Name of Synagogue: The Wimbledon Synagogue
Address: One Queensmere Road, London, SW19 5QD
Denomination: Movement for Reform Judaism (Reform)
Rabbi: Currently without a Rabbi
Size of community: 400-500 members by householdAnyone who has ever attended a creative writing course, or studied for English Language GCSE for that matter, will be familiar with the concept of "Show, Don't Tell". According to this technique, I shouldn't directly tell you what I thought about the synagogue I just visited. Instead, I should describe the sights and sounds of my visit with as much emotion and vivid description as I can, and leave you to draw your own conclusions.
Well, I'm not going to do that. Instead, I'm going to break with literary convention and make a bold, unequivocal, statement. The Wimbledon Synagogue is the most welcoming synagogue I have ever attended.
There. I've said it. And that's not all. The Wimbledon Synagogue has the most welcoming shul website I've ever read. (And I've read a lot!) It is friendly, conversational and genuinely attempts to put the visitor at ease. If you weren’t sure whether or not you should attend a service at Wimbledon, this website leaves you in no doubt that you absolutely should. On one page, the site makes a very audacious claim. “If it’s your first visit, or you don’t know anyone, please come up to us, although the chances are we will already have approached you.” Essentially, the synagogue takes that old adage ‘don't call us, we'll call you’ and turns it on its head.
Having said that, Wimbledon is a long (long!) way away from my home. It took me the best part of two hours, via three tubes and a bus, to get there. To be fair, I can’t hold the synagogue responsible for the distance from my house. But I can give them credit for making that journey feel worthwhile the moment I arrived.
Two security volunteers and a ‘greeter’ were waiting at the gate, each with a fulsome ‘Shabbat Shalom’. The greeter walked me to the front door of the building, and handed me over to another greeter, who was standing in the foyer. She then gave me a siddur, already open at the right page, and indicated where I should sit and where the coolest part of the synagogue was. (My visit coincided with that all-too-brief heat wave.) I felt like the baton in the Olympic relay.
Clearly, the synagogue has planned how to welcome the visitor with meticulous precision. But, and this is why I dispensed with the ‘show’ and decided to overtly ‘tell’, it’s not just the volunteers on greeting duty that were welcoming. The woman sitting on my right (who gently pointed to the page number when I lost my place), and the teenager on my left (who tapped my shoulder to show me which way to turn when the Torah Scroll was carried through the service) were all clearly ‘on-message’ too. So were the various people who came up to me during the Kiddush to say hello. I must have been approached by half a dozen people, all asking me why I was visiting, how far I’d come and whether I was on my own.
Now, it might be that Wimbledon Synagogue doesn’t get a lot of visitors? Perhaps I stood out like a sore thumb with my North London ways? Maybe I struck the regulars as a bizarre curiosity? Whatever the reason, I could not fault the bold claim made in the synagogue website. They promised they’d find me before I found them, and they were right.
In the interest of balance, I should point out two negatives, both rather minor and entirely subjective. The first is purely aesthetic. Wimbledon Synagogue’s large prayer hall is bright and spacious, but is graced on one side with stained glass windows that have an abstract swirling pattern in various shades of mucus-green. The effect is that the entire left flank of the prayer hall looks like an untended fish tank with a build-up of rotting algae.
The second is that the service itself is rather slow, and consequently ended quite late. (In my book, any service that ends after 12:30 has over run.) This probably doesn’t matter so much to local members. But as I’d travelled from the other side of the city, on a hot day, after a very light breakfast, I did worry that the sound of my stomach rumbling might drown out the prayers.
But back to the positives. Two things stand out. The first is the beautiful singing of Michal Ish-Horowicz. She sang tunes that I knew and tunes that I didn’t. Both were a joy to listen to. She encouraged the congregants to join in as much as possible, but whenever they didn’t, her voice could hold an unaccompanied solo with ease. In the sunshine of that day, notwithstanding the snot-green swirls in my peripheral vision, the effect was sublime.
The second thing is the Kiddush. It was both wonderful, and slightly ridiculous. It was as though a committee of Kiddush volunteers had done some research into ‘Kiddush food’, and had drawn up a long list of food options. Fish balls. Sushi. Danish pastries. Fruit platters. Dips. Doughnuts. Bridge rolls. Then, instead of choosing one or two options, had ticked every box on the list. The tables were positively groaning with food. Which, given the heat, my long journey, (and the rather long service) I was absolutely ready for. The only problem was, I was so busy chatting to inquisitive and welcoming regulars, I didn’t get to eat a thing.
|Warmth of welcome||5 (I wish I could give it more…)|