Name of Synagogue: Finchley United Synagogue (Kinloss)
Address: Kinloss Gardens, London N3 3DU
Denomination:United Synagogue (Orthodox)
Rabbi: Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence
Size of Community: 1000-1500 member households
Like so much in life, when it comes to Shul, size matters. But no shul I have ever previously visited quite prepared me for the size of Kinloss. Not just in terms of space, but in the sheer number of people present. When I arrived at the shul building, I wasn’t so much greeted in the foyer, as my senses were assaulted by the dizzying number of people, most of them under the age of 10, who were milling around.
Admittedly, I did choose a rather busy day to visit, albeit unwittingly. It was only when I was handed three (yes, three!) booklets by the welcoming team that I realised that my undercover visit coincided with Shabbat UK, the most daring piece of Judaic rebranding since the New Testament. And if that wasn’t enough excitement to contend with, there was also a Bar Mitzvah.
Despite the huge number of people, the welcoming team clearly noticed that I was a visitor, and so, when I asked for directions to the service, they assumed I wanted to attend the Bar Mitzvah, taking place in a side hall. I listened to the Bar Mitzvah boy read his portion, (beautifully, I hasten to add) for a good 10 minutes, before I realised my mistake.
Finding the main service proved tricky, not least because there are six services at Kinloss. Yes, six! To give you a flavour, these are listed as an Early service, a Main service, ‘a Minyan’, a Sephardi service, a Youth service and a Kids’ service. (I noticed that there isn’t a Women’s service; perhaps that would be considered divisive?)
I eventually found the main prayer hall, passing some coat rails on the way. At this point, I made my second mistake of the morning. I hung up my coat. The reason this was a mistake is because the main prayer hall is enormous. It’s the size of an air craft hanger. And the women’s section is built in such a way that, despite the physics of heat rising, the gallery was freezing. Not just cold. Not just a tad chilly. It was freezing. My fingers locked. I thought I’d developed Raynaud’s disease. Perhaps the heating was turned off deliberately to make the guest speaker, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow, feel at home? But whatever the reason, there was something rather forlorn about watching the assembled women, dotted around this vast gallery, huddled together under their coats.
Of course, heating huge buildings is extremely expensive. Perhaps that’s why the shul appears to have made a determined effort to encourage its membership to make donations to pay for its upkeep? Every window, every room, every book is donated and named after a dearly departed loved one. With so many members, you’d think there must come a point when the shul runs out of things to sponsor. But apparently not. These plaques are everywhere.
Indeed, there is even one wall alongside a staircase that is covered in memorial plaques. (At first I thought it was an art installation.) The whole thing took me back to my student days, when I visited a friend in Hillel House. I was living in regular Halls of Residence, and we were comparing our respective accommodation. The only difference we could discern was that she had the honour of boiling up her pasta in the Dolly and Ivor Greenhorn kitchen, and then watching Countdown in the Lily and Stanley Judelsohn lounge. (Names have been changed, naturally…)
Despite the cold, the prayer hall, with its large central bimah and wide ark, is impressive. On one side of the hall, there is the huge ‘Jerusalem Window’, a vast stained glass representation of the old city of Jerusalem, although curiously the Al-Aqsa mosque seems to have been artistically airbrushed out.
The service itself was pleasant enough, notwithstanding the fact that, in addition to the cold, the view from the gallery is very restricted. The highlight was probably the Torah reading, which was performed by a group of teenagers. It was heartening to see the youth encouraged to take part in the main service. The only snag for me, was that this service was running roughly 15 minutes behind the Bar Mitzvah service, so I found myself listening to the Torah reading for a second time.
But something else troubled me. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It was only when the service ended, and I walked back into the hallway, to be met with throngs of people, that I realised that the main service is not really the main service at all. Despite the size of the space, and the grandeur of the windows and ark, few people seemed to have chosen to pray there. The main activity seems to have been taking place elsewhere, in one of those multiple break-away services. I’m not sure if this was the planned intention or not, but it did feel like the spin-offs were more popular than the original. A bit like Frasier and Cheers.
Be that as it may, it was while I was making my way through the crowds of people that I made my third mistake of the day. Checking my watch, I noticed that I was running late for lunch. So I decided to quickly check out the Kiddush, purely for journalistic purposes, and rush home. But you cannot do anything quickly at Kinloss. You have to slowly inch and elbow your way through hordes of people, some on zimmer frames, others carrying small children, or tallis bags, or random stacks of chairs, to get anywhere.
You think you’re getting near to a Kiddush table, but suddenly a group of eight year olds surge in front of you, and the table disappears, like a mirage in the desert. I am not exaggerating when I say that it took me the best part of 10 minutes simply to get from the doorway of the hall to a Kiddush table.
That said, it was definitely worth the wait! I’m not sure if the spread was due to the Bar Mitzvah, or Shabbat UK, or whether this is standard Kinloss Kiddush fare, but it was nothing short of spectacular. Hot potato kugel. Trays of sushi. Smoked salmon bridge rolls. It was fantastic.
I warmed myself with a glass of whisky and a plate of kugel. And then, as I attempted to put the plate back down on the table, a plastic fork appeared out of nowhere and the prongs were plunged into my thumb. I yelped. The horrified old man holding the fork looked at me in horror, and began apologising profusely. Apparently, he’d mistaken my thumb for a pickled cucumber. Luckily for both of us, my hands were still so cold that I could barely feel it.
As I turned to make the ridiculously perilous three-metre return journey from table to door, I looked around at the mass of people. Adults chatting. Teenagers laughing. Kids playing. It was probably the most vibrant, lively, and certainly the most crowded synagogue I’ve visited in a long while, possibly ever. And I thought about the Torah reading that I had heard that morning. (Twice.) It contains God’s promise to Abraham, “I will make you a great and numerous nation”. As I left the shul, I wondered whether Abraham had any idea that most of that great nation would eventually end up at Kinloss. (And whether it might have been wise for God to have reminded them to bring a warm coat.)
Warmth of Welcome 3*
Read the Secret Shul-Goer's first 10 reviews, of 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 and Oxford Jewish Congregation.