Name of Synagogue: The Liberal Jewish Synagogue (LJS)
Address: 28 St John’s Wood Road, London NW8 7HA
Denomination: Liberal Judaism (formerly The Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues.)
Rabbi: Rabbi Alexandra Wright
Size of community: 2000 members
I visited the Liberal Jewish Synagogue on a gloriously bright and warm summers day. As I made my way towards the building, along St Johns Wood Road in Central London, I was accompanied by groups of cricket fans, walking towards Lords Cricket Ground, which stands just over the road from the synagogue. It felt like the perfect start to my visit; a quintessentially English atmosphere as hopeful supporters, wearing blazers and straw hats, carried their champagne picnic hampers and chanted their way down the road.
Security outside the synagogue building was tight, but friendly, and after the now obligatory bag-search, I was shown towards the foyer, where pre-service coffee was being served. During coffee, a good number of members introduced themselves, asking the usual who/why/where questions. One helpfully gave me a brief overview of the history of the building; when it was built, when it was bombed, when it was refurbished. Another gave me a copy of their recent magazine. All were incredibly friendly and welcoming. So much so, that I wondered if my cover had been blown. If it had, fair play. If it hadn’t, and all strangers are greeted this way, then LJS is a remarkably welcoming community.
Surveying the crowd, 100 or so people, I couldn’t help noticing that the vast majority were over the age of 60. I wondered if this was due to the timing of my visit, during the school holidays, or an indication of the shul’s location, in an area of London that few families with young children can afford to settle? I asked one of the congregants about this, and was emphatically assured that there is usually a much bigger congregation. He told me that members travel from as far afield as Kent for the weekly service. I suggested that the shul must be doing something right to attract members from such a wide area. He smiled and, pointing towards the door, said “Over there is Lord's. But in here, is the Lord.” It’s a line he’s clearly used before, but I liked it.
At eleven o’clock we entered the ‘sanctuary’, and the service began. A small organ in the corner of the room began to play, accompanied by one male and one female singer, whose names were mentioned but which I have sadly forgotten. They both sang beautifully. The room itself is simple, but striking. Congregants face a curved wall of white, Jerusalem stone that reaches up towards the high ceiling. It gives a sense of serenity and calm. The ark doors are decorated with panels of hammered metal, in various shades, and alongside there are chairs upholstered with swirling tapestries. The effect is elegant and controlled.
The service was led by one lay-member, and by the senior Rabbi, Alexandra Wright. There were no page announcements, but the service was easy enough to follow given that much of it was in English, and there was no skipping of paragraphs or turning to the back of the prayer book at random moments. Subjectively, I found the service a little cold at times, but that is probably my own personal bias showing through. I am used to a loud, sometimes raucous atmosphere, of loud Hebrew mumbling against a low-hum of background chatter. This was quiet, ordered and orderly.
The stand out element of the service was the sermon. I should make clear that I don’t often say that. To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of the pulpit sermon. I’m sure I’m not the only congregant whose eyes glaze over at a certain point during the sermon; I begin randomly counting ceiling tiles, or tallis bags, or hats. On a Saturday morning, often after a late Friday night dinner, a sermon has to pack a real punch to keep listeners engaged for longer than three minutes. For some people, that really matters. Haven’t we all heard shul members complain about their Rabbi’s lack of oratory skills? For others, it matters not at all, as long as the Rabbi is kind, or caring, or funny, or clever, or diplomatic, or impressive, or ‘strong on Israel’, or great with kids, or marvellous with the elderly, or permanently available at the end of the phone, or any number of other skills which it’s impossible for a single individual to possess. (Which is why nobody in their right mind would become a communal rabbi.)
But I digress. Back to the sermon. Rabbi Alexandra Wright’s sermon began without fanfare. She read from a pre-prepared script from which she didn’t deviate. There was no improvisation and no introductory joke. Her voice was soft within that high-vaulted prayer room and at first, I began to look for something to count. But then, slowly, the steady and measured tone with which she read her sermon began to grip me. And as she read, I began to listen. Suddenly, I realised that she had grabbed my attention, and she held it without wavering for a full 10 minutes. She connected the theme of the weekly Torah portion with current judicial negotiations concerning egalitarian access to the Western Wall. She was thorough in setting out the history of the matter, clear in connecting it with the values of her own Jewish community, and unswerving in her demand for action. All in a calm, quiet but defiant voice. It was an incredibly moving experience.
The service ended as it had begun, with a musical flourish from the organ in the corner of the hall. And then we all filed out towards the Kiddush. The Kiddush was a little sparse, truth be told. Some olives, a plate of cake, some strawberries in a bowl. But the adult who led the Kiddush invited two children to help her, and they beamed with such excitement at being given this important job that the food on the plates seemed unimportant.
After more introductions from members, and a few invitations to visit again, I found myself back in the sunshine of Central London, where cricket fans were still strolling up St Johns Wood Road, carrying yet more picnic hampers. Some were swilling from miniature bottles of champagne. Clearly, the Kiddush at Lords is better. But a morning with the Lord at LJS was a pretty good start to my weekend.
Warmth of Welcome 5*