Secret Shul-Goer No 14: New London Synagogue

Members of the congregation are more critical than our undercover writer in the Shul-Goer's latest report...

December 19, 2017 16:42

Name of Synagogue: New London Synagogue (NLS)

Address: 33 Abbey Road, London NW8 0AT

Denomination: Masorti Judaism

Rabbi: Rabbi Jeremy Gordon

Size of Community: 500-750 member households

Jews, it seems, love their affairs. 

I should probably clarify that. What I mean is that, when it comes to describing moments of Jewish national crisis, the word "affair" seems to be the description of choice. The Damascus Affair. The Dreyfus Affair. The Lavon Affair. A catastrophe isn't really worth worrying about, until someone labels it an "Affair". 

I'm not sure who wields the power to elevate any given calamity into a full blown affair, but once the epithet takes hold, the incident automatically finds itself promoted from historical footnote to major moment of Jewish history. Time will tell, for example, whether recent wrangles within the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue will be remembered as an inconsequential blip or a significant development. But given that it's already been described as "The Dweck Affair", my money is on the latter. 

And of all the Anglo-Jewish affairs, the most notorious, and the one casting the longest shadow, is the "Louis Jacobs Affair", which became a cause celebre in the mainstream press and led to the most significant schism in modern Anglo Jewry. Indeed, given the acrimony that followed, you'd be forgiven for assuming that Rabbi Jacobs had actually had an affair, rather than write a challenging book that his boss didn't like. 

Of course, this isn't the place to elaborate on the ins and outs, and the rights and wrongs, of the Jacobs Affair. Indeed, the only reason I raise it now is its relevance to this column, because it was this affair that led to the establishment of the New London Synagogue, home of this week's Secret Shul-goer visit.

New London Synagogue is a striking Grade II listed Victorian building, located in London's famous Abbey Road, a short walk away from THAT zebra crossing. The exterior is quite imposing, with sharp clean lines, and repeated arch patterns in the windows, brickwork and doorway. The interior is very beautiful. Narrow columns rise from floor to ceiling throughout the prayer hall, and the windows and wall panelling repeat those tall narrow arch patterns. At one point in the service, when my mind briefly wandered, the rows of repeated archways put me in mind, a little irreverently, of the opening credits of The Muppet Show.   

The shul website, truth be told, is a bit wordy. Lots of text and very few pictures. If I'm honest, I lost interest after a few pages of dense paragraphs. Had I persevered, I would probably have discovered that the service at NLS fluctuates between "traditional" and "egalitarian". On the morning of my visit, the service was "traditional" which, if I understand the website correctly, means led by men but with women counting as part of the minyan. That said, a woman read the prayers for the Royal Family and State of Israel. 

Both men and women sat downstairs, in separate areas, but without a physical barrier. Men were allocated two thirds of the available space, which made the women's section a little snug. And although extra seating was available for women in the upstairs gallery, few seemed to make use of it. The result was that I found myself sitting cheek by jowl, literally, with other congregants, and able to hear what should have been private conversations. Of which, more later. 

NLS is part of Masorti Judaism but as far as I could tell, the service, beautifully led by Cantor Jason Green, was identical to the one you would find at any United Synagogue. They used the same prayer book, sang the same tunes, read the same Torah portion. 

My visit coincided with the celebration of what was tactfully announced as the "significant birthday" of two regular members. The Rabbi, Rabbi Jeremy Gordon, discreetly refused to reveal their individual ages, but did announce that their combined age was now 160. After the Torah reading, in which both (I'm guessing, octogenarian) birthday boys participated, Rabbi Gordon delivered a sermon based on an article written by his famous predecessor, on whether the celebration of birthdays is a halachically acceptable Jewish practice. 

It was quite unlike any sermon I've heard in a while, and I have to say, I really enjoyed it. Rather than simply address the congregation from the pulpit, Rabbi Gordon handed out a copy of the article to all assembled congregants, and together with them, he read through the paper, discussing the issues it raised, and explained how these fit within the sweep of Jewish thought, as well as the philosophy and world view of Rabbi Jacobs himself. 

It was more mini lecture than traditional sermon. I don't know if this was a one-off, or whether sermons at NLS often follow this format. But I found it thought-provoking, challenging, and intellectually demanding. It felt to me, as an outsider with only a cursory knowledge of the "affair", a very appropriate way to honour the legacy of the synagogue's founding rabbi. 

But, as is the case with all synagogues, even those not born out of bitter schism from the mainstream, there is always an alternative view. And, as it happened, on the morning of my visit, I found myself sitting perilously close to the two most disgruntled shul-goers I've ever encountered. (And given the sometimes critical nature of this column, that's saying something.) Due to the crowded seating, I could hear every word of my neighbours' conversation. And none of it was positive.The room temperature? Too cold! The lighting? Too bright! The Torah reading? Too quiet! The sermon? Too long! The children? Too noisy! The list of complaints went on and on.

I have no idea whether these congregants were life-long regulars or first-time visitors, but their list of complaints was endless. The shul's arched windows had already put me in mind of the Muppet Show. Now, I had the benefit of a live version of those two old grumpy guys in the balcony box. I tried to concentrate on the service, but when the focus of complaint turned to the colour of the stripes on the Rabbi's tallit (for the record, they were blue) I actually snorted with laughter. Undeterred, the women continued to critique the service, including the speed with which the Cantor carried the Torah back to the ark (too slow) and the choice of tune for Adon Olam (too fast). 

Feeling a little redundant as a shul reviewer, but reassured that at least my outlook was generally a sunny one, I made my way to the side hall for Kiddush. It was a decent spread; generous tables filled with Kiddush favourites, and a single malt that was particularly welcome on a cold November morning. I chatted to members and visitors alike, and the atmosphere in the room seemed warm and friendly. One couple enthusiastically explained to me why they had chosen to marry at NLS and how much they and their young kids love the community. 

As I walked home, I reflected on the difference between the acrimony that I'd read about regarding the Jacobs Affair, and the warm atmosphere that I had experienced. It was a genuinely lovely morning of community and prayer. And as I write this now, I am imagining the reaction of NLS's own Statler and Waldorf to this review. Secret shul-goer? Too positive! 

Warmth of Welcome 4*

Decorum 4*

Service 4*

Kiddush 4*

Read the Secret Shul-Goer's first 13 reviews, of Hampstead Garden Suburb SynagogueWest London ReformRadlett UnitedKol Nefesh MasortiWimbledon ReformSt John's Wood LiberalDunstan RoadLauderdale RoadLubavitch of EdgwareOxford Jewish CongregationKinlossBrighton and Hove Reform and Mill Hill United.








December 19, 2017 16:42

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive