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Secret Shulgoer

Secret Shul-Goer No 21: Barnet United

Not for the first time, I was reminded that rabbis and synagogue volunteers are actually quite vital, writes our Secret Shul-Goer.

    Name of Synagogue: Barnet Synagogue

    Address: Eversleigh Road, EN5 1ND

    Denomination: United Synagogue (Orthodox)

    Rabbi: Rabbi Barry Lerer

    Size of Community: 500-750 member households

    There’s an old joke that I rather like. It’s about a man who leaves for work one morning, and turns to his wife, a stay-at-home mother with young children, and asks her ‘What do you actually do all day?’ On his return home that night, the house is in chaos. Laundry is lying all over the floor, and toys are strewn across the carpets. The kids are still in pyjamas, running amok. The kitchen sink is full of dirty dishes, and there’s no hot meal prepared. The horrified man asks his wife, ‘What the hell happened here??’ And she replies, ‘You know all those things I usually do all day? Well, today, I didn’t do them.’

    For reasons that will become clear, I had that joke in my head after my visit to Barnet Synagogue. Or rather, my first visit to Barnet Synagogue. You see, I attended Barnet Synagogue on a balmy summer day. Truth be told, I hadn’t planned to do a "shulgoer visit" that morning; it was supposed to be a "non-shulgoer Shabbat". I’m loathe to reveal too much of my process, but suffice to say, when you’re juggling a "proper job", plus family life, and a growing list of voluntary commitments, the need to finely schedule the shul-goer visits is vital. And that weekend was supposed to be an off-weekend.

    But for reasons I can’t quite remember, and which are probably not even relevant, I found myself at a loose end that morning. And so, I decided to get ahead of the publication curve, and bag an extra shul-goer visit while I had the time.

    As a result, I wasn’t as well-prepared for my visit as I usually am. I hadn’t read the synagogue’s website in advance. I hadn’t researched the size of the community, or the style of service.

    Possibly for that reason, everything felt a little "off" that morning. There were very few women present – certainly no more than ten – and the women’s seating area felt deserted. More significantly, the service itself felt a little "clunky".

    A synagogue service is like the proverbial swan, gliding serenely above the water while its legs are flapping ten to the dozen below. Run well, a synagogue service appears smooth and effortless, but behind the scenes, well-trained professionals and volunteers know exactly what to say, where to stand, and what to do. Only that morning, they didn’t always seem to know what to do or what to say. Indeed, the legs of the swan were distinctly visible. There were a number of short delays while those running the service checked lists, asked questions of various congregants, and waited for a designated volunteer to arrive.

    It was during the silence of one of these delays, that the very friendly woman sitting beside me explained that the rabbi and the warden were both away on holiday.

    That was the point at which the joke about the stay-at-home mum entered my head. Not for the first time, I was reminded that rabbis and synagogue volunteers are actually quite vital. And although I spend a significant part of my time critiquing their work, and occasionally exposing their shortcomings, I remain in admiration for what they do. Because, as was clear that morning, when they’re not around to do it, it is very noticeable.

    So noticeable, in fact, that I did something that I haven’t done since starting the shul-goer project. I decided to re-visit the synagogue, when the rabbi was back in town.

    And so it was, that I made my second visit to Barnet Synagogue, on the first Shabbat of Pesach. And I’m really pleased that I did, because the service on my second visit was as smooth and well-run as any I’ve attended. In fact, there are many reasons to congratulate Barnet Synagogue. The design of the building, and especially the prayer hall, is very conducive to an enjoyable experience. The room is not particularly large, but it is bright and airy. Men and women sit on the same level and there is a very clear view of the bimah from the women’s section. Indeed, the bimah is right in front of the women’s seating area; it’s possibly the closest I’ve sat to it in a synagogue with separate seating. As a result, I felt that I was truly part of the service, and I could see and hear everything that was going on.

    The rabbi, Rabbi Barry Lerer, led part of the service and then delivered a sermon. My visit was just after the Labour Party antisemitism demonstration at Parliament Square, and Rabbi Lerer’s sermon addressed that event, cleverly tying in the rise in anti-Jewish feeling, and the community’s response to it, with the themes of Passover.

    I should also say that on both visits, the women that sat near me were very friendly. On both occasions I was welcomed to the shul, and on both occasions congregants asked me whether I was a visitor, and chatted to me about the synagogue and the local area.

    The downside of visiting on Pesach is that there was no Kiddush, although I can report that the Kiddush first time round was rather good. And well worth the exertion of stacking the chairs at the end of the service and helping to carry in the loaded tables. (Space is limited at Barnet, so the prayer hall is rapidly transformed into the Kiddush hall after the service.)

    The more significant downside to visiting during Pesach is that there was no children’s service. I had two of my children in tow that morning, and neither are particularly skilled at sitting still for long periods of time. The woman next to me suggested that the children’s service was cancelled because the hall was already set for the communal Seder. Whatever the reason, there was nothing for the little ones to do, and no children’s books for them to read. (Which, in the age of PJ Library, is unforgiveable.) They did try, along with a few other children present, to play at the back of the shul. But they were repeatedly shushed by one of the congregants, who I assume was the self-appointed "shusher". (The "shusher" is one of that cast of characters you find in every shul. Like the overly officious Kiddush lady. And the sweets man.) The upshot was that my children spent the majority of the service playing with a few other kids on a tiny patch of carpet outside the prayer hall, perilously close to the top of the stairs.

    The lack of a children’s service was a real shame, because it meant that there was a significant difference between my experience, which was very positive, and theirs, which was not. To be fair, the shul website, although a tad out of date, does advertise a weekly children’s service. But the only way I can sample that is by scheduling a third shul-goer visit, and that’s probably taking things a step too far.

    Warmth of Welcome 4*

    Decorum 4*

    Service 3*

    Kiddush 4*

    Read the Secret Shul-Goer's first 20 reviews, of Cockfosters and North SouthgateFinchley Reform, New London SynagogueHampstead Garden Suburb SynagogueWest London ReformRadlett UnitedKol Nefesh MasortiWimbledon ReformSt John's Wood LiberalDunstan RoadLauderdale RoadLubavitch of EdgwareOxford Jewish CongregationKinlossBrighton and Hove Reform Mill Hill UnitedIlfordShomrei HadathWoodside Park and Alyth. And read her end-of-year awards for 2017 here.

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