The making of a super-shul

A new book charts the rise of one of the UK’s biggest synagogues, New North London


Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg of the New North London Synagogue

It began as the dream of two families. Now as it enters its 50th year, the New North London Synagogue has over 3,700 members, more than a third aged 21 or under.

The rise of one of the country’s biggest synagogues has been documented in a new book, written by one of its founders, Ivor Jacobs, son of the rabbi whose teachings inspired its creation, Louis Jacobs, and Elaine Grazin, who joined it seven years ago from Leeds Masorti.

Stories of New North London Synagogue is not so much a chronologically arranged account than a collection of thematically arranged chapters where members’ recollections feature strongly. Inevitably in a book of this nature, some parts will be of interest only to NNLS congregants (of whom I am one) but much of it will have a broader reach.

The growth of the NNLS reflects the emergence of Masorti, the youngest Jewish denomination in the UK (it was originally M’sorati, like the car), which can fairly claim to punch above its weight, in particular through its rabbis and youth movement Noam. NNLS’s adult membership is greater than the rest of the movement’s other six synagogues together.

Secondly, if you believe that synagogues remain vital institutions for British Jewry, then NNLS may offer some practical examples of community-building. It has bucked the “smaller is beautitful” trend of recent years where steibl-sized congregations are seen more as the model of the future.

That NNLS has flourished is in no small part due to the spiritual magnetism of its senior rabbi, Jonathan Wittenberg, who has served it for 40 years, first as a youth leader, then as a student rabbi, and then in 1987 as its first rabbi. Appointing a rabbi was “not an easy decision” the book records, since some members felt it might detract from the DIY character of the community.

It is one of the achievements of “Rabbi Jonathan the wise” - as one 11-year old congregant calls him - that he has managed to hold the different parts of the community together. Founded initially as an “independent Orthodox” community, it has run a traditional service that is indistinguishable from United Synagogue practice other than there is no mechitzah and women are counted towards the minyan.

In 1992, a motion to allow women to be called to the Torah - seconded by Melanie Phillips - was defeated. But the move towards greater participation of women in services proved irresistible and two, now fully egalitarian minyanim operate as an option on Shabbat as well as the traditional offering. The three services rub along in a state of co-existence when in another setting, they might have been the cause of a split.

There is, of course, no broiges like shul broiges and NNLS has had its arguments. Early on “the great biscuit row” broke out over whether congregants could be trusted to bring their own baked produce for kiddush or whether only supervised items should be purchased. In the event, the stricter course prevailed, even though Rabbi Jacobs had ruled that the former was halachically acceptable.

The most heated dispute appears to have erupted over a new logo. But it was a sign of progress that on an issue of genuine substance, the introduction of shutafut ceremonies to consecrate same-sex unions in 2015, a result was reached with much greater consensus.

NNLS’s open-minded traditionalism went hand in hand with an outward-looking outlook – it was the first synagogue to set up a drop-in centre for asylum-seekers.

But for all the successes, Ivor Jacobs is candid in acknowledging frustrations. Masorti may have sprung from the theological rift over the origins of the Torah that forced his father into exile from the United Synagogue. But as he writes, “It has unfortunately long been a criticism of Masorti that the movement is more concerned with traditional services and women’s equality than with mitzvot and theology”.

Many members are motivated to join more out of a sense of belonging than belief, the book suggests. And yet, as one rabbi notes, more people now buy lulav and etrog sets and build succot.

Jacobs also believes that Masorti has too readily acquiesced in the status quo in which its conversions and marriages are not considered valid by the United Synagogue. Far better, he thinks, for Masorti to have mounted a more outspoken challenge to the Orthodox establishment.

NNLS founders believed that an optimum membership would be 350 families. When it reached a dozen bar and bat mizvahs a year — this year it will have more than 80 — the cheder at the time felt under strain. (The broadcaster Vanessa Feltz was once recruited as a teacher. “Her stint did not last long”, the book says). By the time, it was heading towards 500 families, the reaction among some was “dismay”.

​Its founding vision emphasised the importance of members’ participation and involvement in the life of the community. But continuing expansion fuelled fears of its ethos being diluted and the risk of turning the synagogue into a “bar and bat mitzvah factory” with more people joining mainly for life-cycle events without the desire for deeper engagement.

Yet although there was a talk of restricting its size, it rejected a membership quota. “Do we really have the right to reject people?” one member said, “After all, we are a synagogue, not a golf club.”

While occasional attempts to set up NNLS satellites led nowhere, younger members, however, have helped start other ventures: Ohel Mo’ed, a minyan founded by graduates of egalitarian yeshivot, which is “probably skirting the border between Masorti, Orthodoxy and partnership minyanim,” said one observer, and the Havurah, where young families may meet on Shabbat but not for services. Are these new forms of community that will remain independent or eventually look for closer connection with an existing structure like NNLS?

In the meantime, the synagogue’s new joint chief executives, Nicki Tiefenbrun, a former NNLS chair, and Louise Froggett,  previously its community engagement director, say that managing growth is a key strategic aim.

The shul’s leaders and council are looking at “a number of paths” in the year ahead, they say. “It’s premature to suggest what that outcome might be.

“But we can learn from history regarding the success or otherwise of satellites or limitations on numbers. Staying true to our values of participation and relationship building is key to our success and our focus will be on nurturing a committed and engaged community however large it may be.”

Stories of New North London Synagogue, Ivor Jacobs and Elaine Grazin, is available from Izzun Books, £24,

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