Hadley Wood goes from Zoom to boom under young rabbi

'Welcoming' North London shul is enjoying a surge in membership led by a rabbi happy to discuss football on WhatsApp


Joining the Hadley Wood United congregation “at the height of lockdown” in 2020 was challenging for its young rabbi, Akiva Rosenblatt.

But the one chink of light was that the necessity of maintaining communal life online enabled Rabbi Rosenblatt and his wife Batya to connect speedily with members of the north London shul, including Zoom participants who might not have attended physical services.

Through building those relations and positive word of mouth, three years on, the rabbi can not only report an upsurge in numbers, with 100 new recruits swelling adult membership to around 350.

“The cheder run by my wife has doubled in numbers since we joined and we are expecting 150 people for a shul barbecue, which is a nice number for a smaller community.”

His confidence in Hadley Wood’s potential is evidenced by plans for a local eruv — which would link up with the existing Barnet eruv — and the launch of a branch of the emergency service Hatzola, in conjunction with the Barnet and Southgate communities.

“Non-judgemental” and “welcoming” are common observations about the congregation. As Rabbi Rosenblatt acknowledged, housing in the proximity of the shul can be “quite expensive”. Membership has been attracted from a wide area and there is the unspoken understanding that many could not attend services on foot.

Craig Greene, 40, who joined last autumn, travels from Shenley in Hertfordshire on Shabbat.

Although there are numerous congregations closer to his home, he wanted to find “somewhere I felt I belonged more” and friends had recommended Hadley Wood.

“I’m not massively religious but want to be able to take part,” he explained. “I went to a service and the rest is history. Bigger shuls haven’t moved fast enough to accommodate those who are less religious.” He believes Rabbi Rosenblatt is pivotal to the shul’s growth.

“He’s young, accepting and understands what’s needed. You can talk to him about football on WhatsApp.”

Greene is sometimes accompanied to services by his ten-year-old daughter and reports the shul is “very kid friendly”.

That sentiment is echoed by Hannah Ross, whose family joined Hadley Wood last year.
“When we moved to the area, one of our first visitors was the rabbi,” she recalled. “We ended up chatting for an hour.”

Ross said Hadley Wood was “not your typical north London shul. There’s a family environment — no cliques. You get to know people very quickly. There’s lots of young families and lots of intergenerational contact, which with [three] kids makes it easier.”

She also appreciated the rabbi’s support for women’s involvement, adding that she was hosting a women-only Kabbalat Shabbat service.

Shul chair David Allen said its expansion was a testament to the quality of provision. There was “a great reaction” from first-timers at services but the shul also offered a range of social and cultural activities including fitness sessions, art classes, a poetry group and gardening club. These were open to anyone, “one way we get new members”.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Rosenblatt continues to devote significant energy to maintaining contact with those who do not attend services.

To encourage more to do so, he instituted a Hebrew reading class. “When people come to shul, they say there’s a warmth [of welcome] and they don’t feel second class,” he noted. “But sometimes people are uncomfortable when they can’t read Hebrew.”

After negotiating various planning hurdles, the shul extended its premises pre-Covid. And Allen says that despite the membership influx, “at the moment, our building can handle it”. But if the growth continued, there would be a decision to make.

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