This article was written for the Shul Times, the newsletter of Wanstead and Woodford Synagogue, Parashat Beshallach 5775.
"We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us" - Sir Winston Churchill, MP for Wanstead and Woodford
Some shuls are renowned for their beautiful architecture. Others boast an illustrious list of famous rabbis or worshippers. Many can trace their roots back hundreds of years. Wanstead and Woodford Synagogue, in North East London, does not fall into any of these categories. Yet as we approach its final Shabbat before merging to form a new community, I believe that this shul leaves a legacy far more meaningful than design, history and famous people.
From the outset, the founder members designed a building to fit the needs of the community. The creation of multi-purpose open spaces as opposed to fixed furniture allowed the shul to be a 'Beit Knesset', a house of assembly, in the fullest sense of the word. And I would suggest that the very nature of the building has shaped the community: whereas some shuls prioritise the preservation of the building above all else, in Wanstead and Woodford, the focus was always on the people, not the building. We'll move the chairs and pews to fit the purpose, because that's what the community needs. We aren't beholden to what was, but rather embrace change to fit the present. Every person is important and precious.
These attitudes explain why when I was growing up, young people were encouraged to take part in services, hold youth service 'takeovers' of the main shul, run our own youth minyan, have free rein of the shul to run a very successful branch of Bnei Akiva and even paint a 'BA room' in a classroom! Shabbatot and chagim were geared towards children, and we were encouraged to take part in every aspect of shul life. It was in Wanstead and Woodford that I learned how to daven, leyen, give a shiur, dance at a simcha, run an event, speak to people of all ages, hold an explanatory service - and above all, care about the Jewish people. And it's not just me - many of my friends and peers gained tremendously from the responsibility they undertook, and it's no surprise to see those who grew up in Wanstead and Woodford active in all fields of Jewish life, such as J-Soc activists, youth movement workers, teachers, school governors, rabbis and much more.
The constant focus on education is entrenched in the nature of the Wanstead and Woodford community. When there was an educational programme after the Shabbat morning service, I was often amazed to see well over half of those who came in the morning staying to learn Torah. For many years, the shul's own nursery, staffed mainly by teachers from the community, gave hundreds of children a great start in life, and connected them and their families with their local shul. I have been privileged to run explanatory services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a project which grew in interest each year in spite of declining numbers at High Holydays services.
One of the most incredible aspects of the shul has been the absolute determination to maintain the highest religious standards, and particularly to ensure there is always a minyan. In the face of an ageing community and a gradual exodus to North West London of committed members, the fact that a daily Shacharit minyan has been maintained appears nothing short of a miracle, but was made a reality by a small group of dedicated people. I don't ever remember a time when more than 15 people came to Shabbat Mincha on a regular basis, but I have also never heard anyone question the viability of holding it.
However, the minyan wasn't just about getting 10 men and rushing through the service. There was always time to daven, time to sing Hallel, and sing new tunes. In recent years, a 'Carlebach' Kabbalat Shabbat became the norm, not the exception, including frequent bursts of dancing. Even the saying of 'Ma'aravot' and 'Veyiten Lecha' signalled a desire to go above and beyond, adding more holiness to the service. Whether it was the Hakafot on Simchat Torah led by the youth, which always lasted for hours, or Neilah services, with the entire shul singing loudly, Wanstead and Woodford has provided many people with countless religious experiences that are truly without parallel.
At the heart of all the amazing things listed above is the fact that the community displays a genuine warmth and kindness. Welcoming guests, raising money for tzedaka and Shabbat hospitality are just a few examples of the trait of chesed that runs through the shul. I am truly privileged to have been surrounded by these people for many years, and the community has been one of the greatest influences on my life. To have been a part of the Wanstead and Woodford community is one of the greatest honours I will ever have, and I will be forever indebted to all those who founded, maintained and led it. And the greatest testament to what Wanstead and Woodford Synagogue stands for is its decision to place the future ahead of the past and merge to form a new shul, Woodford Forest United Synagogue, which will serve the needs of the community for many years to come. B'hatzlacha!