Bushey becomes second biggest shul in United Synagogue

Its welcoming atmosphere and its open door policy has resulted in an influx of members


Barbara Kaye moved to Bushey in 1962 as a newly-wed. There were “good schools” and “lovely green fields”, she recalls — but no synagogue in the Hertfordshire town.

She approached the United Synagogue, which responded that 200 people would be needed to establish a US congregation.

So every Sunday, Mrs Kaye, her husband Godfrey and a few other young Jewish residents knocked on doors with mezuzot to enlist recruits.

Bushey United Synagogue was finally established in 1979 after “years of little services in people’s homes” and gatherings in a church hall.

Her son was one of the first barmitzvah boys in the church premises; her daughter was the first to be married in the shul building.

Today, the congregation is the second-biggest in the US with 2,100 members — a rise of 54 per cent in 20 years.

“The place is vibrant and children-oriented and I think that’s lovely,” Mrs Kaye, 77, says.

“But there’s also many more elderly people, which is also wonderful. I love walking around and seeing so many familiar faces.”

Her comments are borne out by the US’s description of Bushey as its “fastest growing community this year — a result of retired people moving into the area”. The average age of members is 59.

Selling points include the thriving nursery on its Sparrows Herne site, proximity to good schools and kosher shops, verdant surrounds, competitive property prices and a fast rail link to Euston.

Until late 2016, the congregation’s progress was guided by the popular and long-serving Rabbi Meir Salasnik.

His successor, Brooklyn-born Rabbi Elchonon Feldman, joined the congregation after five years with Belmont Synagogue in nearby Stanmore.

He says he was attracted to Bushey more by its sense of community than its size, citing the “dynamism and vibrancy of what’s happening here”.

And size brings its own issues, not least the suitability of the shul premises to meet the needs of the growing congregation.

“We are very aware that our biggest weakness is the building,” Rabbi Feldman says.

The JC understands that shul leaders are exploring ways to extend the building.

There is certainly scope for further growth as there are an estimated 6,000 Jews in the area.

With a grant from the US Community Development Fund, the shul is, in particular, trying to reach young unaffiliated families.

Young mum Emma Jacobs recalls that when she and her husband moved from Essex to Bushey three years ago, they knew no one locally.

But from day one, “we’ve never felt isolated”, she says.“Immediately we were invited to lunch. We’ve been amazed at the warmth of the welcome.

“It’s the kind of community that makes you want to give back.”

She adds that Rabbi Feldman having a young family “makes him very easy to identify with”.

Mrs Kaye is impressed by the way the rabbi speaks to “every single child” at simchahs. “He takes the trouble to learn who they are and what they like.”

Max Curtis, who has lived in the town for eight years, attributes the shul’s success to “how open and inclusive the community is. People just want to look out for each other.” His children both attended the shul nursery, which has received outstanding Ofsted reports.

Nursery pupils are also central to the shul’s Joy (Joining Old and Young) project, bringing three- and four-year-olds together with residents from Jewish Care’s Princess Alexandra home in Stanmore.

They unite for activities including art, singing and dancing.

Rabbi Feldman says the shul is in the process of creating a programme, Prime Time, “which looks at ways we can help the elderly maintain an active social and Jewish life”.

There is also the Sage initiative to provide senior members with educational opportunities — and Come Dine With Us, aimed at those who would otherwise not have a Friday night dinner to go to.

Mr Curtis likes the way people across the age spectrum engage. “In any other community I might not know someone like Barbara. But I know her very well; we all know each other so well here.”

That sense of friendliness encourages Mrs Jacobs and her family, who “aren’t observant at all”, to go to shul every week. “My kids love it. We love it. We never went to shul in Essex.

“But Bushey United has the kind of environment that makes you want to be a part of the community.”

Although there a number of Jewish schools within easy reach (the fee-paying Immanuel is the nearest), Rabbi Feldman says there are “a really good set of non-faith schools in the area that are very popular.

“We have an active cheder on Sunday which is growing each year because families who send their kids to local schools know they are still getting a Jewish education from the synagogue.”

The shul maintains a considerable social media presence with a Facebook group of 782 members and Rabbi Feldman posts regularly.

With a keen interest in psychotherapy, mental health issues are also important to the rabbi and the shul recently ran a mental health first aid course.

A mental health awareness evening featured Jonny Benjamin, who launched a successful social media campaign to locate the stranger who talked him out of taking his own life in 2008.

Mr Curtis says the meeting — which he watched live via a Facebook stream — was extremely powerful.

The shul is additionally broadening ties with the wider community.

Earlier this year, Rabbi Feldman was among a shul group which attended the Harrow Whisky Festival.

In March, the synagogue displayed an innovative approach to funding the local eruv by agreeing a partnership with a nearby hotel. The religious boundary is now known as the Bushey Eruv sponsored by Holiday Inn London Elstree.

“We were looking at the American model of funding and saw a great opportunity,” Rabbi Feldman says.

“We can’t rely exclusively on membership fees, even in a thriving community like ours.”

Though that partnership has now ended, Daniel Blake told the JC that Benjamin Stevens estate agents continue to sponsor and support the eruv.

A short walk from the shul, the Kelman Deli, Flax’s Foods and the Kanteen restaurant provide kosher options.

Mitchell Swillman, who has worked at Flax’s for a decade, says the delis enjoy good relations.

“We try and help each other. Ashley [Kelman] will phone me up and say ‘do you have any biscuits’? And I’ll do the same with him. We want to be as friendly as possible.

“Business has grown. It’s not growing like Borehamwood — that’s exploding. But it’s getting there.”

Mr Kelman says his store has “a very close link with the shul”.

He finds the local Jewish community traditional at heart. “Many keep a kosher home.”

To meet increased demand, his shop will move to larger premises down the road before Rosh Hashanah.

Mrs Kaye reminisces that in her early days in Bushey, “I had to go to my mother in Willesden Green for the [kosher] butcher. Who was going to deliver to Bushey back then? There just wasn’t a need.

“I can’t believe we’re now the second largest in the US when we struggled so hard to get that 200th member.

“I just love Bushey. I live, breathe, sleep, and dream it.”

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