Secret Shul-Goer Visits Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue
The Jewish Chronicle's secret Shulgoer found this Shabbat service "a delight".
Name of Synagogue: Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue
Address: Croxdale Road, Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, WD6 4QF
Denomination: United Synagogue (Orthodox)
Rabbi: Rabbi Alex Chapper and Rabbi Yaakov Finn
Size of Community: 1000-1500 member households
In my experience, within nanoseconds of meeting someone from Elstree and Borehamwood for the first time, one of two things will invariably happen. Either, the person will proudly and emphatically clarify that they are categorically from Elstree, and not Borehamwood. Or, the person will sheepishly and apologetically confess that they are indeed from Borehamwood, but hastily add that they are only a stone’s throw from Elstree, and anyway, they actually prefer Borehamwood and wouldn’t buy a house in Elstree even if they could afford to do so.
I don’t know if this is a characteristic of other double barrelled place names. Do the residents of Dumfries and Galloway jump to make the same clarification? Are Trinidadians as quick to distance themselves from Tobago? Either way, it always strikes me as faintly amusing that a central element of living in the unified district of Elstree and Borehamwood is a desire to separate the area into two distinct locations. You’d think we’re talking about war-torn Bosnia and Herzegovina, rather than a fairly small parish in Hertfordshire.
The synagogue that serves the community appears to be aware of this tendency, not least because its official title, Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue, switches the usual name order, which, to this visitor at least, just feels wrong. (When was the last time you caught a train from St Pancras Kings Cross? Or played a round of golf at St Anne’s Lytham?) Either way, the synagogue that serves the area commonly known as Elstree and Borehamwood, is the Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue. So, for spiritual purposes at least, Borehamwood gets top billing.
Ironically, despite its name that accentuates division, the synagogue building seems designed to promote inclusion. As an Orthodox establishment, there is separate seating for men and women. But all congregants sit on the same level, and visibility from the women’s section was about the best I’ve yet experienced on a secret shulgoer visit. After a warm welcome at the gate, I took my seat towards the back. But I could still see the service clearly, without having to stand on tip-toes, and could follow the prayers without ever needing to strain my ears to hear. I should also probably add that there was almost no chatting throughout the service, which undoubtedly made it easier to follow.
The prayer hall itself is modern and brightly lit; there are a few decorative glass panels around the room, but the overwhelming feature in the shul was one of light. After spending many mornings at the back of poorly lit women’s galleries or behind thick curtains, attending BES was actually a delight.
Much of the service itself was rather light too. By which I mean there seemed to be a concerted effort to lift the tone of the proceedings. On a few occasions, the traditional prayer tunes were substituted for something more light-hearted. Now, I often hear Adon Olam sung to the Match of the Day theme, or Happy Birthday. But at BES I experienced a shulgoer first; the entire repetition of the Kedusha was sung to that Greatest Showman classic, A Millions Dreams.
And to top off the light-hearted tone of the morning, I can report without hesitation that the opening few minutes of the sermon, delivered by Rabbi Alex Chapper, were the funniest I’ve ever heard in shul. He began his dvar torah with a string of jokes and anecdotes that were laugh-out-loud funny. (I later re-read Rabbi Chapper’s biography on the BES website, which states that he is a ‘sought after public speaker’. That’s as maybe. But he should honestly consider stand-up comedy.)
But, and it’s a crucially important but, this was not only a morning of light-hearted prayer tunes and funny rabbinic anecdotes. The morning of my visit came just days after the terrorist attack on the mosque in Christchurch. When Rabbi Chapper spoke about that shooting, his horror and dismay at the hatred perpetrated against worshippers, and his determination that the Jewish community should stand in solidarity with the Muslim community at this time, his words were heartfelt and poignantly moving. As he spoke about his shock and sadness at the rise in hatred the world is witnessing, every person in that room fell totally silent.
Nor were his thoughts solely directed at victims of terrorism on the other side of the world. The remainder of his sermon was devoted to promoting a hardship fund that the synagogue operates for those in the community who need it. In his address, the rabbi pointed out that there were many people in the community experiencing hidden financial difficulty. It was up to the rest of the community to ensure that there were funds available to support the members and the families who need it.
It takes skill and practice to navigate the fine line between a mussaf service sung to Hollywood showtunes, and a sermon that laments a terrorist attack in a mosque. Not every communal leader can switch from telling jokes that make his congregants laugh out loud, to gently reprimanding them that, right there in that shul, there are members who can’t afford to feed their families properly, and that we all have a duty to support them.
Perhaps, and I don’t say this flippantly, it takes the kind of rabbinic leader who serves a community drawn from distinct locations, areas that are proudly aware of their own uniqueness, but who nonetheless come together to form a single community?
I left the service with a distinct feeling that life is a delicate balance between light and dark. We all of us gingerly tread a path between the things that uplift us and the things that cause us pain. And as I walked away that morning, I felt that, whether its Borehamwood and Elstree, or Elstree and Borehamwood, the community at BES have pretty much got that balance right.
Warmth of Welcome 4*
Service 5* `
Published by the JC on 19 June 2019.