A Guest post from a recent visitor – Stephen, Manchester
The late Richie Benaud, one of the greatest Australian cricketers of all time, was once interviewed for BBC Radio Test Match Special. In what can only described as a male chauvinistic moment, when asked about the pitch he was just about to play on, he commented: “Cricket pitches are like women, you never know what you are going to get”
I don’t doubt in my mind that if the great Mr. Benaud had been Jewish he could have applied that same epithet when visiting a new synagogue. The mystery certainly does await you; you really never know what you are going to get.
So what is Masorti and how has it come about?
In order to understand this, I decided to take an introspective journey into my own Jewish Alma Mater, the so-called Orthodox way, (Middle of the Road but that’s my definition) as well as both ends of the religious spectrum. All of which I have had the pleasure to experience. To me the shul that I am a member of, is no different to the shul my late grandparents attended, and may be, although I wasn’t around at the time, the shul my late great great ancestors attended somewhere in Eastern Europe.
Of course the chatter was different. Nowadays its football, golf and Brexit, while in the 1880’s it was cows, sheep and “it’s time to go and live with Uncle Moishe in New York”
But basically its the same, if you get the gist. Nothing wrong with that and in fact a warm fluffy blanket to wrap yourself in, so long as you go with the flow and don’t ask too many questions, or mention the opposite sex.
Several years ago it was my pleasure to attend a Jewish service in California. I cannot really pigeon hole or categorize it, but suffice it to say there wasn’t much Hebrew content. The Rabbi, very nice lady was dressed for Glastonbury, with a gypsy top that revealed not an unsubstantial amount of her décolletage. The accompanying Cantor strumming a 12-string guitar being dressed in a similar manner. My wife who knows about these things pointed out that perhaps the guitarist was a he, not a she and that the large Gay Pride kippot, was not really a true indication of gender, more an indicator of religion.
So what of the other end of the spectrum? The fundamentalist and Charedi service. No shortage of that variety in my neck of the woods. Attending in jeans and a T-shirt made me somewhat conspicuous amongst the silk coats and white socks. Yes I did know that together with the streimel this state of dress emulates a Polish nobleman of the 18th. Century. However the contrast to my own garb did make me feel as welcome as Jeremy Corbyn at a Yom Haatzmaut celebration! Things did change once the single malt came out, and my ability to get by in Yiddish opened up a whole new world. A world that offered me warmth and friendship, as well as the prospects of shidduchs for every unmarried member of my family. from 18 to 80 and even beyond!
Last week my family had the pleasure of attending a Bar mitzvah at St Albans Masorti Congregation. From the outset I must confess that I knew very little about the Masorti flavor of Judaism, and as a born and bred Mancunian even less about St Albans. Having said that, there is nothing that a good Google search cannot fix.
Firstly St. Albans. I suppose the clue is in the name and it’s not surprising that this city has many religious buildings and connections. Churches and cathedrals abound, with historical personalities such as the only English Pope, Nicholas Breakspear being born in the area. However not many Cohen’s or Levy’s or even surnames ending in “Berg” populate the great annals of the history of St Albans.
The Masorti Shul of St Albans, and I say this with all humility, is somewhat architecturally challenged, being located in what can only be described as a business park. In fact one Australian member of the bar mitzvah party quipped that it was so industrial he thought they were going to ‘bring the Torah out of the Ark on a forked lift truck!!!’ But that’s Australians for you. They should talk, they build concert halls that look like cathedrals!!! In truth, it’s not the building that makes a community, it is the people, and this community far outshines many other communities in more flamboyant buildings. Kind, gentle, welcoming and warm, and I hadn’t even got through the door yet! It was abundantly apparent that this community welcomes visitors and encompasses all it’s members, as well as encouraging everyone to take pleasure in its service. To those of the United Synagogue persuasion, for most part, the service is identical. A few superfluous bits missed out, with the addition of some nice touches. I particularly enjoyed the prayers for the Royal Family, Israel and the Community being read out by congregants, something I perhaps will take back to Manchester. Hopefully that shouldn’t raise too many eyebrows.
But the mention of female participation however will seriously ruffle many feathers.
And that leads me nicely on to “She who must be obeyed” My dear wife thoroughly enjoyed sitting amongst friends and family, and not as she rightly puts it ‘being corralled as an afterthought.’ Who can argue with her when she says, “there is more to female participation in our religion than making chicken soup and lighting Shabbos Candles?”
Thank you to the family for inviting us to celebrate your simcha with you. Thank you St Albans Masorti Synagogue for welcoming not only us but all your guests last Shabbos in such a warm and kind manner.
The late Dr Louis Jacobs dared to be different, and as I started this piece with “You never know what you are going to get”, his legacy with St Albans Masorti Synagogue is “You will always know what you are going to get”: warmth, strength and understanding that welcomes all into the heart of British Judaism.