Maidenhead Synagogue in The Times

Maidenhead Synagogue features in this article in The Times from 5 August 2017.

All aboard the synagogue for all comers
Jonathan Romain has bucked the trend and grown his flock in Maidenhead by opening the doors to anyone with a bright idea

“If we offer anything here, we offer camaraderie. We don’t necessarily offer God,” says Rabbi Jonathan Romain, who claims that Britain’s synagogues need to rebrand into community centres or face further decline.

Romain’s Reform synagogue in Maidenhead, Berkshire, is bucking a national trend of declining synagogue membership. A new report from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) shows that national membership has dipped below 80,000 (from 87,500 in 2001). The figures are kept relatively high only because Ultra-Orthodox Jews have such large families. Reform and Liberal Judaism, comprising 31 per cent of Britain’s 270,000 Jews, is struggling badly. Last month the Edgware and Hendon Reform synagogues held their first service after merging.

Romain’s solution is that Britain’s synagogues should fill the gap as community centres, post offices and pubs shut down and people spend more time working at home, shopping online and catching up with friends on social media.

In a typical week at the synagogue — a former hostel for disabled children that was converted in 2001 — activities include poetry, Zumba, photography and sculpture. Only around 35 people attend the Sabbath service on a Friday evening, which is about the same number as those who come to the film night on Tuesdays. It is all the same to Romain, 62, who is proud to say that his community has grown to 1,831 members.

“Religions have different selling points,” he says. “Christianity is good at spirituality, Islam is good at discipline. Judaism’s selling point is community and camaraderie. I genuinely don’t care if you come to a service on Saturday or the poetry group on Monday. You can be Jewish without being religious.”

Many secular groups have started using the synagogue, including a disabled person’s group, an Amnesty International letter-writing initiative and a support group for people with postnatal depression. Muslims recently held a meeting in the synagogue because the mosque was being refurbished.

Romain charges only expenses for hiring out the synagogue because he believes his open-door policy is helping to tackle rising antisemitism.

Despite his light touch on theology and widespread agnosticism among his flock, more than 180 children attend his religious school on a Sunday. Even the atheists acknowledge his traditional pastoral role, as evidenced by Romain’s recently published book, Confessions of a Rabbi, a collection of anecdotes about the moral dilemmas he has been asked to advise on over the years.

His advice is not always conventional. He recalls telling a man who had an affair not to tell his wife. “If you ended the affair to save your marriage, don’t wreck it now by admitting the affair. Be thankful you have her trust . . . I have no doubt that honesty is not always the best policy.” On another occasion he tells a woman working for a sex phone line to think of herself “as a social worker in disguise”. Since the book was published Romain has been inundated with calls for advice on matters of sex.

In the synagogue newsletter there is a tear-out section for people to write down the names and addresses of Jewish people they know in the area. The rabbi then hunts them down. He recalls being told through the letterbox by one man: “Go away, even my wife doesn’t know I’m Jewish, How the f*** did you find out?”

Another reason for growth is his acceptance of Jews who marry outside the religion — something still frowned upon, even by some Reform rabbis. Last year Romain — who has four grown-up children with his wife, Rabbi Sybil Sheridan — was one of the first rabbis to marry “mixed couples” in the synagogue. He has also welcomed his first transgender members. “One boy had his bar mitzvah here last year, and has since returned with long hair in a dress, lipstick and with a new name,” he says.

The fourth expansion at Maidenhead in the past 16 years has just been completed. In the generous new lobby stands a piano, which has a sign on it saying: “Please play me.”

His next project will be a walkway of Jewish history inscribed on the paving stones outside, as an educational aid. Up to three schools a day visit the synagogue and Romain goes into many schools. “Before I arrive the children are asked to draw a rabbi. It’s almost always a man in a black hat with a 3ft beard or someone who looks like Moses. When I come in they say, ‘Where’s the rabbi?’ I say, ‘It’s me.’ That’s lesson number one. I’m ordinary.”

British Jewry has been resistant to such an open approach, but attitudes are changing, he says. Romain has written a pamphlet and made an accompanying video, How to Grow, setting out his model of expansion for synagogues. Demand for it has been high, but some rabbis complain that it is not part of their job description and that he would be adding to their workload.

Romain plans to keep going. “I think this is the way of the future. Some rabbis would be horrified to hear that people don’t want God, but God is big enough to cope without them.”