Name of Synagogue: Mill Hill United Synagogue
Address: Station Road, London, NW7 2JU
Denomination: United Synagogue (Orthodox)
Rabbi: Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet
Size of Community: 1000-1500 member households
Before I attended Mill Hill United Synagogue, I did what I always do to prepare for an undercover visit. I checked out the synagogue’s website. There was a helpful checklist of do’s and don’ts for the first time visitor. Or rather, a fairly long list of don’ts, including don’t smoke, don’t use your mobile phone, don’t take pictures, don’t wear a mini skirt. (It probably would have been simpler to just advise visitors to picture their perfect night out, and do the opposite.)
But apart from that, information about the synagogue and the community it serves was very difficult to find. Most of the website’s pages are ‘restricted’, and require a password to gain entry. Perhaps this is sensible in the current security climate, but I did wonder whether someone at Mill Hill United has been watching too many TV thrillers.
In a bid to find out more, I googled the synagogue, and discovered that the shul’s rabbi, Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, has his own Wikipedia page, which cites this paper’s description of him as "one of the most outspoken Rabbis in the world". I wasn’t sure whether that claim was originally intended as a compliment or a criticism. It put me in mind of my old Latin teacher, who would never praise a student’s work any higher than writing "adequate" at the bottom of the page. Occasionally, he would write "very adequate", and we would agonise over whether that was better or worse. Either way, Rabbi Schochet clearly embraces the epithet of "most outspoken rabbi in the world", and has included it in his own Twitter profile.
With these preparatory investigations under my belt, I arrived at the synagogue, to find that the restricted access of the shul’s website extended to the building as well. A sliding metal gate, manned by two volunteer security guards, blocked the entrance to the shul. There was a brief moment of silence while one of them looked me in the eye and waited for me to speak. I wondered if I needed a secret password to get into the building. I considered whispering “most outspoken” in a knowing tone, but instead simply mumbled a quick "Good Shabbos" and gave the accompanying nod of the head. This did the trick; the metal barrier was opened and I was allowed in.
At this point, my experience of the shul shifted from Cold War spy thriller to an episode of 80’s TV show Treasure Hunt. I opened the door that was directly in front of me, to find myself in a huge lobby, with double doors to my left, and stairs leading up and down. After hanging up my coat, I paused to work out where to go next.
With nobody to guide me, and no signs indicating where I should go, I channelled my inner Anneka Rice, and opted to go up, since that’s where the women’s gallery usually is. But when I got there, the space was completely deserted. So, I retraced my steps, back to the lobby, and this time took the staircase leading down. Again, another large but deserted space. As I climbed back up the stairs, feeling rather like Alice in Wonderland, I bumped into two children and asked them where the service was. They politely informed me that this was the children’s service building and the main service was in the building next door.
So, coat back on, and outside I went, to find myself face to face with the same steely-eyed security volunteer, who asked me if I wanted to go to the main service. He pointed me towards another door, this time with a number key pad, into which he punched in a number-code and let me in. (So yes, you do need a password to get into the main building.)
Finally, I arrived at my destination. The women’s gallery of Mill Hill United Synagogue.
Now, I have visited a lot of synagogues since beginning this project. I’ve attended services from pretty much every denomination of Judaism and have tried, as best I could, to embrace the values and traditions of each denomination, without judgement and without bias. I have attended each synagogue on its own terms, and welcomed the experience each synagogue offers.
But, and it’s a big but, that was really very difficult to do at Mill Hill United because the design of the building is so disadvantageous to women that it skewed all aspects of the experience. The ground floor of the synagogue follows a traditional design; rectangular floor space, ark at the front, bimah in the middle and seating pews on three sides. The space is brightly lit with a high ceiling and large light fittings. But the women’s gallery only has seating along one wall – the small wall facing the ark.
As a result, by the time I’d made it through the game of snakes and ladders at the front door, there were only a handful of spare seats, all on the back row. As is clear from previous shul-goer reviews, I have sat in women’s galleries that suffered from restricted view many times. But I have to say, and I do so with extreme reluctance, Mill Hill United was a whole new level of restricted view. Put simply, you cannot see a thing.
Either sitting down or standing up, the entire bimah, and much of the ark is entirely obstructed. Add to this the very low ceiling and dim lighting at the back of the gallery, I could barely read the words in my Siddur, let alone hear what was going on in the service downstairs. Honestly, I would have been better off staying in the children’s service next door.
I’m sure the service was led beautifully. I’ve no doubt that the Torah was recited flawlessly and correctly. I imagine the men below, and the women in the front couple of rows of the gallery, thoroughly enjoyed it. But from my vantage point, at the back of women’s gallery, I was entirely disconnected from the action. I sat there, like the Marrog from Mars, that nobody nobody knows.
I feel bound to add that there was also a lot of chatting. The service was interrupted fairly frequently by long ‘shushes’ from the bima. (Well, I assume it was from the bima. I could hardly see my own feet by this point.) In fairness, when the Rabbi delivered his sermon, you could hear a pin drop. And his delivery was excellent. After a few introductory jokes, which were very funny and which I’d not heard before, he presented a message that was succinct and clearly explained, and he delivered it with clarity and passion.
My visit to the shul coincided with a Bar Mitzah, which I assume accounted for the scarcity of available seats when I arrived. The Rabbi’s words to the Bar Mitzvah boy were clearly genuinely offered; rather than being outspoken, he seemed to warmly invite the 13 year old to embrace his tradition, and had clearly made an effort to get to know the boy and his family.
But the rest of the service felt like an activity that was happening elsewhere, to other people.
After the service, we were invited to Kiddush, which was served back in the adjoining building that I’d incorrectly entered earlier in the morning. There was a delay of about 10 minutes before the assembled congregants were given the go-ahead to eat, during which I chatted to a number of regulars, who were extremely friendly and welcoming. The Kiddush itself was standard kiddush fare; bridge rolls, cakes, pastries, and fruit. There were also a few plates of raw carrots.
I munched on the carrots as I chatted to shul members, and wondered whether these would have been more helpfully served before the service, to assist the night-blindness at the back of the gallery. But as I chatted to the regulars, it was clear that they love their synagogue and their community. I was struck by the difference between their experience as regulars, and mine, as a visitor. It was apparent that they feel very differently about the experience of Mill Hill United than I did. And who am I to contradict them? Perhaps, at the end of the day, I’m just the most outspoken shul-goer in the world?
Warmth of Welcome 3*
Read the Secret Shul-Goer's first 12 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, Kinloss and Brighton and Hove Reform.