Name of Synagogue: Finchley Reform Synagogue
Address: 101 Fallow Court Avenue, London N12 0BE
Denomination: Reform (The Movement for Reform Judaism)
Rabbi: Rabbi Miriam Berger
Size of Community: 750-1000 members by household
At this time of year, I am struck by the stark differences between the way in which we welcome the turn of the secular calendar, as compared with how the Jewish New Year is celebrated at Rosh Hashanah. I’m sure I’m not the only one to suffer acute embarrassment when I explain to bemused non-Jewish friends that I don’t usher in the Jewish new year with parties, alcohol and bumper-sized tins of Quality Street, and that, instead, my religious new year is welcomed with prayer services lasting in excess of five hours, complete with penitential psalms, blasts from an ancient trumpet, and a liturgy replete with the imagery of death.
And yet. As I prepared to welcome 2018, party shoes on and disco favourites blasting from Alexa, I slightly regretted that my New Year celebrations don’t include more of the reflection and soul-searching that I encounter at Rosh Hashanah. Indeed, as I was compiling my party play list this year, my mind wandered to a wonderful Rosh Hashanah story which, if you’ll forgive the indulgence, I’ll briefly share now. (And yes, it is relevant to the current shul review.)
It’s one of those Hasidic stories that Cheder teachers love to tell. Although, I hasten to add, it doesn’t involve taverns or wagons or peddlers, or any other items of East-European paraphernalia circa 1750 that for some inexplicable reason are still considered vital for the transmission of Jewish values to the iPhone/Snapchat/Instagram generation. (And we wonder why our kids sometimes struggle to engage in Jewish education.)
Having said that, it does have a pious Rabbi. The story goes, that every year, in the weeks running up to Rosh Hashanah, the Rabbi of a certain town stopped attending the daily morning service in the synagogue. For weeks, he would mysteriously disappear every morning. The men of the town had no idea where he disappeared to but eventually, the idea took hold that their beloved rabbi had ascended to heaven, to pray on their behalf. Whenever anyone asked where the Rabbi was, the men would respond, ‘He’s gone up to heaven’. One day, a visitor came to the town and heard the far-fetched rumour of the heaven-ascending rabbi and, cynic that he was, decided to find out the truth. He hid under the Rabbi’s bed and waited. Early next morning, while the town slept, the visitor watched as the Rabbi woke up, put on his hat, coat and boots, picked up his axe, and walked into the forest. (Sorry, I should have said. There is a woodcutter. There is always a woodcutter in these stories. But no peddler, I promise. Anyway back to the story.)
The Rabbi walked out into the forest, axe in hand and started to chop some wood. Then, he carried the wood on his back and took it to a small cottage on the edge of the forest where a sick old woman lived all on her own. Pretending to be a simple woodcutter, the Rabbi brought the wood into the woman’s house, lit a fire, warmed some hot soup on the stove, and quietly left, without asking for payment. The next day, so the story goes, the cynical visitor went back to the synagogue; again, the people asked “Where is the Rabbi?” and again, the answer was offered, “He’s gone up to Heaven.” At which point, the visitor declared, “If not higher.”
So it was with these overlapping thoughts of wood-chopping rabbis, and New Year’s Eve parties in my mind, that I found myself at Finchley Reform Synagogue. The site is a little ramshackle. A large car-park welcomes you as you arrive, and the modern(ish) building is flanked on each side with outdoor nursery equipment and at least one porta-cabin. The main doors open onto a foyer, where I could see double doors that take you to the main hall, where prayer services usually take place. I have visited FRS before, so I feel bound to report that the main hall is a large, bright space, with room to comfortably seat a large congregation. It has a wide ark that has a raised platform in front of it, and beautiful wooden doors.
But the two greeters sitting behind a table in the foyer, who helpfully handed me a siddur and a discussion sheet, told me that the service was not taking place in the main shul that morning, but was instead meeting in the ‘small hall’.
Well, I’m not sure ‘small hall’ is an altogether honest description. It’s a bit like when the Estate Agent assures you that the tiny cupboard that you and your partner cannot physically view at the same time because it’s so small, and which fits neither cot, single bed nor indeed a box, is actually a box room. This wasn’t a small hall. It wasn’t even a large room. It was a quite small room.
Congregants were packed in, cheek by jowl, in tight rows of seating. There was no room for a bima, just a small table, behind which the Rabbi, Rabbi Miriam Berger, sat, and from which she led a discussion. Maybe she shared my New Year’s Eve/Rosh Hashanah dilemma, because the discussion revolved around ideas of repentance and forgiveness which she cleverly connected to that week’s Torah reading, the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers.
There was no children’s service on the morning of my visit, and no room in the ‘small hall’ for any kids’ books or toys, so my daughter sat next to me for the duration of the service. The senior warden spotted her and warmly invited her to help undress the Torah scroll. It wasn’t the only invitation offered to the younger members of the congregation. The Torah portion was read out in Hebrew by an adult, and then in English by a pre-Barmitzvah boy. Another child was invited to dress the Torah before it was returned to the ark.
The service itself was easy to follow, with frequent page announcements, and there seemed to be a roughly even split between prayers read in Hebrew and English. The synagogue’s cantor, Cantor Zöe Jacobs, was not there on the morning of my visit, but she has clearly taught her community to manage in her absence, as the repetition of the Amida was sung beautifully by those present.
After the service, there was a quick stacking of chairs to make room for people to stand and chat, and a generous Kiddush was served. The senior warden again made a deliberate, and very gratefully accepted, attempt to chat to my daughter and to make her feel welcome.
And you would think that that would be that. A rather cramped, but nonetheless enjoyable, service. Review over.
Except. Just before the Kiddush was recited, Rabbi Berger made an announcement. She reminded congregants that the main hall was being used exclusively by a group of homeless people as a shelter for the whole of the Christmas and New Year period. She told the assembled members that the men and women using the facility were, for the duration of the festive period, the effective homeowners of the building, and the congregants, the members of the shul, should be mindful of that when visiting the building. It was extraordinary. She wasn’t asking us to be welcoming to the homeless, but rather, she was reminding us to treat their home with respect. The homeless were not our guests. We were theirs.
Suddenly, I understood why the service had not taken place in the main hall, and why we had been packed into the small side room, like sardines in a tin. Or, as the Hasidic story tellers might put it, like herrings in a barrel. And when those story tellers eventually come to tell the tale of the synagogue that opened its doors to the homeless during the coldest weeks of the year, I imagine them asking the question, “But where did the congregation go, when they gave up their prayer hall for the homeless?” And someone suggested, perhaps as a joke, “They went up to Heaven”; but the cynical visitor, secretly reviewing the shul, declared, “If not higher.”
Warmth of Welcome 5*
Read the Secret Shul-Goer's first 14 reviews, of 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 and Mill Hill United. And read her end-of-year awards for 2017 here.