Address: 33 Seymour Place, London W1H 5AU
Denomination: Movement for Reform Judaism (Reform)
Rabbis: Rabbis Julia Neuberger, David Mitchell, Neil Janes, Helen Freeman
Size of Community: 1,500 to 1,900 households (one of the two largest synagogues in the country).
I almost never made it to West London Synagogue. Or, more accurately, I almost never made it beyond the front door. When I arrived in central London on the morning of my visit, I was greeted by a marketing campaign by the civic powers-that-be, assuring me that London is open for business. Huge banners, strewn between the buildings along Oxford Street, declared that “London Is Open” – a message translated into a variety of languages. For all that, London has taken a fair few knocks in recent weeks and Londoners are naturally feeling a little on edge. I found myself empathising with a notice on the building next door to the synagogue, advising passers-by that "This Building is Alarmed". Well, aren’t we all.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, security at West London Synagogue is tight. So tight, in fact, that the two security guards on the door almost denied me entry. After giving my name and explaining that I was a visitor to the synagogue, one of the guards asked if I had notified the synagogue office in advance of my visit. When I replied that I had not, he asked me for photographic ID. I didn’t have any. “In that case,” he told me, “I cannot let you in.” Fortuitously, a female congregant overheard the conversation and agreed to vouch for me. She escorted me into the building, assuring me that WLS is a welcoming community.
I include this in my review, not to criticise the security guards, who stand outside our synagogues, schools and community centres, in all weathers, for low wages, and work hard to keep us safe, but to highlight the dilemma that arises when we have to balance the need for security with the need to keep our communal centres open to all.
As it transpires, on entering the building, I was greeted by a receiving line of rabbis, wardens, and members, who each shook my hand in turn and enthusiastically wished me Shabbat Shalom.
Set in the heart of Central London, minutes away from Marble Arch, West London Synagogue describes itself as “welcoming, intergenerational and inclusive,” and lists among its priorities “progressive values” and “175 years of tradition”. That tradition began when emigres from the Sephardi Bevis Marks and the Ashkenazi Great Synagogue of London established a new synagogue that followed neither Portuguese nor German traditions, but established a pointedly British tradition. The result today is a rather startling juxtaposition of old and new. The synagogue wardens and dignitaries, one of whom was referred to as the "beadle", were dressed in quintessentially British top hats, pin-stripe trousers and tails, as was no doubt the custom when the synagogue was founded in 1840. Yet in place of the traditional pulpit sermon, the service ended with a lively debate between the two officiating rabbis, who put the rebel Korach, the subject of the weekly Torah portion, on trial for insurrection against Moses. The verdict was put to the vote of the congregants, who by a fairly large show of hands, overthrew millennia of tradition and exonerated the Biblical revolutionary. (I confess, he had my vote too.)
The synagogue building itself is, quite simply, spectacular. One of the oldest synagogues in the UK, and a Grade II listed building, the architecture is magnificent. The huge 55-stop organ surrounds an impressive ark with a back-lit central chamber, displaying the red-mantled Torah scrolls inside. The effect is majestic. Marble columns reach up from the wooden pews towards the domed ceiling, which is decorated with a central circle of guilt lettering, and the walls are adorned with ornate stained-glass windows. For the first-time visitor, the impact is nothing short of breath-taking.
Perhaps appropriately for a synagogue located so close to the West End, there is something very theatrical about the service at WLS. The synagogue website advertises not just the start time of the service (11 am), but also the end time, (12:45). The entire congregation was ready and waiting at 10:45, where pre-theatre coffee and cakes were served by a group of volunteers, and the weekly programme was handed out. By 10:55, everyone was settled in their seats and the music of the organ announced that the service/show was about to begin. The Rabbi began the service by formally welcoming those present, and also those watching the service via a live broadcast, whom he referred to as the “virtual Jews in the virtual pews”.
The theatrical feel of the morning continued with the service itself, which is not particularly participatory. A number of prayers, some in Hebrew, others in English, were recited by the whole congregation. Most, however, were recited by the service leaders, Rabbis David Mitchell and Sybil Sheridan, who guided the congregation through the service with painstakingly regular page announcements. The result is a service that feels a little like a spectator event. For me, this is a shame. I like to join in. But to the woman I chatted to during the Kiddush after the service, this was one of the things she loves most about the synagogue. “I hate feeling like I’m doing it wrong. Here, I watch and listen and feel inspired”. Which just proves what synagogue officials know all too well. You can’t please everyone.
An invisible choir accompanied the entire service, presumably from somewhere behind the ark and the organ. Now, I have to admit that as far as the choir is concerned I found myself torn. There were moments in the service where the sound of the choir, especially in the setting of this impressive building, was utterly sublime. If I weren’t such a cynic, and if I were more open to reflective contemplation, I might well have chosen to close my eyes and meditate. The sound was mesmerising. But the operatic style, and the high register of most of the prayers, made joining in almost impossible. Rabbi Mitchell did his best to encourage our participation, and sang along with the choir. But he couldn’t compete with the volume of the choir and organ together, and when a female chorister sang a solo, the result was the rather comic sight of a male rabbi mouthing the words to the high register tones of a female voice. Think Robbie Williams lip-syncing to Maria Callas.
I wasn’t able to judge the children’s services, as the "ShabbaTots" service was over before the main service began. The consequence of this is that the service at WLS was, as its website claimed, truly intergenerational. Children sat with their parents, for the duration of the service. There was no coming in and out. There was no chatting. There was no messing about. As the parent of young children who can’t sit still in a service for longer than it takes to recite Modeh Ani, I admit to being in awe. And a tad jealous.
After the conclusion of the service, Kiddush was served in the hall, which was accessed via rambling corridors and side rooms. (WLS is an impressive site.) The Kiddush itself was the final reminder of the quintessentially English nature of this synagogue. Alongside trays of fruit and pastries there were platters of triangular cucumber sandwiches, crusts removed. You can’t get much more British than that.
After Kiddush, I made my way back through the synagogue complex to the main entrance, where I bumped into one of the security guards, and thanked him. As I turned to go, I caught sight of a large banner that I had missed earlier on, which declared “Refugees Welcome”. In this frightening world, I’m glad that they are. I just hope that they remember to email ahead.
Warmth of Welcome 3*
Read the first of the Secret Shul-Goer's reviews, of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue