Beware the spiritual splitters

By Angela Epstein, August 5, 2010
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My name is Angela and I like to go to synagogue on Shabbat.

Not quite as epic an admission as confessing to lashing Jack Daniels on my Cocoa Pops, I know, but since we live in times when assimilation is on the rise and the attraction of a shmooze in the pews is diminishing, declaring a fondness for doing the shul run is something of a rarity.

Before I go on, let me assure you that this is not the prologue to some pious polemic about religious observance. Far be it from me to be prescriptive about worship. This, rather, is my elegy to the once magnificent but now decaying buildings which rattle to the sound of only a handful of congregants every Shabbat.

Dwindling communities in parts of the north have led to the closure of once-thriving congregations, such as Greenbank shul in Liverpool.

However there is another reason, here in Manchester, why some of our once-formidable synagogue buildings lie empty — a reason which is, at worst, frankly deplorable. And that’s the rise of the Shabbat splinter minyan — a bespoke arrangement to suit finely tuned spiritual needs, a sort of internet package holiday for the holiest day of the week. These new minaynim are sprouting on every street corner. In north Manchester on a Shabbat morning you’ll find countless places to pray in — from new, purpose-built buildings, to former schools.

Even in synagogues, such as my own, which still boast thriving congregations, the increase in alternative Shabbat morning services, which could include one for young marrieds (not sure what age they sling you out of that one) and a red-eye for the early risers, means the main service is dramatically depleted. Each week, as I sit there looking across at the pitifully empty pews of a shul where men once risked not getting a seat if they arrived late on a Friday night, I wonder how all this could have happened.

Of course, it’s impossible to legislate for flagging communities and the challenge of assimilation. But is it really necessary to ruin conventional Shabbat observance with this constant pursuit of alternative places to pray? Why, for example, was a new shul built, albeit one that wouldn’t look out of place in down-town Jerusalem, across the road from another synagogue, one which is over 100 years old and which now plays to half-empty houses most weekends?

Manchester is often regarded as a place where, thanks to the fervour of its piety, stands head and shoulders above many other communities. (Last year I met a very learned Israeli rabbi, who, on hearing I was from Manchester, remarked: “Ah yes, the holy city”.)

But this has inevitably encouraged a drive to establish places to pray that offer an even higher plane of spirituality.

This ongoing trend for customised niche congregations suited to a particular intersection of the spiritual venn diagram is hammering the cohesion we once had in our traditional shuls.

I appreciate that not everyone will take to the traditional service complete with an X-Factor chazan and lengthy sermons. But is the answer to seek out a congregation in someone’s front room, or even worse, to start a new one yourself?

We need community spirit and interdependence and if we fail to achieve it in our synagogues then where else will we find it? It’s time to see what can be done to save our long established shuls. Otherwise they will simply become rotting monuments to a past we’ll never be able to recover.

    Last updated: 2:24pm, August 13 2010

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