When I began saying Kaddish for my late father in May, the sun was high, the air pleasantly warm and the journey from my home in the Richmond area to Western Marble Arch (WMA) sped by. Now the mornings are dark, the air damp and cool and the autumn traffic is ceaseless. But half a year into my mourning, the experience seems as meaningful as ever.
When I began there was self-doubt. My morning routine of exercise, reading the papers and business breakfasts had to be rescheduled. I wondered if I would stay the course.
Then I would think about my father, Menachem Mendel ben Shalom, who never missed a morning minyan in his home town of Brighton, and came to recognise how sacred is the ritual. My father was a stickler for the minyan and would quietly count people, fearful that the necessary 10 would not arrive and the mourners would be unable to recite Kaddish.
What has made the experience spiritual and valuable is support given by the WMA community. Amid the bustle of the West End, it is a haven. Rabbi Lionel Rosenfeld, assistant Rabbi Sam Taylor and the wardens have created a warm, accepting environment which enthusiastically accepts all-comers.
Many is the morning I have arrived to find visitors from the United States and further afield including Argentina and Brazil waiting on the doorstep for a place to enjoy the rhythms of Shacharit services, a home far from home.
Inside, the mix is eclectic. There are visiting Rabbonim, but the most surprising group are the Israeli commuters. Many British Jews see Israel in its extremes – uncommunicative charedi on one side, intensely secular on the other. The commuters are the modern orthodox – lawyers, high-tech engineers, diamond merchants and others in jeans and T-shirts taking part in services with intensity. They arrive, as if on a magic carpet, on Monday mornings only to drift away by Erev Shabbat.
For me personally, the daily minyan is a perpetual education, a return to an experience that began soon after my barmitzvah when I was among a handful of boys employed to make up numbers before going off to school. It was a very incomplete education. Only subsequently after the death of dear mother, a quarter of a century ago, and more recently have I closely reconnected with services. As a mourner, I often have the honour of leading prayers.
I am making progress (with the constant help and Hebrew corrections patiently made by Lionel Rosenfeld). I recognise shortcomings, but people are infinitely polite. The hardest thing to navigate at first were the Sephardi members demanding speed and less tune and veterans of the minyan, requesting I slow down so they can concentrate on the words.
I also have come to appreciate how the services mirror the Jewish life-cycle, the emotional build-up to the High Holidays enlivened by Lionel’s passionate recitation of the Selichot services as annotated by his father the late Rev Abraham Rosenfeld, and the joys of Hallel prayer on Rosh Chodesh and festivals.
What is most moving is the mingling of the service with events in Israel. The special intensity injected into the prayers and the psalms when some new atrocity on the Gaza border, West Bank or in Israel itself is learned of. And in contrast the joyousness of Yom Yerushlaim. The constant repetition of ancient prayers and readings from the Torah becomes so relevant.
Judaism would not be anything but for the food and good cheer which follow at breakfast accompanied by a rota of intellectual refreshment. The Haftorah has acquired new meaning for me as a result of the weekly refresheu.
Whisky at breakfast may seem curious but for those commemorating a Yahrzeit it is a chance to share a memory with Kol Israel.