It’s quarter to eleven on a Saturday morning at Hampstead Garden Suburb United Synagogue. The Torah scroll is being rolled up and the reader of the haftarah is getting ready to chant the weekly portion of the Prophets.
Before he starts, a number of people will have quietly slipped out of the main synagogue. Some synagogues have whisky clubs, where a select group of congregants take a break from the prayers and go off to sample a fine malt before kiddush.
But these HGS members are not shutting their siddurim for an alcoholic interlude. They head off to the synagogue library where for the next 45 minutes they will take part in “Coffee and Conversation”, an adult education programme which has been running for two years.
It may not sound particularly revolutionary. But for a mainstream Orthodox congregation in London to hold a break-out session mid-service is a departure. While alternative minyanim are a standard feature of many United Synagogues, these simply represent a different style of worship. Offering education is something else and rabbis have generally been reluctant to allow any competition to the prayers. HGS’s Rabbi Dov Kaplan admits he had “reservations” when the idea was first mooted.
Coffee and Conversation was launched by Martin Kaye, an HGS member for around 40 years and sales manager of book distributors Kuperard. A veteran davener who attends services not only Shabbat morning but on weekdays, he wanted to attract people who told him they did not feel “spiritually uplifted” by the main service. “The whole concept was to appeal to those who don’t come to shul, and those who do but wish they hadn’t,” he says.
He runs four or five sessions each term, drawing on regular lecturers from the London School of Jewish Studies such as Maureen Kendler or Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz or local synagogue talent such as lawyers David Wolfson or Clive Freedman. Topics have ranged from Jewish pirates of the Caribbean to the origins of second day Yom Tov and Jewish disputes resolution.
“A lot of people in my age group were saying more of their friends weren’t coming any more,” he says. “Shabbos morning is for people to do something Jewish — it is Jewish time. So if you can offer something in a Jewish environment they feel comfortable with, they’ll come.”
After the session, he says, people can stay around talking to the speaker or go into the main service and then join the rest of the community for Kiddush.
For early birds, HGS offers a hashkamah service, staring at 7.45 am and finishing around 10 on Shabbat morning, as well as a Sephardi minyan. But the main shul often has a barmitzvah, which can stretch out the service.
In a survey two years ago, the United Synagogue found that three out of every five members said services were important for their choice of synagogue but fewer than two out of five found them engaging. But although the US acknowledged the need to provide a more fulfilling Saturday morning experience, it did not suggest anything concrete beyond holding more explanatory services. HGS may have one answer.
The attendance of 30 to 40 at Coffee and Conversation has been swelled by regulars from the hashkamah minyan, who stay on rather than go home. Aviva Kaufman, one of them, says “The speakers never disappoint. It is a perfect follow-on. We finish just in time for a shmooze before coming together as a whole community for kiddush. All this makes for a really lovely spiritually, intellectually and socially satisfying Shabbat morning.”
She has noticed that the sessions are particularly popular with women, adding that if she did not attend the hashkamah minyan herself, sitting in the women’s gallery in the main service would be an uninviting prospect. “It’s difficult to sit in the gallery, you feel a bit detached. As I get older, I find it harder and harder.”
For Rabbi Kaplan, recognition of congregants’ needs comes before convention. “Let’s be honest, so many are disengaged from Shabbat morning services because they are long and people don’t get the meaning,” he says.
The Sages, he notes, saw Shabbat as a gift for the Jewish people to learn Torah. “I’d rather have people learning Torah than sitting in shul not feeling engaged. Let’s give them something they can take home with them.”
Officially, he says, the synagogue can’t encourage people to skip parts of the service so the start of the education session is not announced on Saturday morning. But he does include it in the list of events at the Friday night service the previous evening — “with a wink”.
If synagogues want to encourage more people through their gates on a Shabbat morning, they have to be willing to think out of the box. “Sometimes, the establishment has to be dragged kicking and screaming into the next stage,” he says.
Although many synagogues offer educational and cultural events through the week, Kaye believes “the environment has changed from 30 years ago. If you put on a weekday event, people would come. But today younger people in their 30s and 40s are working longer hours.”
So Shabbat morning education may be a convenient option for those who might otherwise struggle to find the time.
Coffee and Conversation, he says, has “ become a regular feature which people look forward to. It’s an accepted part of the shul calendar.”