Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue

Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue in Edgware, London, turned 18 this year and to mark this momentous birthday they are holding 18 different events throughout the year. From Talmud classes to photography workshops to theatre trips, the goal is to offer something to appeal to everyone, bringing everyone closer to an active role in the community. Given this dedication, it should not come as a surprise that one recent Friday night seventy-five percent of Kol Nefesh’s members crammed into the synagogue for services and a community-wide celebratory birthday dinner. How do they manage to get such high rates of engagement? To find out the answers we spoke with Meira Ben-Gad and Liz Preter, the co-conveners of Kol Nefesh, who explained the synagogue’s unique structure and approach.

Liz and Meira say that Kol Nefesh is unique in its participatory nature and extent of lay leadership. The congregation is fully egalitarian—both in its services, and also in its organizational structure. It relates to its clergy as teachers and guides, and there is a concerted effort to involve all of its members and make sure that nobody in the community is peripheral. While they acknowledge that there is a very strong core group of dedicated people in the synagogue, the “second tier” of members is also quite involved. This is, among other reasons, thanks to Masorti Judaism’s listening campaign which encouraged all communities in the UK to meet with their members and really listen to their desires and needs.

Kol Nefesh launched its own connecting campaign in 2017 with the goal of finding out who their members really are. This campaign was widely viewed as a success, and it resulted in many great conversations as members broke down barriers and learned about one another. The first of the 18th birthday events, the “Getting to Know Each Other” initiative, stemmed from the connecting campaign. As part of the initiative, members of the congregation were paired up with one another and asked to spend at least an hour with another member of the community, be it for a cup of coffee on a weekday or perhaps to host them for Shabbat lunch. The goal was to make every member feel that they were part of a community. The results were surprising. Without even being asked, people who had been paired up though this project started coming out of the woodwork to offer to start getting involved and run events, and shul attendance rose as well.

Another aspect of involving the congregation is the noted lack of a small council managing the synagogue structure from the top down, but rather a bottom-up approach of volunteers who take responsibility for various areas. They call this structure “tapuz” and “pelachim”, which is Hebrew for “orange” and “segments”. Instead of having committees, there are “pelachim” and anybody who steps forward and is willing to make the time commitment can do the job. In place of set terms, each person is allowed to stay as long as they desire to keep doing the job. There are also two co-conveners who are responsible for making sure that things run smoothly, as well as staying on top of e-mails and facilitating and supporting the “pelachim”, including the quarterly meetings with the heads who are each responsible for areas including conducting services, security, kiddush, families, and Talmud Torah.

Beyond the congregation itself, Kol Nefesh also has a unique relationship with its exceptional clergy, Rabbi Joel Levy and Chazan Jaclyn Chernett. While both of them are among the best-known Masorti clergy in the UK, they have a unique place within the synagogue. For starters, Rabbi Joel lives in Jerusalem and visits his congregation approximately once a month. While he was originally from the UK and had been involved in Masorti and NOAM, he had already made Aliyah by the time Kol Nefesh was founded. But he was a good match for a congregation that did not want a full-time rabbi, as the participatory ethos was important to the congregation from the very beginning.

Rabbi Joel serves as the Rosh Yeshiva of the Conservative Yeshiva and serves part-time as the rabbi for Kol Nefesh. He travels to the UK to attend Shabbat services approximately once a month, when he holds his regular classes on Fridays and Sundays as well as a Seudah Shlishit or other community event on Shabbat. This is in addition to the major holidays he celebrates with the congregation—Shavuot and the Yamim Noraim.

Each Shavuot he leads an all-night Tikkun Leil Shavuot culminating with a Vatikin (sunrise) Shacharit minyan. This year’s Tikkun will focus on the theme of “Work, Torah, and Identity in the Age of Automation.” However, the congregation’s biggest annual event, which has become its trademark, is Kol Nefesh’s Yamim Noraim Retreat. The retreat is an intensive ten-day series of learning sessions during the Ten Days of Repentance, all taking place in local venues (the shul or members’ homes), and focused on one theme.

The retreat is organized by Rabbi Joel and the Talmud Torah pelach, with Rabbi Joel teaching and facilitating. It runs from Rosh Hashanah until the end of Yom Kippur, and different teachers are brought in to lead sessions on the theme, along with Rabbi Joel.  The theme is often one simple word that can be taken in many directions – e.g., “Confrontation”, “Love”, or “Fear”. Each talk is followed by a discussion that encourages people to confront their own issues, and think and deal with what they really want out of Yom Kippur. This process makes Yom Kippur a much more meaningful experience for participants. Importantly, it is open to both members and non-members alike and there is no charge for attending Yamim Noraim services. Members often comment that Rabbi Joel challenges them and makes them think and work to strengthen their relationship to Jewish texts, and that it is a mutually symbiotic relationship for both the congregation and the rabbi.

In addition to Rabbi Joel, Kol Nefesh also benefits tremendously from the services of Chazzan Jacky Chernett, the synagogue’s unofficial cantor and the founder and director of EAJL—the European Academy of Jewish Liturgy. Chazzan Jacky, a founding member of Kol Nefesh, is not formally employed by KN and receives no salary. She’s a volunteer who devotes her time and energy to Kol Nefesh out of love and dedication. Indeed, one thing that is special about Kol Nefesh is that its services are largely lay-led. Much of Chazzan Jacky’s focus is on training other people in the community, which is integral to the synagogue’s participatory style. She has inspired and pushed many people in the community to develop their skills and learn to lead, and as a direct result of this effort Kol Nefesh has an extremely high percentage of its congregation who are comfortable as Shlichei Tsibbur. Still, the congregation loves it when Chazzan Jacky herself leads services, with her beautiful alto voice as well as the love and knowledge of Nusach that she conveys to the congregation through her singing.

To find out more about Kol Nefesh, feel free to visit their website, or if you are in London, you’re welcome to come by for Shabbat services to experience them for yourself. Contact: admin@kolnefesh.org.uk.