It’s early on Sunday morning and the kitchen of Muswell Hill Synagogue is running like a well-oiled machine. Rob is filling teapots with hot water, Steve is putting out the bagels while Neil attends to the spreads. Nobody needs to ask what to do, after years of the same ritual they just know. The atmosphere is part boy scout pow-wow and part working men’s club, with a lot of chortling over a long-running in-joke about the bread knife being referred to as “The Lawton” after a former member who donated it.
Every week this group of regulars meets to wind the leather straps of tefillin round their arms and heads and intone the Shacharit morning prayers, sitting down afterwards for breakfast and an opportunity to chew over the latest news. It’s a routine that has given them a bond, as though the tefillin has fastened them to each other as well as to God.
‘It’s not a second family but it’s very close to it,’ says Lawrence Cohen, who has been coming along for 20 years.
It was my own father-in-law Marcus Brown who made me aware of the deep value of small prayer to Jews across the globe, from teenage Israeli soldiers on the frontline in Gaza to men of a certain age in Golders Green. In the Orthodox tradition, a minyan of ten men is required to enable a mourner to say Kaddish, a key part of every service, so simply turning up to make up the numbers is a vital contribution to ensuring that it can go ahead.
My father-in-law was a minyan man to his core. He started driving his Vespa scooter to Palmers Green and Southgate District Synagogue when he was saying Kaddish for his own father in 1961, and he never stopped. For more than 50 years he went there every morning before zooming off to Whitehall, where he worked as a civil servant, sometimes returning on his way home for the evening services Mincha and Ma’ariv.
We still have the hand-made, framed certificate he was presented with in 1998 to honour his decades of loyal attendance.
So loyal that Marcus’s white helmet could be seen chugging up Brownlow Road until just a few months before his death at the age of 91. But while prayer was his calling, he didn’t take synagogue membership beyond religious requirements. I don’t think my father-in-law ever went to the shul’s social events, he wasn’t an honorary officer, and he never sought the limelight in any way.
Even though he never said it, I believe his daily observances gave him all the spiritual nourishment he needed. Knowing that ten men were required to say Kaddish gave him a reason to be there, a routine and a sense of quiet satisfaction.
For Lawrence, a district judge, the reasons for going to Muswell Hill Synagogue on Sundays seem more complicated. He tells me cryptically that he doesn’t go for the religion, but admits that he wouldn’t bother just turning up for breakfast if there wasn’t any praying.
“My lack of involvement in it is part of the enjoyment,” he says. “Even turning up late is a critical part of the pleasure”, he says, adding, “I’m not great davener but I am an amazing talker.’ Watching Lawrence at prayer, I’d say he gets way more out of the religious aspects than he cares to admit.
As the morning rolls on, I realise that he loves the ritual – not just of the service itself but the well-honed breakfast routine too. And there’s something else – it’s all about the people. “There’s probably a core of about maybe ten of us”, he says. “There’s the sense of a group. We’re not just individuals.” Over 20 years he’s got to know every single one of them and though he is keen to stress that newcomers get a welcome so warm it’s almost overwhelming, an intense feeling of brotherhood among the regulars gives the gathering a much greater meaning for him than the busier and longer Shabbat observances with crowds of worshippers, many of whom he barely knows.
Some people go to daily Shacharit to say Kaddish just for the year of mourning after a close relative’s death. And even if they then stop, it is a broad understanding of the importance of that observance that underpins attendance everywhere.
There are services every single day of the week, either in person or remotely at the New North London Synagogue (NNLS), part of the Masorti movement which describes itself as offering “traditional Judaism for modern Jews”.
And though each weekday offering follows a different minhag, or set of customs and practices, they all count women towards the minyan of ten. Retired civil servant Judith Bernstein has been joining the egalitarian morning service here every Tuesday since June.
Though like Lawrence she describes herself as “not particularly religious”, Judith takes the trouble to cycle up the road to shul for seven o’clock once a week, because “it’s important to people who are more religious and who are saying Kaddish in the year of their mourning or who have their jahrzeit.
“We also have people attending via Zoom but it’s nice to be in the room. And although we are a very large shul it’s just something I can do.
“It’s relatively easy for me and means a lot to other people.”
For Ronnie Cohen, who is now in his eighties, retirement is an opportunity to indulge his love of tennis, but it also means he’s available for morning prayers before he sets off to knock some balls across the court. Immensely proud of being a founder member of NNLS, he has, he says, “a very, very warm spot in my heart for the synagogue and I want to support it and I go to almost everything I can”.
Like many others I’ve spoken to, for Ronnie a few minutes devoted to prayer is a wonderful start to the day. “It’s a spiritual experience. I commune with my God and leave feeling great.” And he is far from alone.
Shul attendance dropped off after the pandemic, but he has noticed that since October 7 many congregants have returned.
In other places, the number as well as the gender of the minyan can vary. Originally from Italy, the Rabbi Andrea Zanardo of Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue initiated prayer meetings on Zoom three times daily at the beginning of the pandemic to provide a much-needed structure for his congregants.
The morning session continues now, with participants spread around the country.
Dr Zanardo, who describes himself as being “on the traditional side” of the Reform spectrum, has a deeply humanistic take on the composition of the minyan.
“For me the concept of minyan is very important because it motivates people to go to synagogue, but I want to be very flexible about that because it is so painful for mourners when they cannot say Kaddish,” he explains.
“I ask everybody in the group how many awake Jews they have in their home and if we reach the number of seven then that’s enough.”
He says the most deeply moving moment for his daily prayer group came when a woman who was waiting to hear from the Beth Din about her conversion could finally be counted towards the minyan.
Back at Muswell Hill, things adhere to a more traditional format, which means that though women are welcome, it tends to be a men-only space. Lawrence likes it this way and I doesn’t “think it’s sexist to say so.” He adds that synagogue has groups and activities that are reserved for women and that he finds vital support from the company of other, highly trusted, men.
My husband Steve, who is also a regular at Muswell Hill on Sunday, agrees.
“I do like the men-only paternalistic aspect of the minyan in Orthodox Judaism. It creates a safe space.’