Name of Synagogue: Ilford Synagogue
Address: 22 Beehive Lane, Ilford, IG1 3RT
Denomination: United Synagogue (Orthodox)
Rabbi: Rabbi Israel Geoffrey Hyman
Size of Community: 500-750 member households
Ilford Synagogue, known informally as Beehive Lane, is the largest in Essex and, according to its website, one of the biggest in the family of the United Synagogue. Certainly, it is the proud owner of a very large building; an impressive ‘cathedral style’ shul, with women’s gallery upstairs, a large prayer space downstairs, and the usual array of side rooms, offices and kitchens.
Having read the shul’s claim to be the central venue for Jewish life in North East London, it was a little shocking to see so few people in attendance. On the morning of my visit, I counted just under 30 men and exactly 11 women. Maybe I had been misled by the rather ironic Beehive moniker? There was certainly no swarm of activity when I was there.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by the low numbers? Anecdotal wisdom suggests that the Jewish community in Ilford is shrinking. You don’t need to take my word for it. A recent JPR report suggests much the same thing, listing Redbridge as its top location of decline. And if that isn’t depressing enough, the local Sainsbury’s recently removed kosher sandwiches from its meal deal offer.
And yet. I have no hesitation in stating that I thoroughly enjoyed my visit. I walked into the large foyer, to be met by a very friendly woman, who welcomed me to the shul with a large smile, showed me where to get a siddur, and walked with me towards the women’s seating. She explained that the synagogue had recently taken the decision to move the women’s seats downstairs, and so I sat behind a temporary mehitza barrier, along one side of the men’s prayer space. The result of this move considerably reduced the feeling of emptiness that large shuls sometimes suffer when numbers are reduced.
It turns out that my ‘host’ was not a random shul member, but actually the rabbi’s wife, who invited me to sit with her. She told me a little about the history of the shul and, of course, we spent a good ten minutes on everyone’s favourite shul conversation, a game of ‘Jewish geography’. (I had to be careful not to reveal too much, as I think she might well know my great uncle.) The conversation was occasionally interrupted as she got up to say hello and Shabbat Shalom to every woman who arrived at shul. There are certainly difficulties when numbers decline, but the upside is that individuals are noticed. It was the first time since beginning this project that I observed such a warm welcome extended to each individual woman as they arrived at shul.
I noticed a similar phenomenon during the announcements. Shabbat Shalom greetings were extended to members and visitors alike, and then two gentlemen were welcomed back, by name, after each had recuperated from hip replacements.
There is no ignoring the fact that the majority of the congregation were in their senior years. There were walking sticks and hearing aids aplenty, and far more refuah shelema/get well announcements than births or engagements. At one point, the Rebbetzin left the shul, telling me she was going to look in on the Children’s Service. I don’t know if she was joking. Maybe they are the quietest children in London? But I didn’t see or hear anyone younger than 45 the whole morning.
That said, what I did find was a really friendly community; the atmosphere in the service was warm and welcoming, and I felt that there was a concerted effort on the part of those leading the service to create an open and welcoming atmosphere. As a result, my experience of the shul was genuinely enjoyable. I’ve been to services with ten times the number of people in attendance that weren’t able to pull that off.
After the service, Kiddush was served in a side hall. The food was standard Kiddush fodder, but all of it fresh and tasty, which I enjoyed while chatting to a few of the regular members. They seemed a bit bemused that I was there. But as I left the building, I felt a little bemused myself. Declining numbers in the local area notwithstanding, I couldn’t work out why there were so few people there. It’s a great site, a lovely service, and a friendly community. All that was missing, was people. (I hope this review encourages at least a few of them to go back.)
Warmth of Welcome 5*
Read the Secret Shul-Goer's first 16 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 and Mill Hill United. And read her end-of-year awards for 2017 here.