Visit to West London Synagogue
It was a great pleasure and privilege to visit the West London Synagogue last Thursday 19th February 2019 with the Elmbridge Multifaith Forum. We were warmly welcomed by Rabbi Helen Freeman. She gave us a brief introduction to the West London Synagogue of British Jews, formed in 1840 by the Sephardi Jews. The current grade II listed building, dating from 1870, is located near Marble Arch in London. Its premises, which extend into Seymour Place, also contain offices, a library and various community facilities.
The current Sanctuary dates back to 1870 and is built in the Neo-Byzantine architectural style by Davis & Emmanuel. When I entered the Sanctuary, my first impression was that I had entered a very sacred space, not dissimilar to a Cathedral. The beautifully coloured stained glass windows, on both levels, allowed the sun to warm and light the space. The superb domed ceiling with its Star of David stained glass window was absolutely stunning and a great centrepiece when you looked upwards.
Rabbi Helen showed us the ancient Torah which is housed in the Bimah. It was very comforting to listen to her reading from it and recognizing its significance, its sacred connection to the past. The bimah and ark were built in 1869–70 by Davis & Emmanuel.
A choir and organ, located behind a screen to the rear of the bimah, accompany the congregation in all musical parts of the service except for the aleinu and the kaddish. The organ was renovated in 2007. Men and women sit together during services, and also play equal parts in leading them. Male worshippers are required to wear a kippah, females can wear one if they wish to do so.
Rabbi Helen mentioned that they were a Reform Synagogue. Their aim is to be inter-generational and inclusive and a centre for Jewish Life. She outlined some of the services they provide including various Shabbat and festival services, formal and informal, family services, tots’ services and many social activities.
It was very clear that the Synagogue were also deeply committed to social action. They run a drop-in for asylum seekers once a month. A banner, prominently positioned in the main entrance read: Refugees Welcome ‘share your food with the hungry and provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, clothe them and do not turn away from your own flesh and blood’. Isaiah 58
They also provide a night shelter for homeless people once a week. They are constantly exploring more ways to work with others in the local community to provide help to the most needy. I was particularly heartened to hear about the Interfaith work they undertake with local churches and other community organisations including a local mosque. The Tripod series of Education brings Muslim and Jewish children together to learn and go on holiday together to build bridges. These community activities bring them great joy especially when working together on particular projects.
Rabbi Helen mentioned that they are constantly considering the question: “How to be Jewish and Modern?” “Up until 1950’s, women were made to sit in the balcony, now the three most senior Rabbis are women. Women can do anything men can do.”
“On the last census there were 280,000 Jews in the UK, 2,235 in our congregation.” “Our goal is to provide an exciting and spiritually nourishing Jewish life for everyone of all ages, from religious services to social action, from community activities to study and learning, from religion school to youth clubs and everything else besides. Our aim is to include as many people as we can, young and old alike, in our volunteering within and beyond the community. At West London Synagogue, there really is something for everyone and we want to inspire, welcome and serve all those who enter our doors.”
I for one felt very welcome and left feeling highly inspired and humbled by the work that is being undertaken. Thank you Rabbi Helen for a wonderful visit. We will definitely be back!
Elmbridge Multi faith Forum