Name of Synagogue: Shomrei Hadath Synagogue
Address: 64 Burrard Road, London NW6 1DD
Denomination: Federation of Synagogues (Orthodox)
Rabbi: Rabbi Moshe Mayerfeld
Size of Community: 50-100 member households
Before every undercover visit I make, long before I read the parsha sheet, or sample a fishball in the Kiddush, I check out a shul’s website. It is, without exception, the very first thing I do.
Consequently, over the course of the past year, I have read a lot of synagogue websites. Some have been carefully designed, with an eye on cementing the synagogue’s "brand" and with the end-user’s experience clearly in mind. Others, are rather more slap-dash; hastily put together, with out of date information and photographs that pixelate poorly on-screen. I’ve read some that are clearly intended to be a private forum for existing members to exchange information, and others that are more outwardly focused, offering the visitor a great deal of helpful information.
But within this diverse range, from the professionally slick to the frankly ramshackle, one thing stands out. Every synagogue website, with almost no exception, describes itself as some combination of "welcoming", "inclusive" or "fast-growing". Sometimes, if I’m feeling a bit naughty, I write down a list of these words before opening the homepage, and then play a game of shul-website bingo with myself. (Don’t judge me. You try reading an average of three shul websites a week without engineering ways of making it more exciting. As they say, until you’ve walked a mile in someone else’s shul shoes….)
So, before I opened the Shomrei Hadath website, I fully admit that I was expecting the usual list of catch-phrases. And the first paragraph didn’t disappoint. It told me that Shomrei is both "warm" and "dynamic". But then, I read something that I’ve not seen in any other website I’ve previously visited. In fact, Shomrei makes two very bold claims. The first, is that it offers “the best Kiddush in town”. And if that’s not enticing enough, the website goes on to say that the synagogue is “the epicenter (sic) of Jewish intellectualism in London”.
My first thought, and I confess it’s a churlish one, is that the hub of Jewish intellectualism in London should probably have a better handle on UK English spelling. But that aside, I have to say that I was more than a little excited to put these claims to the test.
Shomrei is located at the end of a residential street in Hampstead.The prayer hall isn’t huge, but its architects certainly deserve praise for their clever use of space. I think the Estate Agent description would be "bijou". Perhaps the shul was influenced by the New York mantra "if you can’t build out, build up"? Or, as it turns out, build down, since the men’s section is built below ground level. The effect of this is that the synagogue’s women’s gallery felt like the highest I’ve ever sat in. When I got to my seat, I wondered if there might be snow on my head. To give you a feel for how high up I was sitting, my line of sight was well above the top of the ark.
Indeed, the design of the gallery is such that, rather than overlooking the men’s section, it’s actually built over it, so that it is impossible to see anything going on below. The gallery is literally and entirely above the men’s heads. There was, I later discovered, a section of the downstairs floor space reserved for women. But without any signage, and with nobody on the door to direct me, I didn’t know this until after the service was over. Consequently, I spent the entire service listening to dismembered voices, and staring at the Hebrew sign above the ark “Know before whom you stand”. (To be brutally honest, I would have preferred to know above whom I was standing.)
Up there in the gods, I did have a very close view of the ceiling. It’s a varnished, wood-panelled roof. The kind you might find in a Scandinavian sauna. And the stained-glass windows, on either side of the room, were very beautiful, in muted pastel colours.
I feel bound to share that there was one feature of the synagogue that baffled me. It was something that I have not seen before. On the book rests in the women’s section there were boxes of tissues. Not one box. Not even just a few boxes. There were, and I counted them, 19 boxes of family size tissues. They were dotted around the relatively small women’s section. Given that on the morning of my visit there were fewer than ten women in the gallery, we had at least two boxes of tissues each. I have no idea what the shul board imagines goes on in the women’s section. Perhaps they were expecting a crowd of flu-infested worshippers? Or maybe they believe the repetition of the Amida might reduce the fairer sex to tears? Whilst pondering this mystery, I took a sneaky peak inside the hidden compartment underneath the book rest. It contained sweet wrappers, a spare siddur and yes, you’ve guessed it, a box of tissues.
So, was there any evidence of that crowning Jewish intellectualism? Well, actually there was. A member of the synagogue delivered the sermon and I have to say, it was without doubt the most intellectual and learned of any I’ve recently heard. The speaker clearly knows his crowd, and his crowd clearly know their Jewish sources. References were made to the Talmud, Midrash, Maimonidean thought, complex matters of Jewish law and a dazzling array of biblical commentators. I can’t say I followed it all – it was a little beyond me at times. But it was delivered in a clear and confident manner, and a great deal of thought had evidently gone in to preparing it.
And that other claim? The best Kiddush in town? Again, credit where it’s due, the Kiddush was very good. Vegetable crudites and dips; smaltz herring and crackers; teriyaki tuna and noodles; mushroom pastries; brownies; a fruit platter. The spread was delicious.
My only negative comment, is that nobody spoke to me all morning. One man, I think it might have been the rabbi, did say "Shabbat Shalom" as I was standing beside the Kiddush table. But he was immediately interrupted by another congregant and was led away for a chat. I know that regular members can’t be expected to strike up conversations with every visitor. And believe me, I’m no shrinking violet. I can chat to people I don’t know with relative ease. But there did seem to be a disjoin between the generosity of the Kiddush food and the silence of the people standing around the table.
That said, I left the shul with a strong sense that there is something unique about Shomrei. These things aren’t easy to quantify, of course. It’s partly that more intimate use of space, which made the experience feel more like a "large minyan" than a "small shul". And there was without doubt a very strong focus on high level Jewish knowledge that was both impressive and inspiring, and quite unlike the style of sermon I hear at most synagogues I visit. And, I am happy to conclude, it’s partly due to the Kiddush, which was, as the website promised, the best Kiddush in town. (As long as you don’t mind eating Thai noodle salad in silence.)
Warmth of Welcome 1*
Read the Secret Shul-Goer's first 17 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 and Ilford. And read her end-of-year awards for 2017 here.