Secret Shul-Goer No 35: New West End Synagogue

Was the Secret Shul-Goer sussed?

June 09, 2019 12:02

Name of Synagogue: New West End Synagogue

Address: St Petersburgh Place, Bayswater, London W2 4JT

Denomination: United Synagogue (Orthodox)

Rabbi: Rabbi Dr Moshe Freedman

Size of Community: 200-300 member households

The New West End Synagogue is something of a paradox. In fact, I think I’d go further and say that everything I expected to find at this synagogue turned out, not just to be false, but to be the exact opposite of what I had anticipated. I’d expected formality, and stiffness and a strict focus on decorum. The Jewish equivalent of ‘High Church’, if you will. What I actually experienced was a morning of friendly conversation, genuine warmth and an abiding sense that I was being invited into a community of friends. It was, without question, the most welcoming and friendly experience I’ve had at shul for a very long time.

The contradictions begin with the name of the shul itself; this so-called ‘New’ establishment is now almost 150 years old. And there is a sense of Anglo-Jewish history everywhere you look, from the foundation stone laid by Leopold de Rothschild in 1877, to the gold seat plaque proudly noting that Chaim Weitzman, first President of the State of Israel, occupied his seat from 1931 to 1938.

I had chosen to go to New West End Synagogue on that particular morning because I had matinee tickets to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. So, I figured I’d kill two birds with one stone; I’d hear the Bible in its original version in the morning, and the updated musical version in the afternoon. As it turned out, the original was just as entertaining as the rebrand.

Given its West End location, opposite Hyde Park and a stone’s throw from the museums of central London, security was tight. The synagogue is used to tourists turning up, and so the website instructs visitors to notify the office in advance. I had forgotten to do this, so armed with my passport and a nebulous connection with a long-standing member who is the ex-father-in-law of an old university friend, I smiled and asked to be let in. Unsurprisingly, the security guards needed slightly tighter credentials than my grainy passport photo and a vague familiarity with someone who wasn’t there, so I was asked to wait while members were sought to determine my suitability for entrance.

During the negotiation that followed I was asked my profession and, without thinking, replied ‘I’m a writer’. The member then asked ‘Oh, so do you write about shuls?’ after which he paused and looked at me, while I frantically hoped he hadn’t put two and two together.

Before I could find a seat, a female congregant approached me and asked if I’d like to sit with her. I glanced down and noticed that the man who had interviewed me at the door was already sitting back in his seat. I mention this to clarify that there is no way he would have had time to inform the woman who welcomed me in the gallery that I might be on a secret mission. In other words, her welcome was genuine, and not prompted by this column.

As we sat and chatted, she introduced me to a number of other members who came and sat with us, told me a little about the history of the synagogue and pointed out some of the key features of the décor. I don’t think I have the words to do justice to the interior of this synagogue – it is quite simply spectacular. Huge columns rise from floor to ceiling, with gold foliage carvings at the top of each one. The ark is topped with five domes. And along the walls are engraved Hebrew phrases in gold, carved into the marble walls and along the wooden trim. At the front and back of the building are two huge rose windows that are simply breath-taking.

Given these rather splendid surroundings, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the service would be a stuffy affair, with old-fashioned cantorial set-pieces in an operatic style. But, in fact, the music of the service was much more Steven Sondheim than Yossele Rosenblatt. The leader of the service gave a rousing rendition of his show-tune-chazzanut, supported by four male singers who stood in a semi -circle in front of the bima.  To get a sense of the experience,  imagine Il Divo covering the Repetition of the Amida on a red-brick Gothic-inspired stage. Sadly, I wasn’t familiar with any of the tunes, and so I wasn’t able to join in, which was a shame. But the sound was wonderful, and I was more than happy to sit back and enjoy the show. Which perhaps was just as well; it meant I could save my vocal chords for belting out ‘Go Go Go Joseph!’ from the Grand Circle of the Palladium a couple of hours later.

It was during the rabbi’s sermon that I realised that my cover had perhaps been blown. The rabbi, Rabbi Dr Moshe Freedman, welcomed visitors to the synagogue, specifying “Returning visitors, new visitors, even secret visitors.” So, yes, I’d been rumbled.

After the service there was a small kiddush, where the rabbi and a number of other members introduced themselves to me. All were incredibly friendly. It was then that I was told that the choir members had, between them, sung at the Royal Opera House and on the West End stage, and that the synagogue puts on a musical Purim spiel in which the whole community participates. I was even invited to sign up. Although, had the members heard my lame interpretation of ‘Close Every Door to Me’ a few hours later, they might have withdrawn the offer.

As the congregation started to disperse, the rabbi and his wife invited me to their home for lunch, which I sadly had to decline, and the woman who had sat next to me gave me a brief tour of the downstairs of the synagogue, pointing out some of the architectural highlights that I’d missed from the gallery.

New West End Synagogue is, undoubtedly, a very beautiful synagogue. Few can boast such a spectacular design. But the overriding feeling I had as I left the shul was that, however impressive and stunning the physical surroundings, the real beauty of this synagogue is the people that make up its community.


Warmth of Welcome 5* (I’d like to give it more!)

Decorum 4*

Service 5*

Kiddush 4*

June 09, 2019 12:02

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