Today, we launch our regular Community in Focus feature in which we will be profiling a different synagogue every month. This week, we take a look at Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue.
Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue (BES) is the largest Orthodox community in the UK with nearly 1,500 member families, and over 4,000 members. It is one of the fastest growing and most vibrant Jewish communities and the centre of Jewish life in Borehamwood.
The community was formed in 1955, and its modern, single storey synagogue was opened in 1986 and boasts the beautiful Hillman stained-glass windows that were transferred from Bayswater Synagogue upon its closure.
Led by a dynamic lay leadership and religious leadership consisting of Rabbi Alex Chapper and Rebbetzen Eva Chapper, Rabbi Yaakov Finn, and Emeritus Rabbi, Rabbi Alan Plancey, they are soon to be joined by Rabbi Sam and Rebbetzen Emma Taylor. BES is a thriving hub of Jewish activity and every Shabbat, hundreds of people attend services at the Synagogue in Croxdale Road as well as on the Yavneh College site, with over 250 children and youth attending specific services, it has an even broader number of services and education activities on festivals, to cater for even greater numbers of people.
Last year, the Jewish Chronicle’s “Secret Shulgoer” said that the synagogue building seemed to be designed to promote inclusion, described the BES Shabbat service as “a delight” and described Rabbi Chapper’s sermon as the funniest they have ever heard.
During the week, there are a wide range of activities held on the synagogue complex, including daily services, educational and social programmes for adults and youth, and events specifically for the youngest members of BES. It is home to Gilah Nursery, an Orthodox Jewish nursery for children from the age of 18 months until primary school which was rated Outstanding by Ofsted in 2019. In the summer, it hosts Kaytana, its highly successful and oversubscribed summer camp for children.
BES is an innovative, welcoming and active Modern Orthodox, Zionist community that puts a strong emphasis on caring and is committed to helping all members grow in their spirituality, providing many diverse religious and educational experiences. It prides itself on running world class events which have incredibly high attendance levels, bringing the community together to share common experiences and increasing the bond between them.
One of its most successful innovations to promote ongoing Jewish learning is DHL (Daily Halacha Live) a daily podcast produced by Rabbi Chapper and sent to hundreds of subscribers via WhatsApp. They also recently produced a book, written exclusively by the women of the community, exploring every parsha in the Torah.
Social Action and making an impact in the wider community is extremely important at BES and a large group of dedicated volunteers collectively commit many hours to pursuing this through local community action and by partnering with local social facilities such as foodbanks and shelters. The Community Cares team, led by Care Co-ordinator Karen Moss, supports hundreds of people in need, providing vital support for them and their families. Significant funds are raised locally to support those in need though the community’s Hardship Fund.
In the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, BES became the hub for thousands of donations of food, clothing and other essential items for the victims. During the Coronavirus Lockdown, a number of members co-ordinated the collection of hundreds of hand creams for NHS staff in conjunction with Goods for Good a local charity.
Innovation that inspires is a key part of the BES vision and this came to the fore during Lockdown when the community pioneered “virtual” Bar and Bat Mitzvah enabling families to celebrate these important lifecycle events from the safety of their homes. News of this innovation even reached the USA where it was featured on the Late Late Show with James Corde. The Bar Mitzvah boy, a huge fan of the hit TV series Friends, was surprised by an appearance of one of the cast, Courtney Cox.
Rabbi Alex Chapper