Ark reopening: London shul's name change signals hybrid future

Rabbi of the congregation formerly known as Northwood and Pinner Liberal says its reach has 'expanded to other cities, countries and continents' during the pandemic


Liberal Judaism’s second largest congregation has changed its name, partly to reflect the growing wider community it has been serving online during the pandemic.

The Ark Synagogue (formerly Northwood and Pinner Liberal) is also a means to attract those who Rabbi Aaron Goldstein feels might hitherto have been dissuaded from joining because of a locational misconception. “We are literally only 20 to 30 minutes from Central London,” he points out.

Like many shuls, Ark has witnessed a dramatic increase in online involvement over the past year. And although Rabbi Goldstein stressed that his congregation — numbering 1,400 including children — remained “deeply anchored in our local neighbourhood, the reach has expanded far beyond to other cities, countries and continents”.

Pre-pandemic, attendances at physical Shabbat services with no bar/batmitzvah were around three dozen. Now there are up to 160 people joining online, an estimated 40 per cent of whom are non-members.

Similarly, there were previously around 20 regulars for the shul’s adult learning programme. Now well over 100 are taking part.

Ark has been working with the smaller Progressive communities in Leicester, Edinburgh and York to engage their members with the programme. And Ark encourages its own congregants to support events that those shuls hold. “It’s beautifully complementary,” Rabbi Goldstein noted.

It helped those living outside the major centres of Jewish population to feel that “they are not in the middle of nowhere. They are now in the heart of the Jewish community.”

Although non-members participating online are now requested to make a financial contribution, “people were donating without us asking”, Rabbi Goldstein reported. “The vast majority of people learning with us online donate.

“There are people who will not join us because they are secular but will donate for adult learning. They consider us a community, not a religious organisation.”

Going forward, the shul would consider a variety of models to further monetise its expanded following. But the rabbi explained that Ark already offered a membership category for those living more than 50 miles from its premises.

He added that he had officiated at “Zoom shivahs at 1am and 8am [UK time]” to accommodate mourners living overseas.

Rabbi Goldstein said his shul had been ahead of the curve on a number of issues, such as having a paid care co-ordinator for past two decades, which had been beneficial during the Covid crisis. He also credited the technological expertise of members Leo Mindel and Jon Fiber for the quality of the shul’s web provision.

“We’ve supported all households through the pandemic. Now the issue is how we kick on.”

Having appealed to young families through its programming — and to members’ children at university — “hopefully our average age [currently around 70] will come down”.

Encouragingly, one couple had moved to the area “having experienced us online”.

For the moment, Ark has not resumed physical services, although the expectation is that trial events will be held during the summer. “We have been cautious all the way through,” Rabbi Goldstein said.

“If not so many people are going to come, we don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket. The hybrid model means you don’t leave people behind.

“But I definitely think people want to come back for simchahs.”

He added that the change of both the name and the “look and feel of the synagogue is just part of an ongoing strategy development focusing on what religious, pastoral, learning and social life will look like post-pandemic”.

And as well as the religious resonance of its new title, there was also the happy coincidence that its twin community in Lviv, Ukraine, is called Tevah (Ark in Hebrew).

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