoming.

    The OJC is much more than a synagogue; it’s a community centre. In addition to the prayer hall, there are classrooms, meeting spaces, a kitchen, a shop, a café, a library. It’s used by residents, visiting academics and university students. The building has a modern design; the ceiling of the prayer hall is constructed to look like waves rippling overhead, and the walls are decorated with a modern geometric frieze. The ark doors are perhaps the most shocking element of the whole building; constructed out of a harsh hammered metal, with huge upright girders that resemble train tracks, I must admit that they reminded me of a brutalist Holocaust memorial. I later noted on the website that the community is raising funds to replace them, so perhaps I’m not the only one with aesthetic misgivings. 

    The service that I attended was the evening service of Simchat Torah. A large space, which I was told is normally used by the students for their Friday night dinner, was opened up behind the prayer hall, and cleared to make way for dancing. Men and women danced separately, but without a physical barrier, and the women danced with their own Torah scrolls. So, not “behind a lattice, out of sight”.

    The roles of Chatan Torah and Chatan Bereishit were given to a resident and a student respectively, and the sense of inclusivity that this fostered was clear. There was even a section of the synagogue devoted to younger children, laid out with toys, books, puzzles and games to keep the little ones entertained. (One of my children, who is notorious in my family for strong, and often vocal, aversion to synagogue, has twice asked if we can go back to ‘the shul with all the jigsaws.’)

    To me, the congregation appeared to be evenly split between residents and students, roughly 100 people in total, although I think it’s fair to say that the students led in the singing and dancing. And whatever they lacked in numbers, these young men and women more than made up for with their enthusiasm and passion. Indeed, if it weren’t for the copious whiskey that was generously laid out, I’m not sure my partner and I could have kept up.

    The seven hakafot (rounds of Torah dancing) took just under an hour to complete. The dancers whirled and sang, while others looked on, sipping whisky, snacking on cake and biscuits laid out at the sides, and chatting to visitors. A good number of people, both residents and students, came up to welcome us; the residents chatted to us about life in Oxford, and the pros and cons of belonging to a small community, while the students told us about their studies and plans for the future. And it wasn’t just the adults and students who were welcoming. Some younger teens also approached us, and invited our children to join in with the kids’ games. Perhaps it was the whisky talking, but I found the atmosphere incredibly friendly.

    After the dancing was finished, the Torah was read by one of the students, who sang the words in a variety of tunes and accents. I suspect these tunes may have been in-jokes, because the students laughed uproariously, while my partner and I looked on bemused. But the jovial atmosphere continued. The entire community of residents was called up in one go, followed by all the children, who stood patiently under the tallit and waited to receive their goody bags.

    After the service, a generous Kiddush was served; dips, crackers, cakes, fruit, crisps, fishballs. Exactly the kind of food you need to soak up an evening’s worth of slow whisky sipping. As I got ready to take my children home, still clutching their goody bags, the students were getting ready to continue the evening’s festivities at yet another Simchat Torah party.

    I left the OJC, none the wiser as to what that ‘C’ stands for, but convinced that if the future of Anglo Jewry is in the hands of these disorderly brutes, we’ll probably be okay.

    Warmth of Welcome 4*

    Decorum N/A for a Simchat Torah visit!

    Service 4*

    Kiddush 4*

    Read the Secret Shul-Goer's first nine reviews, of Hampstead Garden Suburb SynagogueWest London ReformRadlett UnitedKol Nefesh MasortiWimbledon ReformSt John's Wood LiberalDunstan RoadLauderdale Road and Lubavitch of Edgware.

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