Miriam Shaviv
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Let's make shul bearable
Date: Friday, September 21st, 2007
Publication: The Jewish Chronicle

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On the eve of Yom Kippur, I have a confession to make. I rarely enjoy the High Holy Day services.

I know they are the most important of the year. And once in a while I do emerge on a spiritual high, knowing that my prayers were sincere, meaningful and intense.

But just as often, an hour or two into davening, I’m aching to get out of shul.

It doesn’t matter where I daven. The prayers are some of the longest of the year, but most shuls seem to take perverse pleasure in schlepping them out even longer (if you finish before 1.30, the thinking seems to be, it’s not really Rosh Hashanah). The sanctuary is invariably crowded, overwhelming and noisy. The liturgy itself is difficult and repetitious.

Of course, a good cantor can negate all these, but all too often he falls flat. Or — worse — he imagines that the punters, most of whom have paid a lot of money for tickets, expect a performance, and goes completely over-the-top. Yet most of the crowd — in my age bracket, at least — really just want a few good tunes to which they can sing along.

Now, as a fully committed Orthodox Jew, I am always going to return to shul on the festivals, no matter how dreadful the service was the year before (although I might switch synagogues). But what of those Jews who only go to shul three times a year? It worries me that this is the only experience of shul they have.

A generation ago, familial and community pressures were such that relatively unaffiliated Jews would continue attending High Holy Day services even if they did not enjoy them. Not so today. Last week, I couldn’t help noticing how empty my United Synagogue shul was on the second day of Rosh Hashanah compared to the first — down by at least a third. And the truth is that whilst, for once, I did enjoy the previous day’s davening, I couldn’t blame those who hadn’t bothered returning. If people like me, who can follow every word, find High Holy Day prayers hard going, how much harder must it be for those who are in unfamiliar territory?

This is not a problem any of the denominations can afford to ignore.

According to a Board of Deputies report published in 2006, there was an 18 per cent drop in synagogue membership between 1990 and 2006 — including a 31 per cent fall in mainstream Orthodox congregations. The High Holy Days are currently the only opportunity to directly reach out to a very large percentage of Anglo-Jewry. So if we are, at the very minimum, to stop three-times-a-year Jews from becoming twice-a-year Jews — and the next generation from becoming no-times-a-year Jews — a different approach is called for.

First, the synagogues must take a much less rigid approach to the High Holy Day services. I was glad to see that there were “explanatory services” in a long list of United Synagogue shuls this year (although I’m not sure why this had to be outsourced to outreach organisation Aish HaTorah — does the US not have enough qualified leaders of its own?). But perhaps the shuls could also provide alternatives for those who simply cannot sit through an entire service.

One Orthodox shul I’ve attended on Rosh Hashanah, for example, ran lectures and discussion groups during musaf, the final part of the morning prayer service. This was seen as a positive chance to engage those who otherwise would disengage — not a cop-out.

Or perhaps shuls could organise more informal and participatory minyans in people’s homes or other intimate locations, particularly for younger congregants. A Reform study published last year, Getting in Touch, showed that today’s 18- to 35-year-olds shy away from traditional community institutions but are prepared to participate in tailor-made activities for small groups in other settings — a conclusion firmly backed up by research in the United States. While I appreciate that organising High Holy Day services is already a mammoth task, if synagogues are to remain relevant to a majority of British Jews, they must take note.

Second, synagogues must make more of an effort during the rest of the year to reach out to members they see only on the festivals. How about organising a couple of Shabbatot a year which are specifically geared to such congregants, perhaps followed by a special lunch or kiddush? Many of these “invisible” congregants would probably say that a phone call, once in a while, wouldn’t go amiss either.

Last, but certainly not least, an appeal the congregants themselves. If you are going to attend synagogue just three times a year, please make one of those times a regular Shabbat or Friday night. Chances are you will find the services more relaxed, easier to follow, shorter and — most importantly — more spiritually uplifting.

It’ll be cheaper, too.

Miriam Shaviv is the Comment and Letters editor of the JC

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