A quiet Shab­bat morn­ing rev­o­lu­tion in the sub­urbs

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM - BY SI­MON ROCKER

It’s quar­ter to eleven on a Satur­day morn­ing at Hamp­stead Gar­den Sub­urb United Sy­n­a­gogue. The To­rah scroll is be­ing rolled up and the reader of the haf­tarah is get­ting ready to chant the weekly por­tion of the Prophets. Be­fore he starts, a num­ber of peo­ple will have qui­etly slipped out of the main sy­n­a­gogue. Some syn­a­gogues have whisky clubs, where a se­lect group of con­gre­gants take a break from the prayers and go off to sam­ple a fine malt be­fore kid­dush. But these HGS mem­bers are not shut­ting their sid­durim for an al­co­holic in­ter­lude. They head off to the sy­n­a­gogue li­brary where for the next 45 min­utes they will take part in “Cof­fee and Con­ver­sa­tion”, an adult ed­u­ca­tion pro­gramme which has been run­ning for two years.

It may not sound par­tic­u­larly revo­lu­tion­ary. But for a main­stream Or­tho­dox con­gre­ga­tion in Lon­don to hold a break-out ses­sion mid-ser­vice is a de­par­ture. While al­ter­na­tive minyanim are a stan­dard fea­ture of many United Syn­a­gogues, these sim­ply rep­re­sent a dif­fer­ent style of wor­ship. Of­fer­ing ed­u­ca­tion is some­thing else and rab­bis have gen­er­ally been re­luc­tant to al­low any com­pe­ti­tion to the prayers. HGS’s Rabbi Dov Ka­plan ad­mits he had “reser­va­tions” when the idea was first mooted.

Cof­fee and Con­ver­sa­tion was launched by Martin Kaye, an HGS mem­ber for around 40 years and sales man­ager of book dis­trib­u­tors Ku­per­ard. A vet­eran dav­ener who at­tends ser­vices not only Shab­bat morn­ing but on week­days, he wanted to at­tract peo­ple who told him they did not feel “spir­i­tu­ally up­lifted” by the main ser­vice. “The whole con­cept was to ap­peal to those who don’t come to shul, and those who do but wish they hadn’t,” he says.

He runs four or five ses­sions each term, draw­ing on reg­u­lar lec­tur­ers from the Lon­don School of Jewish Stud­ies such as Mau­reen Kendler or Lind­sey Tay­lorGuthartz or lo­cal sy­n­a­gogue ta­lent such as lawyers David Wolf­son or Clive Freed­man. Top­ics have ranged from Jewish pi­rates of the Caribbean to the ori­gins of sec­ond day Yom Tov and Jewish dis­putes res­o­lu­tion.

“A lot of peo­ple in my age group were say­ing more of their friends weren’t com­ing any more,” he says. “Shab­bos morn­ing is for peo­ple to do some­thing Jewish — it is Jewish time. So if you can of­fer some­thing in a Jewish en­vi­ron­ment they feel com­fort­able with, they’ll come.”

After the ses­sion, he says, peo­ple can stay around talk­ing to the speaker or go into the main ser­vice and then join the rest of the com­mu­nity for Kid­dush.

For early birds, HGS of­fers a hashkamah ser­vice, star­ing at 7.45 am and fin­ish­ing around 10 on Shab­bat morn­ing, as well as a Sephardi minyan. But the main shul of­ten has a bar­mitz­vah, which can stretch out the ser­vice.

In a sur­vey two years ago, the United Sy­n­a­gogue found that three out of ev­ery five mem­bers said ser­vices were im­por­tant for their choice of sy­n­a­gogue but fewer than two out of five found them en­gag­ing. But although the US ac­knowl­edged the need to pro­vide a more ful­fill­ing Satur­day morn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, it did not sug­gest any­thing con­crete be­yond hold­ing more ex­plana­tory ser­vices. HGS may have one an­swer.

The at­ten­dance of 30 to 40 at Cof­fee and Con­versa- Martin Kaye, founder of the Shab­bat morn­ing ed­u­ca­tion pro­gramme at Hamp­stead Gar­den Sub­urb Sy­n­a­gogue tion has been swelled by reg­u­lars from the hashkamah minyan, who stay on rather than go home. Aviva Kauf­man, one of them, says “The speak­ers never dis­ap­point. It is a per­fect fol­low-on. We fin­ish just in time for a shmooze be­fore com­ing to­gether as a whole com­mu­nity for kid­dush. All this makes for a re­ally lovely spir­i­tu­ally, in­tel­lec­tu­ally and so­cially sat­is­fy­ing Shab­bat morn­ing.”

She has no­ticed that the ses­sions are par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar with women, adding that if she did not at­tend the hashkamah minyan her­self, sit­ting in the women’s gallery in the main ser­vice would be an un­invit­ing prospect. “It’s dif­fi­cult to sit in the gallery, you feel a bit de­tached. As I get older, I find it harder and harder.”

For Rabbi Ka­plan, recog­ni­tion of con­gre­gants’ needs comes be­fore con­ven­tion. “Let’s be hon­est, so many are dis­en­gaged from Shab­bat morn­ing ser­vices be­cause they are long and peo­ple don’t get the mean­ing,” he says.

The Sages, he notes, saw Shab­bat as a gift for the Jewish peo­ple to learn To­rah. “I’d rather have peo­ple learn­ing To­rah than sit­ting in shul not feel­ing en­gaged. Let’s give them some­thing they can take home with them.”

Of­fi­cially, he says, the sy­n­a­gogue can’t en­cour­age peo­ple to skip parts of the ser­vice so the start of the ed­u­ca­tion ses­sion is not an­nounced on Satur­day morn­ing. But he does in­clude it in the list of events at the Fri­day night ser­vice the pre­vi­ous evening — “with a wink”.

If syn­a­gogues want to en­cour­age more peo­ple through their gates on a Shab­bat morn­ing, they have to be will­ing to think out of the box. “Some­times, the es­tab­lish­ment has to be dragged kick­ing and scream­ing into the next stage,” he says.

Although many syn­a­gogues of­fer ed­u­ca­tional and cul­tural events through the week, Kaye be­lieves “the en­vi­ron­ment has changed from 30 years ago. If you put on a week­day event, peo­ple would come. But to­day younger peo­ple in their 30s and 40s are work­ing longer hours.”

So Shab­bat morn­ing ed­u­ca­tion may be a con­ve­nient op­tion for those who might oth­er­wise strug­gle to find the time.

Cof­fee and Con­ver­sa­tion, he says, has “be­come a reg­u­lar fea­ture which peo­ple look for­ward to. It’s an ac­cepted part of the shul cal­en­dar.”

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