Name of Synagogue: Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue
Address: Palmeira Avenue, Hove, East Sussex, BN3 3GE
Denomination: Movement for Reform Judaism (Reform)
Rabbi: Rabbi Andrea Zanardo
Size of Community: 300-400 member households
According to a recent report by a leading HR consulting firm, the most common days for employees to take a sick day are the 3rd or 4th of January. In 2016, for example, just over 5 per cent of the total UK workforce called in sick on the morning of 4th January. It’s not hard to understand why. After the exertion of the Christmas and New Years’ holidays, we’re all feeling exhausted, and the last thing we want is to drag our sorry selves into the office to talk about who ate the most Quality Street and how long it took us to get home from the party after the buses stopped running.
The first Shabbat after the High Holydays/Succot marathon is, in some ways, the Jewish equivalent to that 4th January slump. Especially if, as this year, the festivals falling on Thursday and Friday result in three lots of three-day synagogue attendance. Put simply, we are all shul’ed out.
So, it was perhaps a little unfair of me to schedule a Secret Shulgoer visit on the very morning that Jews across the country were pulling their duvets over their heads and wailing “I can’t take another minute in shul!!” I must admit, I felt it too. There must have been something better I could do? Sleep? Go shopping? Or even head to the seaside?
Which, as it happens, is exactly what I did.
My concern that the visit was a mistake was not alleviated when I arrived at Brighton and Hove Reform synagogue, bang on 10:25 for a 10:30 start, to find just two other people in the prayer hall. At 10:29, two more members arrived, and I could hear them chatting to each other about the lack of attendees. (I wasn’t deliberately eavesdropping. But it’s hard to avoid hearing another conversation when the hall is all but empty and there’s nobody else talking.)
Despite the small attendance, the service began, as advertised, at 10:30 sharp and, to be fair, it only took another half an hour or so before the hall began to fill up. By 11:15 I counted just over 50 people, which I felt, given the date, was a pretty decent turnout.
That said, I did wonder whether the person who is responsible for turning on the heating was one of those who called in sick. The half-empty shul was a tad chilly to say the least. By the end of the Shema, I’d put my coat back on.
The prayer hall itself is a wide, high ceilinged space; the congregation faces the ark, which has a beautiful glass door, and there are three large arches, each with stained glass windows, directly above. The design and colour of the windows is stunning, with a whole range of symbols and motifs hidden within the image. It’s like a Jewish Where’s Wally puzzle. I spent a good while just looking at the window, trying to work out what the shapes and outlines were.
The service was led by the synagogue’s Italian rabbi, Rabbi Andrea Zanardo, assisted by a female congregant sitting in the front row who belted out the tunes with the enthusiasm and gusto of an entire choir.
The morning of my visit coincided with a baby blessing for a little girl, which was a privilege to watch. I sat motionless in my seat, as the rabbi blessed the baby and her parents, in front of their family and friends. To clarify, I sat motionless because the wooden chairs in BHRS are quite possibly the noisiest and creakiest shul chairs I’ve ever sat in. The slightest movement created an almost deafening creaking noise that reverberated around the entire synagogue and threatened to wake the sleeping baby, blissfully unaware of the blessings being showered on her.
Not only are the pews creaky, but the hinges on the book rest in front of me could have done with a few drops of WD40 too. Every time I put my siddur down on it, it creaked, noisily. I wondered if it was somehow locked in position, but as I tried to investigate, it came away in my hand. I sat there, mortified, holding the offending book rest and looked around me. Of all the things you expect to get from a shul visit, a fine for criminal damage isn’t one of them.
Creaky furniture notwithstanding, a few things stand out from my visit. The first, is that as the Torah scroll was carried from the ark and paraded through the synagogue, the rabbi followed behind. Nothing remarkable in that, except that he stopped to shake hands, welcome and wish "Shabbat Shalom" to every single person that he passed. Then, on the way back to the ark after the Torah had been read, he did the same thing. More handshakes, more welcomes, more greetings. He personally greeted (twice!) every single congregant. A simple but heart-warming gesture.
After the sermon, which included a discussion as to whether there is a synagogue in Ambridge, the fictional setting of the Archers radio show, (for those who are interested, there is; it’s in Felpersham, apparently), the Torah was read. This was followed by the haftarah, recited by four young teenagers. They appeared nervous and excited in equal measure to participate in the service.
Their contribution seemed to me to be part of a wider effort to make the shul genuinely inclusive. Other elements that pointed to this were a small section at the back of the prayer hall sectioned off for toddlers and young children, and in the announcements before the end of the service, and again in the Kiddush, the rabbi personally thanked the security and catering teams, by name, for their hard work.
After the service, a generous celebration Kiddush was held, hosted by the parents of the still sleeping baby girl. A number of members came up to say hello to me, and I chatted to the rabbi and his wife for a long time about life in Brighton generally and the synagogue in particular.
Rabbi Zanardo mentioned the fact that most people, including some of the wardens, were away that morning, enjoying a well-earned post-festival lie-in. So the findings of that consulting report do seem to ring true. But, notwithstanding the cold and the dodgy furniture, I was really rather pleased I’d gone against the trend and made it to shul. If BHRS can pull off a service and Kiddush like this on the slowest Shabbat of the calendar, I’d say it’s a fair bet that it’s worth visiting during the height of the season.
Warmth of Welcome 4*
Read the Secret Shul-Goer's first 11 reviews, of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, West London Reform, Radlett United, Kol Nefesh Masorti, Wimbledon Reform, St John's Wood Liberal, Dunstan Road, Lauderdale Road, Lubavitch of Edgware, Oxford Jewish Congregation and Kinloss.