Coffee and meditation: Chabad comes to the suburbs

Lubavitch's new centre in Hampstead Garden Suburb offers a contemporary multi-purpose space for people to find a connection to Judaism


"I love doing this,” said Rabbi Bentzi Sudak as he ground the beans before coaxing a fresh cup of coffee out of the machine at Lubavitch’s newest centre this week.

“Bentzi the barista,” chimed wife Rochie. 

Although Lubavitch is renowned for setting up off the beaten track, its newest centre is in a Jewish London heartland — Hampstead Garden Suburb.

A former bathroom salesroom has been converted into an attractive, multi-purpose suite with mosaics of little wooden tiles and a heat exchange system that pumps in fresh air every 15 minutes.

In the front, there’s a café corner with counters on wheels — one of which doubles up as the bimah for Shabbat services — and a lounge area with books and colourful contemporary Judaica on sale, including some striking glassware from Rabbi Sudak’s sister, Esther Kesselman. 

The hall behind serves as a shul and a hot-desking area and can be divided into classrooms. 

Building started last March and while activities are increasing, it is still a work in progress. There is no sign yet on the outside and, walking past, you might not realise what it is were there not a display in the window advertising the latest Jewish Learning Institute course, “Meditation from Sinai”.

Before opening, “we did a lot of research asking how can we cater for what people need in their lives,” Rabbi Sudak said. “We’ve created a very flexible space.”

The mechitzah is made up of mobile bookshelves which also contain power points. “During the week, you can come in and reserve a desk,” Rabbi Sudak explained.

“During Covid, we realised that things were going to change. People get isolated working at home.”

They will be able to book some work space and network with others “instead of schlepping into town”.

The multi-functional facility displays more than design neatness; it reflects a deep-rooted philosophy. “Judaism believes that every person has a specific mission for which they were born,” Rabbi Sudak said. 

Centre users will be able to explore different opportunities to express their talents.

The programme will range from creative classes to a mother and toddler group with a curriculum designed to help social and emotional development.

There will also be a Sunday morning drop-in where men can lay tefilin and have breakfast.

Chabad HGS aspires to be a place where you can “feel a deep connection with Yiddishkeit” and experience the depth of its practices. 

For example, the Friday night One Shabbat service, which was invented by medieval Kabbalists, is intended to “take you from stress to serenity”.

A few dozen are attending the Friday night and Shabbat morning services, which started last month and include a children’s programme. Around 100 adults and a similar number of children came for High Holy-Day prayers.

Rabbi Sudak was gratified when one woman told him that she had taken her children out of school on the second day of Rosh Hashanah to attend.

While one of the United Synagogue’s largest congregations, Norrice Lea, lies a short walk down the road, he believes the centre to be a complement rather a competitor. “There are more than 6,000 Jews in the Suburb,” he pointed out.

During the festival services, “one of my friends came in from Norrice Lea to say hello and he could count on one hand people that he’d recognise from the shul. People attending here are looking for a different kind of experience.”

Most activities will run on weekdays and what people gain he hopes will enhance their experience of Jewish life elsewhere. “The children who come here now will be far more likely to engage in mainstream shuls in the coming years.”

In particular, the Sudaks want to develop after-school clubs and programming for youth. The Lubavitch C-Teens network encompasses 20,000-30,000 youngsters across the Jewish world and includes a global Shabbaton for some 2,000 to 3,000 in New York with a concert in Times Square.

Rabbi Sudak is importing the Jewish Discovery Programme for bnei-mitzvah boys and girls which, rather than focusing on a ceremony or party, aims to provide an insight into what the rite of passage into Jewish adulthood actually means.

“It drives home the idea that each one of us matters and has something the world needs us to contribute.”

He hopes it will encourage students to continue their Jewish learning during their teens.

“When you have passed your driving test, you don’t say:  ‘I don’t want to get into a car again’.”

The flooring, the luminous ceiling which mimics natural light and the coffee machine are some of the features that around 300 supporters have made possible. He won’t divulge how much the centre has cost, saying only: “Definitely a lot less than it looks”.

As for its need, he quoted a Norrice Lea member who said: “The question is not what is going to be our future if you open but what is going to be our future if you don’t”.

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