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What will the Secret Shul Go-er think? - Irene  Blaston

This week God tells Moses to climb the majestic cloud covered mountain in order to receive the tablets of stone.

Mountains are sites of divine revelation throughout the ancient world even in cultures very different to our and it’s really not difficult to see why. There is something incredibly spiritual about nature – it is often the place where people report feeling closest to God.

I love the outdoors, and whilst I don’t climb mountains one of my favourite ways of spending a dry afternoon is going for a walk, whether that be on one of the monthly synagogue walks or with Lawrence across the wonderful wild Dunstable Downs with views over the Three Counties or just in amongst the trees in the woodland trail connecting the backs of the houses in Borehamwood.  

Just over a week ago, on not such a dry day, it was Tu BiShevat, the new year for trees and a number of us joined Rabbi Paul for a great day out at Kew Gardens.  In typical Rabbi Paul style, and perhaps to help us feel closer to God whilst we enjoyed the nature, we were given a specially designed leaflet. It contained everything we would need for the day – information about travel and a piece of text to study. The text kept us suitably occupied and interested whilst sheltering from heavy rain in a coffee shop. And of course there was a map. A map not only plotting the main highlights but also showing where lunch would be – this stopped various people worrying, afterall what self-respecting Jewish group can go on a walk without knowing where we would eat? Though I don’t suppose that there are many maps of Kew Gardens that have birkat hamazon written next to the restaurant symbols!  By the time we had finished our study, the rain had stopped and we were able to even climb the many steps of the Tree Top walk to enjoy the views, not quite as high as a mountain but, enough for me.

It was whilst walking amongst the trees, and enjoying the company of some of our members, that I was thinking about the piece that I had read recently in the Jewish Chronicle by their Secret Shul Go-er. I don’t know if you are familiar with her column? Essentially she is visiting different shuls across the religious spectrum, commenting on their warmth of welcome, decorum, their service or services including alternatives on offer and their Kiddush. Scoring each out of 5.

Like every other Synagogue Chair in the country I’m wondering if she has already visited our synagogue and how we will fare when she does?

Of course, it’s a bit like an ofsted visit to a school. It is a tiny, somewhat unfair, snapshot and to be honest it will depend on which Saturday morning she turns up. A busy bar mitzvah with a room full of visitors is quite different to this morning when most of us know each other. Will she happen to be here when our choir is singing beautifully or when the sermon is delivered by a member rather than one of our Rabbis? In our community different weeks of the month  also mean that something else is happening, whether that be our study breakfast,  services specially for Tots or families,  or one of our parallel or alternative services. Our services are well run, and as we are totally egalitarian at least we won’t get comments about women stuck in a cold, dark corner unable to hear or see. We try hard to welcome our visitors and there is always a lot to eat at Kiddush, so overall on a Shabbat morning, I believe we’d score well.

It seems rather odd to me though and a little sad, that the secret shul go-er only attends service on a Saturday morning. She is really missing the warmth of the Erev Shabbat, Friday night service. Again, we in Radlett offer different options, with or without a chavurah supper.  Physically here in Radlett or in one of our local areas. With a guitar or with lots of musical instruments etc. Can you imagine what she might have written if she had attended our wonderful Erev Shabbat picnic in the field last summer (which by the way we are hoping to do again this summer, so look out for the adverts), or our Chanukkah Rock of Ages service with our very own amazing  intergenerational rock band, or the service that honoured our volunteers when we had so many people, we would have struggled to get another person in the room.

Our services are great. However there is so much more to our community and as I am a synagogue chair who loves to tell others about how much we do here and how good it is, I know that when I read her article I will find it highly frustrating that the Secret Shul Go-er doesn’t get to spend a whole week or better still, a month with our community and really get to know us.

She won’t know that this large community is blessed with 2 creative Rabbis and a whole leadership team that really cares, backed up by a team of 200+ volunteers enabling lots of interesting things to happen.

This last week alone, we have had…

  • 7 different services last weekend, 4 on Friday, that’s 1 in the morning and 3 in the evening in different locations, 2 on Saturday morning and 1 in the afternoon
  • There has been opportunities for all ages to study Hebrew, Talmud, History and Jewish practice in the morning, afternoon and evening
  • Workshops and fun practical sessions such as memory improvement or learning new Pesach recipes with Bake-Off’s Stacey whilst raising invaluable funds for Macmillan
  • We have a lovely new nursery school on site
  • and groups for all ages ranging from tiny tots to great-grandparents
  • There are opportunities to support each other and those around us
  • And opportunities to be with other members whilst enjoying secular activities such as table tennis or watching football

So, you’re probably wondering why I’m telling you this, as it is starting to sound a little like announcements.

Well, in December, I was very privileged to meet Ron Wolfson, author of the book “Relational Judaism”. He is a recognized guru on assessing synagogue life. He doesn’t use quite the same criteria as the JC’s secret shul go-er but does suggest that in healthy communities such as our own, if we break down that British reserve and talk to friends and family about what is happening in our community, perhaps telling them when we are next going along to something in order that they will know someone present, that those communities go from strength to strength.

I therefore challenge each of us to find at least one other person this week and tell them about something that you’ve either recently been to here, or something that you like about our Radlett Reform community or something that you are looking forward to. For me, it is our Killer Queen Megillah in 2 and a half weeks time, my purim costume involves quite a bit of florescent neon pink. I look forward to seeing you there in your’s.

Shabbat Shalom

Irene Blaston

10.2.18

Thu, 21 November 2019 23 Cheshvan 5780