Name of Synagogue: Woodside Park Synagogue
Address: Woodside Park Road, London N12 8RZ
Denomination: United Synagogue (Orthodox)
Rabbi: Rabbi Pinchas Hackenbroch
Size of community: 750-1000 member families
I’d like, if I may, to take you on a virtual journey. I’m doing this to give you a sense of what greets you when you visit Woodside Park Synagogue. Or, more correctly, Woodside Park Synagogue’s website.
Someone on the shul’s board of management has clearly recognised the importance of a carefully considered shop-window, and the site is, consequently, quite unlike any shul website I’ve ever encountered. The home page announces that the shul is not merely “Woodside Park Synagogue”, but “Woodside Park Synagogue Community”, itself a very welcoming touch. The website boasts a huge display of photos, advertising the wide range of activities that the community enjoys; Purim parties, supper quizzes, lectures, kids shows. Clearly, this is a vibrant and active synagogue community.
The homepage also declares that the synagogue is the “Shul in the Park”.
Cue our virtual journey.
The website invites the viewer to watch a scrolling video of that park. The video begins with scenes of tall tree tops, the sun poking through the leafy canopy and dappling on the branches; next, we see a pond, with gently rippling water and a family of ducks enjoying the sunshine. Finally, a grassy field is revealed, where autumn leaves can be seen scattered among the long shadows cast by the sun peeping through the branches. Back and forth the video runs. Sunshine through the treetops. Gently rippling water. Grassy fields.
It’s the kind of video that expensive dentists play for their nervous patients during treatment; the kind you might find on a TV programme about life in the countryside, or introducing a Mindfulness course. It is the height of calm and serenity. After all, who doesn’t love sun dappled trees and ducks waddling around gently lapping water?
Now picture the scene on my arrival at Woodside Park Synagogue. Gone were the sun-dappled trees and water-lapping ducks. In their place I was met, perhaps more predictably, with crowds of people; children running around helter skelter, piles of coats jumbled on top of each other, and rows of parked buggies. People and noise and movement everywhere.
I tried to account for this stark change in atmosphere. Either the idyllic countryside video has proved to be a staggeringly effective piece of synagogue advertising, calling the throngs of North London Jewry to prayer, or there was a Barmitzvah.
It turns out, it was the latter.
And not just any Barmitzvah. This must have been the Barmitzvah of the most popular boy in London. I have honestly never seen so many excited 12 and 13 year old children in one place, since I made the mistake of going to Kings Cross Station at midnight, in the year 2000, to buy the newly released Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Actually I could have done with a bit of wizardry on the morning of my visit. It felt a little beyond my human capabilities simply to find a seat. That said, the volunteers on the doors were incredibly friendly and welcoming, and helped me to find my way, through the throngs, towards the staircase for the women’s gallery.
Once I sat down, I waited for the service to begin. It did seem a bit strange that it hadn’t yet begun, as I had arrived later than I normally do. It was only after I’d been there for a good few minutes that I realised that the service was already well underway. I just couldn’t hear anything. Or rather, I could hear lots of chatting and talking, but no praying. I say this without wishing to offend, but merely to accurately report that, from my seat in the gallery, I couldn’t hear anything from the bima downstairs, such was the noise level around me.
In fairness, the noise level did drop slightly at the significant points in the service (the Kedusha in the repetition of the Amidah, for example, and the Barmitzvah boy’s portion). But never to a degree that I didn’t need to strain to hear what was going on. The only time the noise level in the gallery reduced to complete silence was when a woman’s phone rang. Only it didn’t ring ring. It belted out, at full volume, the chorus to Moana’s How Far I’ll Go. The women around me immediately fell completely silent, perhaps in shock, as the horrified owner of the offending phone fumbled frantically in her bag, and ran out of the gallery, chorus still blaring.
The building itself is small, but perfectly formed. The Ark is surrounded by decorative wooden panels, that match the wooden pews and the frame of the bimah. And the sloping roof gives the prayer hall an intimate feel. Perhaps, given how many people were there on the morning of my visit, a little too intimate?
I met, quite by chance, an old friend who was there with her son, and so I accompanied them to the children’s service in an adjacent building. I was glad I did. There is an art to running a children’s service, and not all communities are blessed with people who have it. After all, very few synagogues can afford to pay a professional to lead kids’ services, and so the onus quite often falls on volunteers, usually the parents themselves. Many parents with primary-school age children will have experienced this small nightmare. Sitting in chairs built for four year olds, trying to sing Jewish nursery songs that you can’t quite remember, and reading stories from books that seem wildly out of date, whilst simultaneously disciplining other peoples’ kids, pouring out tiny cups of apple juice and arbitrating disputes as to who had a second biscuit. All of this, while juggling your own clingy children, who choose the one morning of your volunteer slot to spectacularly misbehave.
But there was none of this at Woodside Park’s children’s service. A parent, whose name I didn’t take but honestly deserves a medal, led a children’s service that was genuinely educational and entertaining. He knew the tunes to all the songs, with the words printed on huge flip-chart pages that the children could easily follow. He told a story, and invited the children to act it out with him. And made navigating through the major prayers active and fun. Most importantly, he took the time to allow the children to introduce themselves to each other, and encouraged the regulars to help those who were visiting to join in. At the end, the children were invited to their own separate Kiddush, where they played together and the assembled parents chatted. For a moment, away from the main service, I felt the calm and serenity of that shul website video.
I re-joined the main congregation for the final prayers of the service, and then made my way to yet another building for the adults’ Kiddush. It was a lovely spread; plenty of bridge rolls and slices of cake. And though the noise level was still deafening, it didn’t feel out of place around the Kiddush table.
After chatting to a few people, I left the synagogue building and made my way up Woodside Park Road. It had been a noisy and at times overwhelming morning. But the children service had been a genuine highlight, and though I didn’t see any families of ducks, I was pleased to have experienced the "Shul in the Park". Next time, though, I might phone ahead and check that there are no simchahs.
Warmth of Welcome 4*
Read the Secret Shul-Goer's first 18 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, Ilford and Shomrei Hadath. And read her end-of-year awards for 2017 here.