Secret Shul-Goer No 29: Pinner United

It's been a long run of shul-going - even for our resident Shul-Goer - thanks to the yomtovim, but this visit helped our reviewer find a new passion for shul

October 24, 2018 09:38

Name of Synagogue: Pinner United Synagogue

Address: 1 Cecil Park, Pinner HA5 5HJ

Denomination: United Synagogue (Orthodox)

Rabbi: No rabbi at present

Size of Community: 500-750 member households

The first thing I did when I sat down to write this review was google “phrases with the word penny in them”. I wanted to weave in some cute word-play that connected the word ‘penny’ with a phrase that would somehow encapsulate my visit to Pinner United Synagogue. ‘In for a penny, in for a pound’, perhaps? Or ‘Penny for your thoughts’.  That kind of thing.

I was feverishly googling ‘penny’ because, on the way home from visiting the synagogue, I had already decided to break a promise I’d made to myself when setting out on this secret shul-going project, over a year ago. That promise, which I’ve stuck to religiously until now, was a commitment to avoid mentioning by name any individual member of a synagogue. I have referred to synagogue rabbis by name, but never lay congregants.

However, for my review of Pinner United, I’ve decided to make an exception. Because my visit was wholly and entirely transformed, for the better I hasten to add, by a woman called Penny.

Let me set the scene.

It was the shabbat after Simchat Torah. By that point, I had spent the best part of four weeks in my own synagogue. Two days of Rosh Hashanah, which coincided with a stint on the security rota. (Cue hundreds of awkward conversations with less-than-regular members taking personal offence because I don’t know who they are. Although, to be fair, not recognising my best friend’s father was careless.) Then a day of Yom Kippur, on which I somehow ended up looking after my own and a friend’s children. Then two days of Succot, where I had found myself on the kiddush rota, and spent what felt like hours plating up cakes and tiny cups of wine, setting them up in the succah, only to bring them all in again when it started to rain, and then back out again when the rabbi suggested we risk it anyway. Then, finally, the joy of Simchat Torah, and the consequent juggling of merry middle-aged men dancing off the effects of too much Glenfiddich on an empty stomach, and children high on bumper packs of Rumplers and KLBD Fanta. I don’t mean to come across like the female version of a Jewish Victor Meldrew, but honestly, by that Shabbat, I was thoroughly shuled-out. So, more to the point, were my children, which meant that I visited Pinner Synagogue on my own.

And so, feeling a bit peeved to be back at shul, I arrived at exactly the same moment as some regular members arrived. The man on security clearly knew them very well, so while they were all rather animatedly chatting to each other, I snuck into the building, unnoticed and unchallenged. Given my experiences on the other side of this delicate dance over the High Holydays, I was pretty relieved to avoid the synagogue doorstep interrogation.

Men and women sit separately at Pinner, but on the same level. After making my way to the women’s side, I took a siddur, found a seat, and began to take in my surroundings. The décor of the synagogue is modern and functional. There is a lot of internal exposed brickwork, which put me in mind of the set of Prisoner Cell Block H. And the ceiling, made up of huge, white 3D shapes, resembles what can only be described as a massive packet of paracetamol. Around the walls are various memorial plaques and some stained glass windows. And on one side of the room is the ‘Michael Rosen Wall’. I assume that you can’t go under it, and you can’t go over it, you just have to go through it. If my children had come with me, they’d have laughed at that. As it was, I chuckled to myself, as I sat there on my own.

Perhaps it was my solitary giggling that caught Penny’s eye? Or maybe she always notices the lonely stranger? Either way, after sitting on my own for less than twenty minutes, a woman came up to me and introduced herself as Penny. Taking a seat next to me, she asked me the usual questions; who I was, where I live, why I was in town. I answered some questions honestly, and fudged others. But Penny persisted. When she got up to fetch a chumash, she got one for me too. She chatted about the history of the shul, and the benefits of the surrounding area. She asked me whether I had children, and then told me all about the local school, the synagogue’s kids’ events and the activities for teens and young adults. I am not exaggerating when I say that I have been present at top city firms where professional pitches for million-dollar contracts have been presented with significantly less passion and conviction than Penny’s Pinner PR campaign. If I was in the market for a new synagogue, and not a sneaky journo with an ulterior motive, I’m pretty sure I would be a paid up member of Pinner United by now. Every synagogue needs a Penny. She noticed that I was on my own, made me feel welcome, and explained the service’s anomalies as we went along.

One of those anomalies is the lack of a rabbi. Pinner United is currently ‘between rabbis’. As a result, the service was led entirely by lay volunteers. But it was led so well that I honestly wouldn’t have known. Indeed, there was a friendly informality to the service. Genuine good wishes were offered to those called up to read from the Torah. The birth of a baby was marked with a rousing rendition of ‘Siman Tov u-Mazal Tov’, and, rather pointedly I thought, a gentleman celebrating his 95th birthday was called up to the Torah at the exact moment that the service leader read the portion describing the life of the 900-year-old Methusaleh. And whilst I might have been keen to put the Holiday period behind me, at Pinner they were still in festive mood, giving public thanks and rounds of applause to those who had been honoured at Simchat Torah.

All in all, it was an up-beat, friendly service, in which the sense of community was very clear.

After the service, Penny accompanied me to the kiddush, introduced me to some other members, showed me the best place to stand for optimal access to the Parkways kichels, and basically ensured that I didn’t feel forgotten or abandoned. She was the difference between a lonely, isolated experience, and one which was warm, welcoming and friendly. Which is why, within hours of returning home, I was frantically Googling pithy penny-related phrases. Because shuls are ten-a-penny. And some of my experiences have frankly been penny-dreadful. But communities that offer visitors a welcome like I received at Pinner United? They’re worth every penny.

Warmth of Welcome 5*

Decorum 4*

Service 4*

Kiddush 3*






Read our first 28 reviews, of Shir HayimAnshei Shalom, shul on a shipSt Albans Masorti Synagogue (SAMS)Muswell Hill SynagogueBushey United SynagogueEdgware and Hendon ReformCockfosters and North SouthgateFinchley ReformNew London SynagogueHampstead Garden Suburb SynagogueWest London ReformRadlett UnitedKol Nefesh MasortiWimbledon ReformSt John's Wood LiberalDunstan RoadLauderdale RoadLubavitch of EdgwareOxford Jewish CongregationKinlossBrighton and Hove Reform Mill Hill UnitedIlfordShomrei HadathWoodside ParkAlyth and Barnet United. And read her end-of-year awards for 2017 here.


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October 24, 2018 09:38

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