The Secret Shul-Goer's awards for 2017

Want to know where to get the best Kiddush, or whose sermon is best? Our undercover writer reveals her winners....

December 27, 2017 11:13

As the year draws to a close, and the national media outlets prepare their annual reviews, I thought I’d jump on the bandwagon, and offer a Secret Shul-Goer round-up of 2017, as well as present some awards to the best synagogues I’ve visited this year.

Since this project began, I have visited just shy of 20 synagogues, and 14 reviews have been published so far. In that time, only one person has directly asked me if I am the secret shul-goer (I lied, obviously) and even my nearest and dearest have no idea that it’s me, despite the fact that I have visited the synagogues of two close relatives and one very close friend. That said, I am pretty certain that a couple of rabbis and some shul members have their suspicions. But apart from that, I think my cover is safe. For the moment, at least.

I chose the star-rating categories before I actually started my undercover visits. I was sure that the warmth of welcome, the generosity of the Kiddush, the level of decorum and the service itself would cover anything that prospective members or visitors would need to know about a synagogue. But now, with the benefit of hindsight, I realise that other categories would have been useful too. I can’t revisit every synagogue, and it seems unfair to change the categories mid-way through the project. So here, as a one-off, are some of the areas that have unexpectedly caught my eye over the course of this project.


It seems obvious, doesn’t it? Print a sign in a clear font and stick it on the wall. But I have been amazed by how poor the signage is in most of the synagogues I visited. There were some that were so badly signed that it was impossible to navigate the building without asking for help. And when, as was often the case, there was nobody to ask, I found myself climbing random flights of stairs or arbitrarily opening doors before I found the correct room.

The worst offenders were those synagogues that offer different children’s services for different age groups, each with their own, often Hebrew, name. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, except that it isn’t at all clear to the first time visitor which service is intended for which age group. Are my children "tutim" ("strawberries") or "tziporim" ("birds")? Is my daughter a sapling, or a branch? I have absolutely no idea.

On more than one occasion I found myself having to work out, by trial and error, which service was the correct one for my kids’ age group. And when you are in an unfamiliar synagogue, surrounded by people you don’t know, you don’t want to be asking strangers if your youngest child is a bubelah or a kneidel. So, my first request to all synagogue management teams is this. Put a clear sign on the door of the prayer hall. And another directing women to the gallery, if there is one. But most importantly of all, put up a sign that clearly states the age or school year on the door of each children’s service.


Every business consultant will tell you that your website is your shop window. And some of the synagogue websites that I saw, in preparation for my visits, were outstanding. They were clearly laid out and easy to navigate, with friendly text, lots of pictures, and straightforward access to all of the information I needed.

But a good number of them shared the same drawbacks. Firstly, if you didn’t know otherwise, and only had information gleaned from a synagogue website, you would be forgiven for thinking that a synagogue is not really a place for prayer, but is actually a party venue. Most synagogue websites advertise their halls for event hire. But some took the advertising to a whole new level. On one of the synagogue websites I visited, the home page told me, in a huge banner sliding across the screen, that the shul hall is available for hire, catering for 350 theatre-style or 300 for a seated buffet reception. However, by contrast, I had to work my way through umpteen "clicks" to find out the times of the Shabbat morning service.

And that’s when the information was there. On some of the websites I came across, there was almost no information accessible to non-members. Of course, I recognise that we live in a time of heightened security. But let’s face it. Everyone knows that the synagogue will be holding a Shabbat morning service. It’s not going to challenge any COBRA briefing or security Code Red if you tell a non-member that you’ll be starting at 9:30 rather than 9:45. The worst offender, which I will tactfully leave anonymous, was a synagogue website that invited prospective members to join via a LEARN MORE button, which, when clicked, led to a "restricted access" message. Basically, you need to be a member to find the information on how to become a member?!

The “join us!” dis-join

The website of every single synagogue I visited, with the exception of one, included a page that invited prospective members to join their shul. Many did so with warm words of encouragement.

“Join us! We’d love to welcome you as a member of our community!”

“We always enjoy welcoming new members.”

“We would love to have you join us!”

But that warm encouragement was accompanied with a quite baffling array of hoops to jump through. There are forms to fill in depending on your marital status, lists of ID documents that need to be presented if you are already a synagogue member, and burial scheme membership numbers that need to be provided. One website, which offered a particularly fulsome invitation to join, immediately followed it up with links to a standing order form, a direct debit form and a gift aid declaration.

Now, you might think, fair enough. A website just offers the information, but the real invitation to join is done in person, when a visitor is actually in the synagogue building. But this wasn’t my experience. When I made my undercover visits, none of the shuls that offered online invitations to join made any effort to find out what my name was, so that they could follow-up my visit and ask me if I was interested in joining.

At every shul I visited, when I chatted to members, or even to the synagogues’ leadership team, there was no attempt to take my phone number or email address, or even to ask if I was interested in joining. Perhaps that’s as it should be? Maybe visitors don’t want to be bombarded with invitations to join? But after almost 20 shul visits, and on the back of such fulsome online encouragement, I am surprised that nobody has ever so much as started a conversation about joining their shul? (I have decided not to take this personally….)


I’m not an art critic. I don’t read Interiors Magazine and I’ve not seen a single episode of Makeover Home Edition. But I have been blown away by some of the shul buildings in the UK. I thought I was pretty knowledgeable about the Anglo Jewish community, but I had absolutely no idea that we were sitting on such an amazing architectural heritage. Of course, there are some synagogue buildings that are looking slightly tired; some house congregations that have depleted over the years and now feel a little abandoned. And others meet in rented space or make-shift accommodation. But some of the synagogues I visited were nothing short of spectacular. If I could encourage you to do one thing in 2018, it would be to make the effort to visit some of these amazing buildings.

In addition to the architecture, I was privileged to see some stunning stained glass windows, and beautiful textile art. One day, an art historian will pick up where these visits left off, and research the beautiful drawings, fabrics, Torah mantles and stained glass that currently decorate our synagogues. We have an artistic Judaica tradition to be proud of. Some of it is simply breath-taking.

And on that positive note, here are the 2017 Secret Shul-goer Awards:

Most beautiful synagogue building: West London Reform Synagogue

Honourable Mention: Lauderdale Road Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue

Most welcoming community: Lubavitch of Edgware

Very honourable mention: Wimbledon Reform Synagogue

Most beautiful stained glass windows/doors: Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue

Honourable mention: Radlett United Synagogue

Comfiest synagogue seats: Radlett United Synagogue

Honourable mention: St Johns Wood Liberal Synagogue

Best synagogue website:  Wimbledon Reform Synagogue

Honourable mention:  Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue

Best music/singing: Wimbledon Reform Synagogue

Honourable mention: Lauderdale Road Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue

Best sermon: Rabbi Alexandra Wright, St Johns Wood Liberal Synagogue

Honourable mention: Rabbi Jeremy Gordon, New London Synagogue

Best children’s experience: Oxford Jewish Congregation

Honourable mention: Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue

Best Kiddush: Lauderdale Road Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue

Honourable mention: Finchley United Synagogue (Kinloss)

Read all the 2017 Secret Shul-Goer reviews: Hampstead Garden Suburb SynagogueWest London ReformRadlett UnitedKol Nefesh MasortiWimbledon ReformSt John's Wood LiberalDunstan RoadLauderdale RoadLubavitch of EdgwareOxford Jewish CongregationKinlossBrighton and Hove ReformMill Hill United and New London Masorti.



December 27, 2017 11:13

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