Grand Central aims to be a key West End destination


United Synagogue congregations nowadays tend to appoint youth or assistant rabbis as their second minister, rather than a chazan. But one West End community has been prepared to go against the grain.

Previously part-time at Central Synagogue, Steven Leas was made full-time a year ago - the only full-time chazan currently serving a US shul.

And it is not only musical talent that the Central has invested in as Mr Leas has been the driving force behind its expanding social and cultural programme, relaunched recently under the title of Grand Central.

"We want to make this the JW3 or London Jewish Cultural Centre of the West End," he said. "There were a lot of local people not affiliated to any particular shul and we are trying to get them involved. A synagogue is more than a place of prayer, it's a place of community." People who had not previously visited the shul were coming in to take a Pilates class.

A year ago, a film club was launched at the home of one of Central's veteran members, Ze'ev Galibov, called Ze'ev's Place. "We started with three, four, five and now we get 30," Mr Leas said. "We're going to have to move it to a hall and spend money on a sound system and projector because we were turning people away.

"A number of members said that we had a lovely service but they didn't understand it and couldn't read Hebrew. So we started Hebrew classes in association with the Spiro Ark. We started with two, now we have eight a week."

A highlight is the series of classical concerts that take place in the sanctuary. The musical programme may not be explicitly Jewish but, said Mr Leas, "each concert must have a connection to something Jewish so we have an essay written about a Jewish thought prompted by the piece".

Other events lined up include food and cultural evenings with different cuisines from around the Jewish world.

He and Central's rabbi, Barry Marcus - both of whom are from South Africa - have also increased Shabbat hospitality, hosting regular lunches and starting children's services. "Before we were hardly getting any kids, the last time we got 40, which is amazing for this type of synagogue," Mr Leas added. "We do see people coming to shul as a result. If you engage the kids, you engage the parents and grandparents."

Once a month, he leads a choral service on Shabbat morning which, he stressed, is "not a concert. While we may do one classic piece of chazanut, we sing modern harmonies which people can identify with."

Founded in 1870 and rebuilt after the war, Central is one of three US synagogues in the West End, along with Western Marble Arch and New West End.

For many years, there have been suggestions that three is at least one too many and that a merger could help free assets for the US to plough into emerging communities elsewhere. Central and New West End have two of the US's three most valuable properties. They are jointly sitting on close to £30 million of real estate.

US president Stephen Pack said earlier this year that "if you take the two closest together, Central and Western Marble Arch, everybody agrees there should be one [but] nobody can agree which".

This is not a debate Mr Leas wants to get into. "Each of these synagogues has a different feel to it," he observed diplomatically. The three communities are, in fact, about to launch a new joint education programme, Connect, later this month. The first evening, on fashion, has already attracted attention because one of the guest speakers will be designer John Galliano.

Whereas many old congregations have numerically declined, Central has managed to increase its membership from 623 to 711 in a decade. Grand Central is intended to keep it on a roll.

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