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

Update on the MHS 2020 Building Project

Dear Friends,

You will recall that we wrote to the community in May this year to launch a consultation on the proposed remodelling of the synagogue building.

At that point in time the outgoing board had identified a number of potential projects that they felt best supported the objective of creating flexible spaces to house our growing range of religious, educational and social activities, and had supervised the drawing up of some images and basic plans that were designed to give a sense of each of these seven projects.   These early ideas had been used to successfully test the appetite of the community for fund raising at a number of ‘parlour meetings’ held in February, March and April, and also with the United Synagogue in a discussion about potential for funding.  The plans for the side entrance have also been used as the basis for a preliminary planning application to Haringey.

As a reminder the seven projects that had been identified were:

  • Create a flexible larger Bet HaMidrash
  • Renovation of the Rose and Harry Epstein Hall.
  • A new Main Entrance area for the Synagogue.
  • Redevelopment of the space upstairs behind the Women’s Gallery.
  • An upgrade of the Kitchen.
  • Redesign of the Side Entrance.
  • A Rooftop Play Area with direct access from the Nursery.

We decided to embark on a community-wide consultation designed to build on the feedback from the parlour meetings and ensure that as many members as possible had opportunity to express their view.  The consultation consisted of (i) an online forum (ii) a presentation and discussion at the AGM (iii) an open community meeting held at the shul on Thursday June 29th 2017.

We have now had chance to synthesise all of the feedback this letter sets out what we think we have heard, as well as to explain the next steps we intend to take.

Feedback from Consultation

The Right Level of Ambition?

There was a view expressed by many members that the overall project was not ambitious enough. As the first major renovation project that has been proposed since many current members joined the shul, a clear appetite emerged to do more than the seven distinct projects that had been outlined. In some cases this view was inspired by the observation that a number of other shuls in the area have recently undergone major refurbishment and modernisation work. From a financial perspective it was also felt that raising funds now will severely limit future fundraising at any time in the next five to ten years and so it may be better to scale up now and not limit ourselves. On the other side, a number of community members expressed a view directly counter to this, namely that the shul building is largely fine as it is, that the community is not growing significantly, that it would be wrong to take on a large amount of debt.  Whilst we feel that the majority view was in favour of more ambition it is clear that this is by no means unanimous and that a balance needs to be struck.

The Main Prayer Sanctuary

Many in the community felt that the main prayer sanctuary itself needed to be brought into the remit. As the section of the shul building that is used the most, that many associate with the shul itself and that represents the religious heart of the shul, it was felt that its renovation is an issue that should be addressed within the process.

Key Focal Spaces

As well as the main prayer sanctuary, the other spaces that were deemed to be the key focal points of the shul were the hall, lobby and downstairs common areas. It was generally felt that in these three spaces investment in renovation could have maximum impact.

A Coherent Whole

Allied to that is another point: that all of the proposed projects should to be looked at as a coherent whole. Given the flow between the foyer, the main sanctuary and the hall, for example, any design should look to create a consistency across these areas and optimise the flow between them. Indeed it is this overall ‘vision’ for the space that created more excitement than several of the individual projects initially proposed.

The Future of the Community

There were no strong views expressed that the usage patterns of the shul would change materially going forward. Membership is growing but not at a rate that requires an enlargement of the facilities; the hall is great for community events but not as a commercial venue; the cheder has grown but has now shrunk back somewhat, and the number of rooms is appropriate for the various services that are made available.  In essence this can be taken as a support for the previous board’s proposal that flexibility should be paramount in our thinking.

The Basics

It was felt that some of the basic utilities of the shul should be looked at as part of the process, notably ventilation, heating and lighting.

Next Steps

The board has identified several steps to take the process forward.

A new Buildings Committee has been formed, operating as a sub-committee of the Board.  This Buildings Committee initially comprises Greg Swimer and Marc Rubinstein (co-chairs), Sam Clarke (finance), Steven Feldman (communications and fundraising) and Phil Style (buildings).

Over the next few months the Buildings Committee plans to consult with several designers and experts to explore ways in which the feedback from the community can be turned into a plan that works within budgetary and other constraints.  On the assumption that it can, the Committee will attempt turn this into fully costed and detailed plan that can be presented to the community for approval.   No actual building or construction work (barring urgent maintenance activity) will take place whilst this process is ongoing, although some conversations with planning officers at Haringey and officials at the United Synagogue may take place in order to continue the process of establishing the feasibility of any ideas.

Through the consultation process a number of community members with specific areas of expertise or interest have come forwards with offers to help.  This is warmly welcomed and it is the intention of the Buildings Committee to consult with such members on an on-going basis in areas of their specific expertise.

The Buildings Committee is excited to be working on this next phase of the project and look forward to coming back to the community with further plans in a few months time.  The Committee plans to meet on a monthly basis (approximately) and will post updates regularly via the shul website.

We hope that this letter, though rather long, is informative.  We felt it important that the results of the consultation and next steps were properly communicated.

In the meantime if you have any questions or comments please do not hesitate to contact any one of us, either in shul or via the office.

With best wishes

Karen Ackerman (chair), Marc Rubinstein and Greg Swimer (co-vice-chairs)

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