Name of Synagogue: Lubavitch of Edgware
Address: 230 Hale Lane, London HA8 9PZ
Rabbi: Rabbi Leivi Sudak
Size of community: 50-100 member families
When I was in my mid 20's, I took a bit of 'time out' from all things Jewish. It was a bit like John Lennon's "Lost Weekend" of the early 70's, although mine didn't involve heroin addiction or violent alcoholic excess. My lost weekend was a much more sober affair. For about 18 months I simply made a conscious decision to go off the communal radar. I didn't go to shul. I avoided Golders Green. I didn't even buy the JC. After being very involved and engaged in Jewish life since childhood, it was, if I'm honest, quite liberating to go off-grid for a while.
But, and here's how my Jewish side-step is relevant to this review, what I didn't realise is that no matter how fast you run and no matter how far you travel, you cannot escape Lubavitch. If you are Jewish, Lubavitch will find you. Lubavitch can find Jews anywhere. There are Lubavitch centres in Laos. And South Korea. They even have one in Angola.
So it was pretty foolish of me to imagine that I could hide from Lubavitch in a fairly large industrial town. Or to be precise, in the Sainsbury's carpark of said large town, which is where I was, one winter afternoon, happily pushing my trolley towards the entrance of the supermarket, when a Lubavitch missionary appeared out of nowhere and asked me "Are you Jewish?" For a moment, I suspected my father might have sent him. But then I noticed that he was manning a stall outside the supermarket, with the sole objective of identifying any Jews and giving them a free chanukiyah and a box of candles.
Now, during his lost weekend, John Lennon's behaviour was spectacularly bad. He got into bar-room brawls, spat at musicians, beat up photographers. I didn't do anything so outrageous. But, on that cold winter afternoon, in a supermarket carpark, I did do something a little bit wicked. I looked the man from Lubavitch straight in the eye, pretended to think for a few moments, and then replied, "You know what? My mother's Jewish!"
Bless his heart! His eyes lit up. He gave a little jump. He beamed. All his Chanukahs had come at once. "Here!" he exclaimed, thrusting the chanukiyah and candles towards me, "This is for you! Especially for you!" And I, rather cruelly, replied, "Nah, you're all right. I don't want it."
His face fell, and I could feel his eyes following me as I walked toward the store, the lost Jewish soul that had slipped through his fingers.
In the intervening years, back in the fold, (although rather far removed from Lubavitch), I still feel a twang of remorse when I recall this interaction. But I’ve never felt that guilt more acutely, than on my recent visit to Lubavitch of Edgware. Indeed, of all the undercover visits I have made to synagogues since beginning this project, I felt more guilty for not admitting the real reason for my attendance at Lubavitch, than at any other synagogue. And the reason is simple. From the moment I walked in the door, it was abundantly clear that the community cared that I was there. Not because they saw a potential new member. Not because they hoped for a good review. Not even because they were implementing the findings of a “How to Make our Synagogue More Welcoming” report. They cared that I was there, because they genuinely cared about me, and about my Jewish experience. (Just like the chap outside Sainsbury’s).
I clearly arrived earlier than women generally do for Lubavitch services because, when I stepped into the synagogue building, a converted house on a residential road, I was the only woman there. My visit was just after Rosh Hashanah, so there was a huge white marquee set up in the garden, and the service was taking place there. As I stood for a few moments to get my bearings and work out where I should go, an elderly looking man with a white beard wished me ‘Good Shabbos’ and asked if he could help me. He showed me where the women sit, took a siddur from the shelf, opened it to the right page, and told me where we were up to in the service. I thanked him. Then, he asked me who I was, where I lived, how far I’d come, why I was visiting, and was there anything else I needed that morning.
I gave him my real name, but I didn’t tell him the true reason for my visit, and I went to sit down in the deserted women’s section, feeling genuinely touched by the warmth of the welcome, and rather guilty about my subterfuge.
Over the course of the next half hour, a handful of women arrived, including a young mother with three children in tow. Then suddenly, as if by magic, the man with the beard re-appeared in the women’s section and walked towards me. This time, he gave me a chumash, and explained that he’d put the ribbon marker in the correct page for me. I thanked him again, and asked who he was, apologising that I hadn’t done so earlier. “I’m Rabbi Sudak” he replied, “This is my shul.”
I was actually lost for words; stunned by the lengths the Rabbi had gone to welcome a stranger. Then, he called over the young mother with kids, and introduced her to me. She immediately said, “Don’t sit on your own. Come sit with me!” And so I did.
Her first question, after we’d sat down, was “Will you come for lunch today?” I explained that I couldn’t as I had children waiting for me at home. “Okay. Would you like to come another time?” She gave me her address, and insisted that my whole family and I would be welcome to visit at any time. I thanked her. And inside, my guilt increased.
Alongside the warmth and the friendliness of the Rabbi and my new found friend, the service itself was almost secondary. To be honest, it was nothing spectacular. There were no bouts of melodic singing. No beautiful architecture to stare at. No captivating sermon. I should add, that even if there had been something remarkable to report, I probably wouldn’t have seen it, since I was sitting behind a very thick white curtain which obscured all of the action. Indeed, the only time the men leading the service acknowledged the presence of the women (referred to at all times as ‘ladies’) was when an announcement was made, asking the men to make sure their children weren’t playing in the ladies’ section. So, not natural territory.
But on that morning, none of that mattered. I chatted happily about kids, and schools, and traffic, and London, and a whole range of other topics with a woman whose life is probably so different from mine, certainly in terms of religious experience, and yet she welcomed me into her world for a few hours with genuine warmth and friendship.
After a brief Kiddush, in which all of the food seemed to be either pickled or in some other way preserved, (olives, pickled cucumbers, stewed carrots, tomatoes in vinegar dressing) I got ready to leave. Again, there were invitations for lunch, and more questions, which I again attempted to dodge, about what had prompted me to visit. As I left, the Rabbi assured me that I was welcome to come back at any time, and he wished me a Happy New Year. I left the building uplifted, but rather guilty, feeling that I had misled them into showing me such generosity of spirit. To be brutally honest, I’m fairly certain that I won’t ever go back again. The Chassidic life is not for me. But I doubt very much that I will find as warm and genuine a welcome at any other synagogue.
Warmth of Welcome 5*
Read the Secret Shul-Goer's first eight reviews, of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, West London Reform, Radlett United, Kol Nefesh Masorti, Wimbledon Reform, St John's Wood Liberal, Dunstan Road and Lauderdale Road.