Secret Shul-Goer No 30: Sha’arei Tsedek

Fittingly for a month filled with references to America's Thanksgiving festival, this week's service has our Secret Shul goer weighing up what she's thankful for - and what she could have done without

November 21, 2018 09:38

Name of Synagogue: Sha’arei  Tsedek (North London Reform Synagogue)

Address: 120 Oakleigh Rd N, London N20 9EZ

Denomination: Movement for Reform Judaism (Reform)

Rabbi: Rabbi Shulamit Ambalu & Rabbi James Baaden

Size of Community: 400-499 member households

There is a game that my siblings and I used to play whenever we travelled on long car journeys. It was one of those motorway word games that would help us while away the hours, and which those of us of a certain age remember with a combination of warm nostalgia and acute embarrassment. The kind of game that our kids, raised in an era of electronic in-car entertainment systems, rarely play. In fact, whenever my kids start bickering in the back of the car over whose turn it is to choose the movie on the iPad, I threaten them with the one question that is guaranteed to make them behave impeccably all the way from Land’s End to John O’Groats: “Do you want to travel 1970s style??”, which is code for turning off all electronic gadgets and playing ‘Fortunately/Unfortunately’. (Sometimes, to give them the full 1970s experience, I whistle the theme tune to Sing Something Simple.)

The game goes something like this. One child begins by making a statement, for example, “There is a mouse in the kitchen.” The next child has to add one sentence, beginning with the word ‘Fortunately’, so that might be “Fortunately, the cat chased the mouse away.” Play then passes to the next child, who says another sentence, this time beginning with ‘Unfortunately’; “Unfortunately, the mouse is my brother’s pet.” And so the game continues, back and forth. “Fortunately we can buy a new one at the pet shop.” “Unfortunately, the pet shop is closed today.”

Now, the reason I mention word games in a synagogue review is that visiting Sha’arei Tsedek Synagogue felt like taking part in a two-hour version of Fortunately/Unfortunately. (Which, incidentally, is just shy of our family record of 2 hours 27 minutes.) Throughout my visit to the shul, as soon as I experienced something positive, something less positive would come along to take the edge off. And whenever I found myself lamenting a particular aspect of the experience, something would happen to lift my spirits up again. For the whole time I was there, my experience ricocheted from great to grim and then back again.

Overall, the visit felt something like this:

Fortunately, my two children and I were welcomed effusively in the foyer of the synagogue by a male congregant who handed me a Siddur, and then gave each of my children a ‘kid’s pack’. This was a really big deal for me. Taking kids to shul, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the synagogue, or if there is no children’s service, can be more than a little tricky. A kid’s pack is something that I’ve not seen at any other shul I’ve visited so far, and was a really lovely touch. Actually, it’s more than that. It’s a stroke of genius. My kid’s faces lit up when they were each given their pack, a large plastic wallet, with kids’ activities inside. There was a jig-saw, a picture book, some pipe cleaners and one of those magic writing pads.

Unfortunately, the contents of these packs have clearly not been checked in a long time. Half the puzzle pieces were missing, the writing pad was used up, and the picture book had most of the pages ripped out. So within minutes of sitting down, my kids put the packs to one side and began reading the books they had brought with them. Which is such a shame because this is a genuinely brilliant idea for entertaining young children while simultaneously enabling their parents to participate in the service.

Fortunately, the warm welcome of the foyer greeter was not the only friendly interaction we enjoyed that morning. A few minutes after we sat down, a woman approached us, introduced herself and handed me a leaflet with the week’s Torah Portion printed inside it. I immediately felt part of the congregation and, while my kids read their books, I started to follow the service.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the most inspiring service I’ve ever been to. There was very little singing; no choir or musical accompaniment, and not much in the way of participation from the congregation. It was very much led from the front by Rabbi James Baaden, who recited the prayers aloud, mainly in Hebrew, occasionally in English. To be honest, I could have done with an adult’s activity pack of my own. As it was, I did find myself absent-mindedly braiding the pipe cleaners from one of the kids’ packs while my mind wandered from the prayers.

Fortunately, the synagogue is an airy, bright and modern space, and it was lovely to just sit and take in the surroundings. The wall and ceiling on one side of the room are curved in the shape of a surfer’s wave. Coloured glass squares are dotted around the wall that surrounds the ark, above which the Hebrew verse from Psalm 118 reflects the name of the Synagogue: Open the gates of righteousness for me; I will walk through them and praise God. The décor is modern and sleek; wood panels surround the ark doors and pulpit, and the brightly lit room is spacious, with very comfortable purple seats arranged in a loose horseshoe shape.

Unfortunately, the bright spacious interior was perhaps a little too spacious for the congregation on the day that I attended, as there were not that many people there. Perhaps forty or so. This had the effect of making the congregation seem overly dispersed throughout the room.

Fortunately, the small congregation meant that my kids and I had an entire row to ourselves. As a result, my younger child was able to lie down completely flat across three seats.

Unfortunately, she promptly fell fast asleep.

Fortunately, the Rabbi gave a short sermon before the Torah reading that refocused my attention and explained the contents of the portion. He talked about the sibling rivalry described in the parasha and the message it offers to us today. As a parent of young children I found myself nodding in complete agreement. The sermon was clear, well explained and brief.

Unfortunately, it was not the only sermon delivered that morning. At the end of the Torah reading, the rabbi gave a second sermon which, to be perfectly honest, is at least one too many.

Fortunately, the sermon was genuinely interesting and entertaining. For reasons I can’t quite recall, the main theme of the speech seemed to be on Jewish composers, with a special emphasis on those who had written Broadway Showtunes. The focus was certainly more Rodgers and Hammerstein than Jacob and Esau.

Unfortunately, by this point in the service, my children were getting a little restless. One had finished her book and was starting to fidget in her seat. The other was trying to undo the pipe cleaners I had meticulously plaited during the early part of the service.

Fortunately, a woman sitting near us could sense their impatience and whispered to us with a friendly smile “Not long now!”

Unfortunately, I got the distinct sense that her words were based more on hope than experience.

Fortunately, the service ended with a rousing rendition of a Hebrew song that my kids know well from school assemblies. The rabbi enthusiastically led the congregation like a conductor of a large choir, dividing us into two groups, and encouraging us to sing the song in a round. My kids were especially excited to join in and it was a joy to watch them sing at the tops of their voices.

Unfortunately, this was the only bit of the service that they were realistically able to participate in.

Fortunately, Sha’arei Tsedek recognises the need for services that are inclusive for young children. For that reason, the synagogue puts on special services specifically directed at families with young children, where there is a focus on singing, storytelling and audience participation.

Unfortunately, my visit was a week too early for such a service. (Although, when I suggested to my children that we might come back the following week for the special kids’ service, they genuinely seemed quite keen.)

Overall, I’d say that the ‘fortunately’ outweighed the ‘unfortunately’. The people were welcoming, the building was bright and the children were not ignored. As I left the building, my feelings were not dissimilar to how I used to feel at the end of those long car journeys of my childhood. There may have been a few bumps in the road, and a certain amount of staring blankly into the middle distance, but the company was great and, by the end, I was really rather pleased I had gone.

Warmth of Welcome 4*

Decorum 4*

Service 3*

Kiddush 3*

November 21, 2018 09:38

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