I am sitting on a radiator in a foyer of the section of the day school located the floor below the Saatchi Synagogue (opened October l998) in northwest London trying to keep warm as the start of the damp winter settles in. I’m waiting for the rabbi. A car pulls up in the courtyard and a hip young man, wearing a casual, open necked shirt and jacket literally jumps out. My only clue that this could be Pini Dunner, the rabbi of this newly restored, once a down-at-the-heels shul, is that he’s wearing a kipa and all the workmen greet him. I’m astonished by his youth. (at the time he ws 28). But this articulate man has a most impressive agenda for the congregants of this Orthodox (Askenasi) synagogue founded by two famous English advertising gurus, Charles and Maurice Saatchi and their two other brothers David and Philip. Their donation of 250,000 pounds enabled them to name the shul in honor of their parents, Iraqi born Sephardim, Daisy and Nathan.
The Saatchi brothers employed Dunner, a new breed of Orthodox rabbi, to act as a magnet for a constituency not served by any local synagogue. “There’s no reason why services should be boring,” he says insisting that synagogues should be fun. This innovative idea has snowballed and is attracting people from all over London. “It’s a concept beyond filling up a synagogue. We rarely have to solicit. In fact, even at this early stage, we’ve had over a thousand phone calls inquiring about us.”
The synagogue is in the heart of Jewish singles London – St. John’s Wood, Maida Vale and West Hampstead. The point of this independent Orthodox establishment (it’s not affiliated to any of the exiting synagogal movements), is to act as a meeting place where young Jewish people can socialize. Rabbi Dunner, the father of two, tells me while we sit on the steps of the nearly completed hall that the synagogue “is aimed at a professional, upwardly mobile group.”
Having done some investigation, he tells me that he found there were no other active central points for this activity and certainly not housed in one place. So his question is where do Jewish people go on Friday night to meet people.
“We’re not trying to act as Yenta the Matchmaker. What we want to do is provide a user-friendly atmosphere,” says the former radio broadcaster who studied for five years in the Yeshivoth in England and Israel and the United States. He’s bold without being pompous, and says “if you’re over 45, don’t bother to come here.” For l8 pounds non members and l5 pounds for members, get to have traditional sabbath dinner together.
Although we speak about the social aspect, Rabbi Dunner is quick to emphasize that there are services but that they don’t run for more than two hours and “there’s a lot of singing and dancing”. And this is an Orthodox synagogue, I ask? The rabbi feels that there has to be a new dimension to religion or else there is the possibility of losing the few Jewish people left in England by their marrying “out”. With the British Jewry population numbering 300,000, there is a prediction that it may well fall below 200,000 in the next generation.
He admits that being the rabbi is more than a full time job but when he does think about travel, he has three favorite destinations. As a man with a mission, he’s about to rush out the door but without hesitation he says, New York City, Amsterdam and Safad. Why, I ask quickly, before the door closes. “Variety, familiarity and religiosity.”