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My synagogue is closing, and there's so much to miss

Gloria Tessler is determined to keep the spirit of Hendon Reform Synagogue alive

    Like many shuls that have dwindled over the years, Hendon Reform Synagogue is leaving its heartland, its Danescroft home, for ever. There is no way around it, the shul is dying; of its 700-strong ageing community, only 10 per cent still remain in the area. It may not feel that way during wedding or bar/batmitzvah celebrations when younger people infuse the place with their vibrant energy. But then they are gone, leaving a wistful nostalgia behind them.

    Its merger with Edgware Reform is virtually complete. Two communities, each with separate histories and identities will wonder — as in an arranged marriage — whether they can be happy together. It will work for some, less so for others. Some will reject the merger altogether and move elsewhere.

    But what is less easily dissipated is the emotional attachment felt for a synagogue. People who had not attended services for years thronged the official concluding Shabbat to reconnect with old friends, old memories. There were few dry eyes when the rabbi received a standing ovation.

    “It’s too sudden”, someone turned to me, sadly. “There is no time to grieve. Shouldn’t there be a mourning period for a dying synagogue?” But how does one grieve for a synagogue?

    What will I miss about this institution, this blue-carpeted sanctuary bounded on each side by commemorative stained glass windows into which you can stare for hours and find a different meaning each time? There’s the choir; an exceptional blend of voices, not all of them Jewish, woven together by choirmaster Joseph Finlay, who skilfully infuses the liturgy with a chord or two of a Handel sarabande, and his own original compositions. Liturgy, then, is constantly recreated. So, not to be grieved over.

    The community’s founder, the then Orthodox rabbi Dr Arthur Katz had his eye on a Progressive future when he opened the synagogue in 1949. His son Rabbi Steven Katz joined as an associate rabbi in 1975 and has led the community up till now, a dynastic link which lends it special grace.

    Hendon Reform was an island of Progressive Jewry, in a sea of Orthodoxy. And this isolation had a doomed charm for me. I was not brought up with synagogue allegiance, despite attending a Strictly Orthodox primary school where I endured the agony of classroom whispers because I was shopping with the au pair on Shabbat.

    My husband and I tended to experiment. New London Synagogue, where we married, its daughter shuls, New North London, Edgware Masorti — we tried them, admired their qualities, but finally joined Hendon, with its blend of ancient belief and modernism.

    It may have had something to do with Rabbi Katz’s caring qualities and his wry wit which belie a deeply felt Jewish philosophy. A gifted orator, twice a finalist in The Times Preacher of the Year Contest, he once said he wanted “to touch lives with the warmth and wisdom of Jewish learning.”

    My family was only one of many for whom Rabbi Katz has offered pastoral wisdom or consolation at times of celebration and tragedy. So, at the dying of the shul’s light I will remember our son’s barmitzvah, my parents’ passing, my divorce, the sudden death of my ex-husband and a painful, high-profile probate action in the High Court.

    It is intensely difficult to think of that building without Rabbi Katz and all that his ministry has meant to me. Even visualising moving to another synagogue fills me with horror. Hendon is home.

    So can one — should one — grieve for a synagogue? Thankfully, Rabbi Katz is joining the merged team of rabbis at Edgware and Hendon. Our building will soon be filled by other people with their own noisy lives, a school, it is rumoured.

    A shul, in the end, is not a human being to grieve over, for whom you say kaddish and sit shiva. What survives of it cannot be defined. It is up to us to keep the spirit of Hendon alive.

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