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Confessions of our secret shulgoer

The JC's blogger has a huge following for her anonymous reviews. How did it all start?

    Secret Shulgoer began, as all good ideas do, during a Friday-night dinner with friends, some engaged in Jewish life, others communally disenfranchised. I was describing a synagogue I once visited. It was an impressive building, one of those cathedral-style shuls that don’t get built anymore. I’d arrived around 10 o’clock, and climbed the stairs to the women’s section, treading on threadbare carpet that had seen better days. The high-ceilinged ladies’ gallery was a cavernous space, with long rows of wooden pew seating. It was built to seat hundreds but on that morning it was empty. In this huge gallery, I was completely alone.

    I sat in splendid isolation for over an hour, until an elderly woman arrived. Siddur in hand, she surveyed the deserted gallery, spotted me among the rows of empty seats, and began slowly walking towards me. She scuttled, crab-like, along the pew until she reached me. Then, smiling stiffly, she said, “You’re sitting in my seat!”

    As soon as I finished telling this anecdote, my friends began to argue. Some felt this was a one-off experience; others claimed it was all too typical. And as the discussion became heated, I made a silent decision to put it to the test.

    The idea was simple. I would visit synagogues from across the religious spectrum, and describe my experiences, rather like restaurant critics do. A sort of religious TripAdvisor. Over the past five months, I’ve visited a different synagogue every fortnight, and published eight reviews so far on the JC’s website. Each one includes a star rating, for warmth of welcome, service, decorum and kiddush. I recognise that my handful of visits is not statistically significant, but here, nonetheless, are my thoughts so far.

    Firstly, all synagogues claim to be welcoming but, sadly, not very many of them are. I’ve sat through entire services and stood for a good half-hour at the kiddush, without anyone acknowledging me. Unless someone is expressly tasked with welcoming visitors, the onus falls on regular members, many of whom can’t, or don’t want, to strike up conversations with strangers.

    After all, people attend shul to see friends, say Kaddish, or possibly even to pray. They don’t want to be an unofficial welcoming committee for the shul’s board of management. But the result for the visitor can be painfully alienating.

    The Progressive synagogues I visited ask visitors to notify them in advance. (The one time I forgot to do so, I was almost barred entry.) Consequently, Progressive synagogues tended to be more welcoming than Orthodox ones. Paradoxically, Orthodox synagogues opened their doors wide to unannounced visitors without question but most struggled to offer any meaningful welcome. Ultimately, if you pitch up in a hat and smart shoes, and can say a convincing “Shabbat shalom”, you can waltz right in without anybody noticing you’re a stranger.

    The services I attended differed markedly from each other. Some were entirely in Hebrew with lots of congregant participation; others mainly in English, and strongly led from the front. I’ve heard organs, mixed choirs and male-voice choirs. I’ve sat in glorious neo-Byzantine architecture, à la mode modern design, and a temporary (but not altogether waterproof) marquee.

    In some, frequent page number announcements ensured that I never lost my place. In others, I could barely follow at all.

    However, one thing that held true across the religious spectrum, is that rabbis are really rather important. (There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write!) A Shabbat morning service requires many competent and learned personnel to run smoothly. When the rabbi is away, the feverish behind-the-scenes activity is more pronounced, as are members’ emphatic insistence that I revisit the synagogue when the rabbi is back in town.

    However, and there’s no easy way to say this, if religious affiliation is a spectrum from left to right, then service noise is in direct correlation with a synagogue’s place on that spectrum. At the Liberal synagogue I attended, you could hear a pin drop. At some Orthodox synagogues, I couldn’t hear myself think above the chatter. But decorum, I’ve discovered, is subjective.

    Noisy Orthodox synagogues can shock those used to quiet services but if you’re used to the hum of chatter, as I am, the silence of Reform can feel cold.

    So, what has reaction been to the column? Well, I’ve learnt that nothing angers people more than reviews that criticise the kiddush.

    There was massive variation of kiddush experience, from a small bowl of olives, to a spread that outgunned a wedding reception. My only advice, if you’re after a good one, is to attend a bar/batmitzvah. It seems that young teens can only celebrate the prospect of adulthood with tables that are groaning with food.

    I also discovered that criticism of a shul is taken very personally. I’ve tried to remain neutral, report my experiences honestly, and avoid deliberate offence. But criticism is perceived as personally wounding, even in generally glowing reviews.

    I showered one synagogue with praise for its welcome, singing and kiddush, but mentioned briefly that I didn’t like the decor. Cue angry emails from members who complained about that one negative comment.

    But I’ve also had feedback that supported my findings; for every member that has taken offence, there were others who thanked me for exposing weaknesses at their synagogue. And, perhaps most interestingly, I have been inundated with invitations to visit synagogues, from all corners of the UK, and as far afield as Montreal in Canada. Members insist that their shul will be the perfect synagogue experience. It proves that many people genuinely feel at home in their synagogues, and believe that others will, too. Most are keen to put it to the test.

    And what about that old lady whose seat I sat in? Strangely, I do think of her sometimes when I make my secret shul visits. And, quite unexpectedly, they have changed my perspective. Shuls do have a responsibility to welcome the stranger. That is clear. But their primary function has to be supporting their existing members. Those members, not unfairly, expect their shul to cater for them. So, if one elderly woman, who has watched her shul membership slowly dwindle over the years, but who still turns up, every week, to a deserted synagogue, wants to sit in the seat she’s sat in for the past 50 years, I honestly can’t say I blame her.

    I just reserve the right to note it in my star rating.

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