Name of Synagogue: Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue
Address: Norrice Lea, London N2 0RE
Denomination: United Synagogue (Orthodox)
Rabbi: Rabbi Dov Kaplan
Size of Community:1,300 member households, (including 1,100 children under the age of 21)
Jews are not known for their maritime prowess. As far back as our Biblical origins, from Noah’s Ark to Jonah and the Whale, the ocean conjures up images of imminent destruction and the need for divine rescue. So it’s slightly surprising that when it comes to our places of worship, we rely on naval terminology. Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue is no exception; its website proudly claims to be the "flagship" of the United Synagogue.
Curiously, both St Johns Wood and Hendon United Synagogues also claim to be the flagship of the United Synagogue. I mention this to a friend with Royal Navy connections, and ask if this is typical. He assures me that it is not. “Three flagships? In a single fleet? That would be most unusual.” (My friend has never worked in the Jewish community.)
Flagship or not, Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, or Norrice Lea, as it is commonly known, is certainly an impressive vessel. The building is large and rather imposing. Set in the heart of the suburb, the synagogue is striking, with an air of affluence and success.
Before my visit, I researched the shul’s website. This is always a revealing exercise, not least because it allows me to play a personal game of "Shul Website Bingo", in which I can tick off my checklist of buzzwords. Norrice Lea scores highly. On its homepage alone, the word "thriving" appears three times, and the words "caring", "warm" and "welcoming" twice each.
On my arrival, I was greeted by two members, one of whom, I later discovered, is the Chairperson. I admit to being impressed by such hands-on leadership. The welcoming pair stood behind a long table, and offered me a variety of leaflets, books and flyers. To be honest, it felt a little like arriving at a fundraiser and I wondered whether I would be asked to buy raffle tickets. In the event, the only query was whether or not I was a Barmitzvah guest. In something akin to the "Bride or Groom" greeting at a Church wedding, Barmitzvah guests were separated from non-guests and directed to a different side of the shul.
The result was that I sat on one side of the women’s gallery, with just one other woman, while the opposite side of the gallery was filled to the rafters. It was like sitting in the away stand at Old Trafford for a mid-week match against Plymouth Argyle.
The synagogue’s claim to being thriving is clearly accurate. If a synagogue’s vitality is measured by its young members, HGSS is a picture of health. There were so many buggies and prams outside the building I thought I’d arrived at a Baby and Bump class. There were children everywhere. Girls cartwheeling in the foyer. Boys running around in the car park. And in the "Mazal Tov" announcements during the Torah reading, the Rabbi announced no less than 11 births.
Or at least, I think it was the Rabbi. The truth is, it could have been anyone. From where I was sitting, in the second to last row of the women’s gallery, the bimah was completely out of view. I could not see a thing. The entire service was delivered by a dismembered voice from the men’s section below. In fairness, the owner of the dismembered voice did his best to be inclusive, with frequent page number announcements. But it’s not easy to follow a service in a building that was designed before women were invented.
Despite the restricted view, I must confess that the service itself was rather enjoyable. The cantorial offerings of Avromi Freilich were a real pleasure. He has a wonderful voice, and his own enjoyment of the prayers was lovingly conveyed to his congregants. And a synagogue that can produce a Bar Mitzvah boy who can leyn the entire parasha (all 159 verses) word and note perfect, is certainly to be applauded.
My children weren’t able to join me on the morning of my visit. But in the spirit of research I went to check out the children service. Or rather, services. (Thriving, remember?) There are a range of services for toddlers, juniors and young adults. So many, in fact, that they seemed to be taking place in every room of the rather sprawling building. I put my head around a few doors, and the children taking part looked happy enough. But I couldn’t avoid the conclusion that the kids playing in the foyer seemed to be having a better time.
The service at Norrice Lea is rather long. A choral mussaf and a ten minute sermon make for a late final whistle. Despite this, I decided to stay for Kiddush. It was a wise decision. Sushi and whisky aplenty. It brought back fond memories of my mother who would loudly remind us whenever we went to a Barmitzvah Kiddush, “Eat up! This is lunch!”
In some ways, the Kiddush summed up the shul for me. Imposing and formal, on the one hand, but welcoming and generous on the other. I left feeling that Norrice Lea is a shul of two halves. It is proud of its imposing stature; there is a sense of formality and Englishness about this synagogue. (The men were rather sternly reminded not to remove their tallit until the very end of Adon Olam.) But the formality was tempered by a real effort on the part of the leadership team to be inclusive and welcoming. (Rebetzen Kaplan came up to me during the service to personally welcome me and wish me Shabbat Shalom).
If I was forced to use the "flagship" epithet, I’d say that Norrice Lea is a cross between HMS Belfast, and the QE2.
Warmth of Welcome ****