Name of Synagogue: Westminster Synagogue
Address: Kent House, Rutland Gardens, Knightsbridge, London SW7 1BX
Rabbi: Rabbi Benjamin Stanley
Size of community: 500-750 member families
We live in dangerous and worrying times. Consequently, every synagogue I have visited over the past few years operates some kind of security system. Some use professional security guards on the front gate; others rely on teams of dedicated volunteers. All are aware that they toe a fine line between ensuring that congregants are safe inside our shul buildings, whilst at the same time enabling visitors to feel welcome. As someone who has visited over twenty five synagogues over the past 18 months, I know how difficult this balance can be to get right. It’s a challenging, often thankless, task and it’s fair to say that our synagogues simply couldn’t operate without the hard work and dedication of these security teams.
That said, I feel I need to begin this review by setting out the security arrangements at Westminster Synagogue.
I had hoped to visit in late September. On the Friday before my anticipated visit, I checked the synagogue’s website for location and timing details, only to discover that all visitors must apply to the synagogue office, in advance and in writing, for security clearance. So, I hastily made alternative arrangements and reviewed a different synagogue.
A few weeks later, in mid-October, I returned to the Westminster Synagogue’s website and set about filling in the visitors’ security form. This turned out to be a slightly more arduous exercise than you might expect. The form opened with requests for the usual information: Name, Date of Birth, Date of Intended Visit, and Nationality. That seemed simple enough. But then the form went on. It asked for my home address and how long I have lived there. (If less than ten years, a previous address was required.) Still the form was not yet done. I had to supply my mobile phone number, my job title, the name of my employer and my religion. Finally, it asked for the reason for my visit. Actually, not quite finally. Because in addition to all that, I also had to supply a copy of an official ID document, with photograph.
As I scanned my passport into the email and hit send, two thoughts filled my head. The first was that this was not exactly the best way for a secret reviewer to keep her identity under wraps. The second, was that this form-filling process was only slightly less complicated than my recent mortgage application. In fact, as security interrogations go, I’ve had an easier time dealing with El Al security teams whilst travelling as a single female carrying nothing but a beaten up rucksack and a ticket bought for me by someone else. A welcome open-door policy it wasn’t.
But, as I’ve noted, we live in dangerous and worrying times, and who am I to criticise how institutions deal with these pressures? They wanted a form. So I filled in the form. I received a confirmation that my information had been sent to the synagogue’s security team. And I waited for a response. And waited. And waited.
After a month without any reply, I called the synagogue office to ask if I was now free to visit. Without asking for my name or any other information, the pleasant voice on the phone said ‘Oh, you can just turn up. Give your name to the guard on the door.’ So that’s what I did.
It was only when I arrived at the synagogue building, an enormous Victorian town house located on a private road in Knightsbridge, that I realised that this was quite unlike any other synagogue I have ever visited before. There were two Bentleys parked outside. Once inside, we stepped into a large hallway, with tall ceilings, enormous ornate light fittings and panelled walls. The hallway opened onto a grand winding staircase leading up to the ‘Sanctuary’ upstairs.
Everywhere I looked I noticed the kind of fine detail that put me in mind of a National Trust venue: marble pillars, wrought iron balustrades, decorative wainscoting around the windows and doors. It was luxuriously grand, and I began to understand the need for the tight security.
I brought two of my children with me on the morning of my visit. They wore bridesmaids dresses, the type of dress that would have looked ridiculously out of place in any other synagogue. At Westminster, it was the perfect choice.
On our way up the stairs to the service, we were greeted by a middle aged man who asked if we were interested in the religion school. I thought he meant the Sunday morning cheder, so I said no. It was only later, when I suddenly noticed lots of children under the age of ten who hadn’t been in the service, that I realised that the ‘religion school’ takes place on a Shabbat morning, at the same time as the regular service. If I’d worked it out sooner, I would have taken my children to try it out. As it was, they read their books quietly in the corner while I followed the service.
Although Westminster is officially independent, and is not formally affiliated to any denominational movement, it has its roots in the Movement for Reform Judaism, and is progressive in its religious outlook. This was displayed perfectly on the morning of my visit, which coincided with a Bat Mitzvah celebration. I have no hesitation in stating, on the record, that the girl who celebrated her Bat Mitzvah that day was the most impressive young woman I have ever had the pleasure of hearing in a synagogue. She led the majority of the service. Then she read from the Torah scroll. Then she delivered a series of blessings. She had a confidence and a presence that any rabbi would be proud to possess. Indeed, she was so good, that I forced my daughters to stop reading and made them stand up and watch her for a while, hoping they would be suitably inspired.
And if her contribution wasn’t splendid enough, she was followed by Rabbi Benjamin (Benji) Stanley who delivered the best sermon I’ve heard at any Secret Shul-Goer visit. He beautifully weaved together the predicament of Jacob leaving his father’s house, with the anniversary of the Kindertransport and the current Syrian refugee crisis. It was, all at the same time, a passionate commentary on the Bible, a lesson in national history and a call to social action. The ten minutes that he spoke made the time I’d spent filling in the application form 100% worthwhile.
You might think that that was the highlight of the visit. And, in spiritual terms, it was. But shul-going is a matter of both mind and body. An uplifting service feeds the mind, but the body needs sustenance too. And on that score, Westminster Synagogue certainly didn’t disappoint.
Now, I have described kiddush fare many times in the past. I’ve waxed lyrical about filled bagels and mini pitta and sushi and kichels. And all of that, and more, was on offer at Westminster. But there was something here that was a shul-goer first. I don’t need to go into detail. Two words will suffice.
And not just pink champagne. But pink champagne served in proper Breakfast-At-Tiffany champagne boats. It was the chicest, most glamourous kiddush I’ve ever attended. To be honest, it made the experience feel more like a private members club than a synagogue. Which, to some extent, it is. So much so, that the extensive form that I had to fill in back in October has been removed from the website. In its place is the simple notice: “Visitors by appointment only”. If my experience is anything to go by, it’s more than worth the effort.
Warmth of Welcome 3*