Name of Synagogue: Golders Green Synagogue
Address: 41 Dunstan Road, London NW11 8AE
Denomination: United Synagogue (Orthodox)
Rabbi: Rabbi Dr Harvey Belovski
Size of community: 500 member families
My visit to Golders Green Synagogue, known to many simply as Dunstan Road Shul, was a puzzling experience. Set in the heart of Golders Green, an area of London synonymous with Jews, I had expected to find a large congregation with a loud and bustling atmosphere. But I didn’t find that. What I found was a building that, truth be told, looked a little run down, and a congregation that was so small it had been shepherded into a fraction of the available prayer space.
When it was built, in 1922, this must have been a singularly impressive building. (It still enjoys Grade II listed status.) The interior has a cathedral-like design, with high vaulted ceilings, huge chandeliers and a cavernous women’s gallery. An imposing marble lectern stands in front of the ark which is surrounded by ornate wood panelling, complete with six Corinthian columns.
The Synagogue’s refreshingly honest website explains that, over the years, the membership of the shul has declined. Which possibly explains why, on the morning of my visit, the women’s gallery was entirely deserted, and the men and women were both sitting downstairs, separated by a Perspex barrier running down the centre of the prayer hall. Behind the bimah, there was an additional screen, which cordoned off about half of the floorspace.
At first, this was a little disconcerting, not least because when you enter the building it isn’t immediately clear where you are supposed to go or how you access the main shul. (There was nobody to point me in the right direction.) When you do enter the shul, the effect of all the temporary barriers is slightly ramshackle, which is at odds with the original décor of the building. To be honest, for the first half hour, I wasn’t sure I was actually in the right place, and wondered if this might be a split-off service from the main one.
However, as time passed, and more people arrived, the room filled up, and I realised that, notwithstanding the ramshackle effect, it was actually a clever use of space. After all, what do you do when you have a huge cavernous building and a congregation that can no longer fill it? One answer, clearly, is force everyone to sit closer together, and create a sense of togetherness with ad-hoc screens and strategically placed notice boards.
The other thing you can do, of course, is boost the dwindling numbers. And the best way to do that is build a school. Which is exactly what Golders Green Synagogue has done. The effect of this was reflected in the Chairman’s rather wry announcement at the end of the service. He informed the congregation attending the Shabbat service that if they wished to visit during the week, they would have to phone the synagogue office in advance to make an appointment, because there were simply too many people accessing the site Monday to Friday. (As I looked around the smallish gathering, it struck me that there can’t be many synagogues whose attendance is lowest on Shabbat morning.)
The service itself was standard Orthodox fare. There was no attempt to assist people who might not know how to navigate the service. There were no page announcements for example. And there was a general sense that you need to be ‘in the know’ in order to follow proceedings. (Does everyone know what is meant by “We’re going to interrupt the davening now to say some tillim”?)
In the interest of fairness, I should state that I bumped into a couple of old friends, who invited me to sit with them during the service. So I can’t accurately comment on the warmth of welcome generally offered to lone visitors. But there did seem to be a generally friendly atmosphere in the room.
There was one brief attempt by the Rabbi, Rabbi Dr Harvey Belovski, to create a more vibrant atmosphere. In his repetition of the Amidah prayer, he banged rhythmically, and quite forcefully, on his book rest, and attempted to rouse the congregation with a Hassidic sounding chant. But they were having none of it, and he soon gave up.
Towards the end of the service, the noise level in the shul suddenly rose dramatically, as the children came in from the children’s services. I expected to hear ‘shushing’ from the congregation, but there was none. The Rabbi actually seemed to enjoy the competition as he sang over the noise for the final few prayers. It was a rather heart-warming example of communal inclusion.
During the Kiddush, which was held on the other side of those ad-hoc screens, the children excitedly queued up for a scoop of ice-cream as the adults chatted over cake and fishballs. (I think the kids got the better deal.) All in all, it was a pleasant experience. I left feeling that although Golders Green Synagogue isn’t quite the throbbing heartbeat of Jewish London that I had expected, those who were there created a warm and intimate sense of community.
Warmth of Welcome 3*