Muswell Hill Synagogue
Shabbat Behar 20/21 May 2022 8.39pm 9.54pm

Building Project Update October 2018 (published in Shalom magazine)

This update on the progress of the building project was originally published in Shalom Magazine at the end of 2018:

Just over fifty years ago a group of local Jewish people got together and raised the funds to build a brand new synagogue in Muswell Hill.  The shul they built has been the focal point for our community ever since.  In it we have prayed, learned, laughed, grown; we have celebrated simchas and we have mourned loved ones.

Over that time the community has grown and shrunk.  From just over 500 members at the end of the 1980’s, the number of members declined to around 400 in the mid-90’s.  A period of rapid growth then took the community to 640 people in 2006 before we stabilised again.  In the past few years we have been fortunate to see another surge in membership that for the first time takes our number to over 700.

Yet over that time our investment in the building has not kept pace, even though we have been spending considerable amounts on maintenance and essential repairs.  Our building faces multiple challenges including a cramped and crumbling daily entrance with no reception area, awkward circulation around the ground floor which requires passage through the hall in order to reach certain parts of the building; an ageing function hall; underutilised spaces on the ground and second floors; security hazards; poor lighting; and limited ventilation.  In her otherwise glowing review of our shul, the Jewish Chronicles’s Secret Shul-goer wrote, “The building at Muswell Hill synagogue is something of an anomaly.  In terms of size, it is wide and spacious… However, the prayer hall itself has no natural light source… The result is that the room feels like something of an underground bunker.  A spacious bunker, to be sure.  But a bunker nonetheless.”

Whilst London has been redeveloped around us and many of our neighbouring communities have invested in upgrading their premises, we have limited ourselves to smaller, more incremental improvements, largely focussed around repairs and maintenance.

Two years ago, under the chair of Stephen Frosh, the board made a commitment to address this question more strategically.  The economics of just patching things up no longer makes sense.  Estimates suggest we would need to spend several hundred thousand pounds over the next few years as certain key functions (electricity, heating) start to reach the end of their serviceable life.  .  Nor do the economics of a complete rebuild make sense.  There is a much about our building that we love and want to preserve.

So a project to update and improve our synagogue’s facilities emerged.

Design Principles

The vision is clear: to create a space to meet the needs of our community in the future.  But a community consists of its people, and so more than a vision it was felt important to harness the views of the community.  These views were collated in the first half of 2017 via parlour meetings with potential donors, an online forum, a presentation and discussion at the AGM, and an open community meeting.  They formed the basis of a set of design principles:

Ambitious.  As the first major renovation project proposed since the shul was built, the design should constitute a comprehensive refurbishment.

Coherent.  Given the flow between the foyer, the main shul and other spaces in the building, the design should look to create a consistency and optimise the flow between them.

Flexibility.  A wide range of activities is run in the building and so the design should create sufficient flexibility to host them.

Basics.  The basic utilities – heating, lighting, ventilation – should be incorporated into the process.

Tradition.  The community has a very proud tradition and that heritage should be preserved in a redevelopment of the shul.

Working principles

Last summer the board put together a buildings committee charged with taking forward that design brief.  The committee have worked closely with a team of professionals to develop proposed plans which  we outlined  at a community meeting on 1st July this year.  The plans are available to view on the shul website and they are up on boards in the shul foyer.

In order to offer accountability, the committee agreed a set of four working principles.  These are:

Commitment to transparency.  The committee will communicate developments on a regular basis.  Following the well-attended community meeting on 1 July, drafts of proposed plans have been displayed in the shul foyer, and the team looks forward to updating the community, via email, on a weekly basis as well as holding open meetings from time to time.

Minimisation of operating costs.  Our community does not have unlimited financial resources.  Every £1 raised towards the building project is precious.  The committee has a fiduciary duty to our donors to allocate as much as possible to the capital project itself and to minimise leakage in fees, particularly in the earlier stages of the process.

Seek external expertise.  We are a distinctive community, but we are part of the United Synagogue umbrella and are able to tap into its expertise.  After all, they manage over 60 synagogues and have overseen the redevelopment of many, including several close to ours in geography and in character.  As well as consulting with their experts, the committee has consulted and will continue to do so with lay leaders from other synagogues that have embarked on similar projects and with other experts in the field.

Listen, but Decide.  The committee invites feedback from the community on the plans that have been proposed – in person, via email or by phone.  Many members have already come forward with suggestions since the plans were outlined on 1 July, some of them very specific, some more general.  Examples include integrating a lift, installing an external water tap close to the flowerbeds at the front, changing the circulation in the kitchen, and making the daily entrance area even grander.  All ideas will be discussed and considered for utility, feasibility and cost.

As a community of 700 people there are no doubt hundreds of ideas (what’s that line about two Jews, three opinions?).  Inevitably many of them may conflict, and some may not be possible for reasons of utility, feasibility or cost.  Ultimately, the committee will have to make decisions, approved by the Board – some of them hard – and we of course hope that the community will support this.

Looking to the future

We would strongly encourage all members to look at the proposed plans either via the shul website or on the board displays in shul.  These plans are the result of on-going consultative work between synagogue members and our professional team.  That team consists of professionals from Squire & Partners, an architecture and design practice with experience spanning four decades; Lewis Berkeley, a building consultancy and project management practice, Conisbee, an award winning civil and structural design practice; and Taylor Project Services, a building services design consultancy.  We are particularly grateful to Murray Levinson, a community member and partner of Squire & Partners, for the dedicated hard work he has put in to the process as lead architect.

But they are not the finished product.  Any building project typically cycles through five phases of development:

• feasibility
• planning
• technical
• tendering, and
• construction.

Our Muswell Hill shul redevelopment project is still in the feasibility stage.  Whilst these plans are by no means the first version considered by the committee – with multiple drafts having been contemplated – they are not ready to hand off to the planning and technical phases of the process.  And the artist’s impressions are just that; they are not the completed work of an interior designer!

While we remain in the feasibility stage we continue to invite feedback from the community, and thank those that have already provided it.  Consistent with the committee’s working principles, all suggestions and views will be considered.  At least two parameters are fixed though.  First is the budget.  Our budget of £1.4-£1.5m is an ambitious target; we don’t think the community can support higher and we have agreement from the United Syngaogue to a scheme at this level.  Second is the general thrust of the scheme and in particular its commitment to the design principles that have been established.  Clearly a point will come further along in the process as we enter the planning and technical phases when we will need to stop gathering feedback and crystallise what we have into hard decisions.  Through our weekly communications we will be sure to notify the community when that point arrives.

In the meantime, there remains much work to do.  Consultations with experts, with professionals, and with stakeholders in the shul building remain on-going.  There is a logistics component to the whole project that needs consideration; we need to refine the design and to line up contractors.

Importantly we also need to raise the funds.  During the summer a separate fundraising team was put together and we hope that the community will rally together to help them hit their target.  This is a community project and the bigger the cross-section of the community that gets involved the more that is enhanced.  Sure, a single benefactor would make their job a lot easier, but that would detract from the communal aspect of this project.  So please take their call when they reach out to you, but if you want to get in first, they can be contacted via the shul office.

This is an exciting time for our community.  For over fifty years we have flourished in our corner of Muswell Hill.  A revitalised home will lay the foundation for the next fifty years.  If you want any more information please contact one of the building committee members direct or via the shul office.

Shana Tova

Greg Swimer and Marc Rubinstein, on behalf of the Buildings Committee

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