Secret Shulgoer No 38: Belsize Square Synagogue

A fantastic kiddush - but did our spy pick the wrong week to visit?

November 07, 2019 15:42

Name of Synagogue: Belsize Square Synagogue
Address: 51 Belsize Square, London NW3 4HX
Denomination: Independent
Rabbi: Rabbi Stuart Altshuler, Cantor Dr Paul Heller, Rabbi Rodney Mariner
Size of Community: 100-199 member households

Every year, as the cycle of weekly Torah portions comes to an end, I find myself reading the story of Moses’s death with almost inconsolable sadness. That might sound melodramatic, but I’ve been somewhat obsessed with our famous ancestor ever since I was forced to watch all six episodes of Moses the Law Giver, at just five years old. Family legend has it that, when the final episode aired, and Burt Lancaster began his fatal ascent up Mount Nebo, I hid behind the sofa and refused to come out, explaining to my bemused parents that “I can’t bear to watch Moses die”.

Even at that tender age, I understood the unbearable unfairness of it all. There he was, faithfully leading his ungrateful flock for 40 years and, then, just as they reach the border of the Promised Land, he dies. And in a cruel concluding plot-twist, God lets Moses climb a mountain to view the land he’ll never set foot in. Like some divine Jim Bowen, God shows Moses what he could have won.

I mention this for two reasons. Firstly, because I visited Belsize Square Synagogue on the week that we read about Moses’s final days. And, secondly, because there was a sense of, “This is what you could have won” about my whole visit.

That feeling began the moment I arrived at the building, and was met with a series of baffling signs. On large double doors that open on to the prayer hall there was a sign telling me NOT to enter the synagogue here, where the view of the service is direct and unobstructed, but instead to use side doors that lead to seats with a somewhat restricted view. Added to that, on either side of the prayer hall are two further doors, leading to Promised Lands of their own. But, like Moses on Mount Nebo, we’re not allowed to enter. One sign tells me “The Children Service Cannot Be Reached Through This Door” and the other that “This Door Must Remain Closed AT ALL TIMES”.

As it happens, sitting at the side and towards the back of the synagogue was an enjoyable experience. The building is light and airy and the decor has a modern feel to it. The ark doors have an art deco-esque design and the glass banister around the gallery adds to the sense of openness and space.

Perhaps appropriately for a synagogue that is proudly independent, and which stresses on its website that it is “neither Orthodox nor Reform” there was a feeling of both tradition and innovation to the service. Tradition was represented by the exclusively Hebrew liturgy and the formal choral offerings of the cantor, dressed in full canonicals.

Innovation was represented by the Wurlitzer-sounding organ played from the gallery, mixed seating and the gaggle of excited children who took to the bimah with an enthusiastic rendition of Adon Olam.

And yet, throughout the morning, there were repeated “This is what you can’t have” moments. Perhaps that was due to the unfortunate timing of my visit? (The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when attendance is low and the clergy understandably exhausted.) But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing the real experience that Belsize usually offers.

For example, when the choir began singing, the person sitting next to me explained that the regular, professional choir, was away and that this choir was made up of ad-hoc volunteers. They weren’t exactly terrible, but a few sessions with Gareth Malone wouldn’t have gone amiss. Similarly, when Rabbi Stuart Altshuler began his sermon, he spent the first few moments rifling through a pile of papers, explaining that these were his prepared sermons for the upcoming Yom Kippur services and he needed to ensure that we didn’t hear them yet. So, instead of the sermons that we couldn’t have, he offered a short summary of the parasha in a voice that was almost hoarse, no doubt from extensive New Year sermonising.

And yet, at the end of the service, my FOMO feelings evaporated entirely. The kiddush was fantastic — a generous offering of filled pitot, pastries, fruit and dips accompanied by liberal amounts of whisky. And, even more importantly, the members of the congregation, depleted in number though they were, were incredibly welcoming and friendly. Many came up to say hello, some offered to give me a history of the synagogue and their personal connections with it; most encouraged me to come back on a “normal” Shabbat. And so, after a slightly deflated service, I left the building convinced that, in that final half-hour, I had been afforded a glance of Belsize Square’s Promised Land. And from that vantage point, it looked beautiful.

Warmth of Welcome 5*
Decorum 4*
Service 3*
Kiddush 5*


November 07, 2019 15:42

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