Living The Words On Our Ark – Celebrating 25 Years of St Albans Masorti Synagogue
By Darren Marks
The first verse of Psalm 133 reads, ‘‘Hine(y) ma tov u’ma-nayim, Shevet ach-im gam ya-chad‘ – “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity”.
And these same words adorn the beautiful Ark Wall in St Albans Masorti Synagogue. Two years ago as the Ark was nearing completion I was given the opportunity to create the wooden inscription myself and it ended up, in true SAMS style, becoming both a family and community project. My sons, wife and father all made letters. Other members attended a special workshop where letters were cut, stained and fixed to the Ark wall.
At the time Rabbi Rafi posted a photo on the SAMS Facebook page of all of us working on the inscription together with the caption “Living The Words On Our Ark”. There is something very special about physically making an object like that. Everything we create starts in the realm of imagination. A designer starts with an idea which moves through various stages before it’s brought to Earth and made into a physical object. The great sports people of this world imagine themselves as winners. If they didn’t believe that, couldn’t see that in their mind’s eye, they wouldn’t be motivated to train.
This year SAMS is celebrating its 25th anniversary. The community started with a few families meeting in each other’s living rooms. Those founding members had a vision – a dream to create an authentic Jewish community, which resonated with their own beliefs and values of acceptance and inclusivity, sensitively balanced with tradition and history. Today our membership consists of 450 adults and children, from across Hertfordshire. Membership has grown substantially since we moved into our first ever permanent home nearly four years ago, bringing our founders vision to Earth in a whole new way. SAMS is a Masorti success story and as we grow and mature one of our challenges is ensuring we continue our Jewish journey with the same sense of spirit and community that has brought us to where we are today.
When I joined SAMS about six years ago I had been on a “shul shopping” expedition testing out many of the Jewish denominations and the variations of those denominations which we in North London and Hertfordshire have the good fortune to have available to us.
I settled on SAMS as the place where I wanted my sons to learn Judaism and have their bar mitzvah for a number of reasons. I was very taken with the service which was traditional yet somehow relaxed – no need to dress too smart if you didn’t want to. It was also egalitarian, so I could sit with my wife, my sisters, my grandmother. The most moving moment of my time at SAMS so far, was seeing my grandmother, aged 93, and my sisters being called up to the Torah for the first time at Adam, my eldest son’s, bar mitzvah.
But perhaps what swung it for me originally was feeling a connection with Rabbi Rafi right from our first conversation. Both the rabbi and many of the other members made my family feel welcomed and accepted just the way we were, without judgement, in a way we hadn’t quite experienced before. There is an atmosphere here that quite simply puts people at ease. This atmosphere is not something only experienced by members or even other Jews but is also reflected in the comments I hear from the many non-Jewish visitors who find themselves at SAMS for simchas or other special and interfaith occasions.
There are many facets to the community life of SAMS, too many to mention here. Some highlights include a hugely successful interfaith playgroup. SAMS is very involved in Mitzvah Day with numerous projects helping the disadvantaged and protecting the environment in our local area. Local schools regularly visit us and Rabbi Rafi teaches the children about our traditions. As a community we have a very high level of personal involvement. To give you an example this Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur almost half of our adult members took part in the organisation and running of the days, leading services, welcoming visitors, being on security, making kiddush and so on.
Having served on a number of committees and projects myself since joining I have discovered that the life of a Jewish community, even one as wonderful as SAMS, isn’t always “sweetness and light”. You may (or may not) be surprised to know that we don’t always agree with one another, that on occasion we even argue! However, it seems that even when we disagree, we find a way through in the end, because we have an overall shared purpose, one that unites us and helps us overcome disagreements and differences of opinion.
On that summer’s day in 2013, having spent the afternoon fixing the letters to the Ark wall with my youngest son Benjamin, he turned to me and said, “On my Bar Mitzvah I will stand beneath the letters I made”. Which, in due course he will. Together we had brought our connection with Judaism, with our synagogue and community to Earth. However those connections do need to be continually nurtured in order to be maintained and long may Masorti synagogues like SAMS provide opportunities for our people to engage in both the Jewish and wider world in a way that honours and uplifts us all.
Darren Marks is a St Albans Masorti Synagogue Trustee, who in everyday life runs a Central London hypnotherapy practice.