Denomination: United Synagogue (Orthodox)
Rabbi: Rabbi Shlomo Levin, Rabbi Eli Levin, Rabbi Shlomo Odze
Size of Community: 500-750 member households
South Hampstead Synagogue is, according to its website, “More than just a SHul”, with SHul spelled with capital SH to highlight South Hampstead’s initials. I imagine that whoever came up with that idea was mighty pleased with themselves, although, if I’m being picky, the strap-line that follows: “A vibrant, growing modern orthodox Jewish community in metropolitan London with a reputation for warmth, humour, informality, innovation and a non-judgemental approach” is not exactly the catchiest I’ve ever come across. Indeed, it’s a while since I’ve read anything that screams ‘wording agreed via committee’ quite so loudly.
But, on its claim to be ‘more than just a SHul’, I’m prepared to give South Hampstead the benefit of the doubt, not least because whatever virtual promises it makes online, the synagogue more than matches in bricks and mortar. Oh, the bricks and mortar of South Hampstead Synagogue!
The shul recently re-opened after an eye-watering £14 million rebuilding project which, to this reviewer’s watering eyes, seems money well spent. The building is the epitome of effortless elegance. Tall ceilings, clean white walls, sharp corners, and a perfect blend of glass and wood create a space that is minimalist and unashamedly chic. If I’d been parachuted in blindfold, (and let’s face it, if any synagogue in London has its own helipad, it’s probably South Hampstead) I’d have bet good money that I was standing in a branch of White Cube galleries. Ironically, with the exception of a single poster depicting a dancing Chasid, the one thing the building lacks is any ornamentation, although I’m reliably informed that a number of Israeli artists have been commissioned to rectify that.
To the first time visitor, the building really does feel “more than just a shul”; this is a community centre. And according to one person I chatted to in the kiddush, the intention is that the building will be used every day, for a range of activities, including toddler groups, adult education classes, “even Zumba”.
It’s easy to be dazzled by the striking building and, Zumba aside, there’s obviously more to a synagogue than fancy infrastructure. But there were many things that I warmed to at South Hampstead.
First, there was a connection between rabbi and congregation that I don’t think I’ve witnessed anywhere else. Rabbi Shlomo Levin spoke to his congregants with a soft, gentle voice and a glint in his eye, that gave me the unmistakable impression of a man who loved his flock and was loved in return. The cynic in me winces when I write that, but the fact is that the over-riding feeling I was left with after the service was that this community loves and respects their rabbi, and he loves and respects them.
Secondly, there were many small, but significant, attempts to include women as much as possible. This goes beyond the seating arrangements, which allowed for a clear view of the service. Women recited the prayers for the Royal Family and State of Israel and girls were included in the group of children singing Anim Zemirot on the bima. I shouldn’t have been surprised by this because the synagogue’s website indicates its more open attitude to women. For example, the three Rebbetzins are independently listed within the rabbinic team, and both men and women are explicitly invited to attend all weekly and daily services. Women who wish to recite Kaddish are also welcome to do so. That said, I was a little baffled by the synagogue’s position on women’s head coverings. I respectfully arrived at the shul gate wearing my beret, only to find that I was one of a tiny handful of women covering their heads. The vast majority did not wear hats at all, and there were none of those curious fascinator things that make the front row of a shul look like Royal Ascot Ladies Day.
The service itself was pleasant enough, with plenty of page announcements, and Rabbi Levin explained the Torah reading before each new portion was read. Although the noise level was quite high, the overall atmosphere was, as that strap-line promised, informal and non-judgemental.
At the end of the service, I followed the crowd through those white-walled corridors towards the kiddush which, given the surroundings, I expected to be good. I was right. It was good. In fact, it was a little too good. Bowls of hot cholent and tins of kugel vied with platters of sushi, duck pancakes with plum dipping sauce and fish goujons. It was all delicious, but I’m minded to conclude that the same committee that struggled to whittle down the shul’s ethos to fewer than 23 words were later tasked with ordering the food for the kiddush. Clearly, modern minimalism is all very well when it comes to chic new buildings. But where kiddush is concerned, you can’t beat a bit of old-fashioned excess.
Warmth of Welcome 3*