Name of Synagogue: Radlett United Synagogue
Address: 22 Watling Street, Radlett WD7 7NW
Denomination: United Synagogue (Orthodox)
Rabbi: Rabbi Jonathan Hughes
Size of Community:600 member householdsThe last time I visited Radlett United Synagogue was in 1991. I was in my late teens, and visiting a friend for the weekend. We both had exams coming up and, perhaps believing that divine assistance would be more helpful than actual revision, we decided to go to shul.
At that time, the community didn’t own its own building. In fact, it wasn’t really a community at all, since it was still officially part of the neighbouring Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue. But Radlett residents had by that point begun meeting on Shabbat mornings in a local village hall, and so it was to that hall that my friend and I made our way, all those years ago.
Two memories stand out from the service that morning. The first was the attendance. There were precisely two women (my friend and I) and nine men. I don’t make a habit of recording exact attendance rates, but given that it was Shabbat morning and there was no minyan, it was pretty memorable. I recall the nine men kept counting and re-counting each other, just in case they had accidently missed someone out, and when the tenth man finally arrived, he was greeted like the Messiah himself.
The second thing I remember was the décor. It was a typical village hall, with all the usual rickety folding chairs, and the passive-aggressive notices asking us NOT to use the plates in the kitchen cupboards. The walls were covered with posters advertising slimming world; I remember there was a particularly prominent one, which listed THIS WEEK’S TOP FIVE SINS, which made the prayer experience rather surreal.
If I’m honest, the service felt a little desperate. The willingness was there. And the certainty that ‘if we build it, they will come’. But they hadn’t yet built it, and not many came. But despite that, there was something exciting, rebellious even, about that maverick break-away service.
Scroll forward 25 years and the difference is staggering. Radlett United Synagogue, now independent of Borehamwood and Elstree, currently boasts a community of over 600 member families, and now owns the village hall it used to hire by the hour. Gone are the Brownies flyers and the passive aggressive notices. In their place is the most tasteful synagogue refurbishment I’ve seen in a long time. I can only assume that a team of very savvy interior decorators, armed with Farrow and Ball colour charts and the latest Ligne Roset catalogue, took charge of that refurbishment. This is a synagogue that has been stylised to within an inch of its life.
The seats, bimah, mechitzah, and ark are all a shade of bang-on-trend gun-metal grey. (If I’m not mistaken, it’s Farrow & Ball’s Mole’s Breath), while the seats are padded with dark red cushions (F&B Rectory Red, appropriately enough). Not only do the red cushions complement the grey perfectly, but these seats, I feel bound to report, are the most comfortable synagogue seats I have ever had the pleasure to pray on.
The curtain in front of the ark is embroidered with fabrics in those same grey and red tones, and has an outer glass door with a modern stained-glass design. The walls are decorated with white back-lit, glass etchings, depicting the major fasts and festivals of the Jewish calendar. The effect is minimalist, and very tasteful. This is a synagogue that cares about how it looks.
Surprisingly, the synagogue website didn’t match the up-to-date eye for detail that I found in the building. It told me a little about the history of the shul, and gave a detailed list of the previous and current Rabbis. But unlike the building, the website looks like it’s still in need of a refurb. It did provide me with two interesting pieces of information, however.
The first, as the recollections of my previous visit to the shul confirm, is that Radlett United Synagogue is one of the fastest growing communities in the country. Radlett US seems particularly proud of this statistic. So proud, in fact, that it includes this information on no less than four separate pages of its web site. And to put that in context, the site only has five pages. But, credit where it’s due, the synagogue is clearly doing something right, to encourage such steep growth.
I did wonder, however, as I looked around the congregation, where the young people were. Of the 30 or so women in the Ladies’ section, I was one of only a couple who were younger than 50. And there were very few men of a similar age. Although a children’s service was announced, I counted only a handful of children all morning. And if I can be brutally honest, the service was functional, but not particularly inspiring.
The second interesting piece of information on the website, is that the synagogue describes itself as a ‘politics-free’ community. I have to admit, this surprised me. Anyone who has ever worked or volunteered in a synagogue knows that they are a hot-bed for in-house politics. Not just that, but in preparing for these synagogue visits, I’ve had to read a LOT of shul websites. Pretty much all of them describe themselves as some variation of ‘warm’, ‘welcoming’ and ‘inclusive’. None, to my knowledge, describe themselves as ‘politics- free’.
What makes Radlett’s claim to be ‘politics free’ all the more ironic, is that on the day of my visit, the synagogue was hosting His Excellency, Mark Regev, the Israeli Ambassador. The Rabbi, in his words of welcome, gave a political speech that would have made Naftali Bennett proud. And Regev’s own speech was an unapologetic defence of the greater Israel borders of 1967 and a damning criticism of the international community’s refusal to house their embassies in Jerusalem. The assembled congregation nodded intensely to every word. I can’t imagine the Ambassador ever addresses a more sympathetic audience. If it isn’t too heretical a pun to use in a synagogue review, he was without doubt preaching to the already converted.
As I listened, and looked around the synagogue, a part of me missed the rickety chairs, the camaraderie of pioneers running a service on the hoof; the sense of a maverick break-away minyan doing something a little rebellious was completely gone. In its place was a community, all nodding in complete agreement to the words being said from the pulpit.
But, perhaps that’s Radlett’s secret? Born out of a desire to break away and create their own congregation, there must have been a need, from the start, to create a sense of community. And there was definitely a great deal of friendship in the building on the morning of my visit. It’s easy to lose that when a community grows so large, so quickly. The pride with which they welcomed their important visitor (to clarify, I’m referring to the Ambassador, not to me! ) was striking. It was as if they were welcoming him to their own home. A very stylish, tastefully appointed, recently remodelled home.
Warmth of Welcome 3*