You would be forgiven for thinking that, after 24 secret shul-goer visits, there would be nothing left to surprise me. After all, isn’t one women’s gallery remarkably like every other? How truly original can a children’s service be? And once you’ve been to one kiddush, haven’t you pretty much been to them all?
Actually, the most surprising thing about this project is just how different each and every synagogue is. As I’ve made my way through the synagogues of the British Isles, I’ve been struck time and again by the rich diversity of synagogue experiences. And my 25th visit was no exception. Indeed, my attendance at St Albans Masorti Synagogue (SAMS) was marked by a number of Secret Shulgoer firsts.
I should start by saying that I visited SAMS on a blisteringly hot day. The kind of sweltering heat that makes those of us of a certain age think back with nostalgia to the summer of ’76, and, if the Aperol Spritz is flowing with sufficient abundance, spontaneously burst into a sweaty rendition of Billy Idol’s Hot in the City. It was, as the tabloids put it, an absolute scorcher. (It also coincided with a certain quarter-final World Cup football match.)
I mention this purely for context because, as I made my way to the synagogue building, I genuinely wondered whether anyone would be there. I was sure that the glorious sunshine and football fever would call the congregation to their garden loungers, and not to the synagogue pews. I was wrong. Despite being a community of roughly 150 member households, there was a congregation that morning of 40 people. I’m not sure many shuls can boast such a high percentage turnout on a non-simcha Shabbat with fabulous weather and pre-match fervour to tempt the members away.
So, what were those shul-goer ‘firsts’ that I mentioned? Well, in no particular order, here are the five things that made this visit stand out.
SAMS was founded in 1990 by three families, and used to meet in members’ homes. The community moved into its permanent site in 2011. The building which is now its home is unlike any I’ve visited so far. It’s based in a business unit in a retail park. I say park, but there isn’t a blade of grass to be seen. What there is, is a plumbers’ merchant over the way, and neighbouring units ranging from kitchen fitters, builders’ suppliers and engineering machinery manufacturers. (I made a mental note to visit SAMS again during Succot. With neighbours like these, they should have the most structurally sound Succah in the UK.)
A retail unit is not the obvious choice for a synagogue, and I did wonder how the space could be converted into a functioning home for community and prayer. The answer, it turns out, is very well. The main prayer hall is light and airy, with a powerful air-conditioning system that was particularly welcome. There is minimal decoration; a wood-panel at the front surrounds the ark, with two in-laid windows and a simple design on the curtain. Chairs were set out on three sides, with mixed seating throughout, and it’s clear that this versatile room makes for flexible community space. In addition to the main prayer hall, a side room offered ample space for a children’s service, and there are further rooms upstairs used by the cheder and for other communal events.
I’ve made a number of Secret Shulgoer visits when the communal rabbi is away. It’s unfortunate when that happens, because it does mean that I don’t get to experience a regular synagogue service. But rabbis deserve a holiday just like the rest of us, and I don’t begrudge anyone who works in communal service the chance to get away from it all. The only downside is that, when the rabbi is away, the onus rests on lay members to lead the service. Many do this well. But it’s often a little ‘clunky’. Not so at SAMS. The service ran like clockwork. Each element of the service was led by a different member of the community, many of them women, and there were regular page announcements during the prayers and the Torah reading, making it nigh on impossible to lose my place. It was smooth and seamless from start to finish.
I should also add that, according to my daughter, who is becoming a rather proficient shul reviewer in her own right, the children’s service was “really fun” and the children were “very friendly. It was,” she said, “a bit like a club, because there were lots of ages together. And it wasn’t like school.”
Maybe adores is the wrong word. But members of SAMS were, to a man/woman, genuinely disappointed that I had chosen to visit when the rabbi was away. And everyone I spoke to, without a single exception, raved about how amazing their rabbi was. Over and over, I was told what a shame it was that I wouldn’t meet him that morning. This happened every time I spoke to someone (and, I should add, SAMS members were particularly friendly, so I had a LOT of conversations that morning.) On the door, when I was briefly interrogated by the security team; in the children’s service, while I chatted to the other parents; in the main service, when the woman in front of me came over to say hello; and during the kiddush, when the member who runs children’s programming came to introduce herself. Everyone spoke in glowing terms about their rabbi, Rabbi Adam Zagoria-Moffet. And since we all know that shul members love nothing more than having a gentle (and sometimes not-so-gentle) moan about the rabbinate, the respect and love shown to the SAMS rabbi by the shul membership, in his absence, was nothing short of extraordinary.
This was, as I noted above, my 25th Secret Shulgoer visit. It was also the very first time I have ever been invited to participate in the service. I appreciate that, being a woman, such invitations are not feasible in some synagogue settings. But be that as it may, credit where it’s due, SAMS was the first synagogue I attended that offered me a ‘mitzvah’ during the service. (I opened the ark.) It was, I should add, the first time I have ever opened the ark, and I wasn’t 100% what to do or where to stand. But my synagogue hosts were very patient, and I can only hope my uncertainty wasn’t too obvious to the very slick SAMS service team!
Finally, I end where I typically begin. Regular readers will know that my first point of contact with a synagogue is usually the website. I’ve written in the past about my personal game of ‘shul website bingo’. SAMS scored quite highly. There is the expected smattering of ‘welcoming’, ‘friendly’ and ‘warm’. (Although, considering I visited at the height of the heat wave, I couldn’t really fault SAMS’ claims to offer warmth.) But on the SAMS’ site is a page that I’ve never previously seen on any shul website. There is an entire page devoted to the shul’s defibrillator, including a detailed explanation, with accompanying video, of where it’s located, how it works, and when to use it. And if that’s not impressive enough, so many members of the community have undergone training that the shul can confidently claim that, if someone should suffer a cardiac arrest, there is a high chance of someone who knows how to operate the machine being present.
Which is just as well. Because I’m going to end with another Shulgoer shock. For the first time since I began this project, I left the shul determined to go back again, in a personal capacity, simply to enjoy this remarkable community. (But I think I’m going to take the members’ advice, and wait until the rabbi is back in town.)
Warmth of Welcome 5*