When it comes to Shabbat worship, we have too much choice

By Angela Epstein, February 8, 2014

Election talk. It’s everywhere you go. No, not that election — well, not in my quiet corner of north Manchester. I’m talking about the election of a new rabbi currently taking place at my shul.

Well, actually, it’s not really an election. More of an audition, since we seem to have adopted a hustings-style approach to trying out potential candidates for size.

Think parliamentary grandstanding, flavoured with a dash of X-Factor. Or rather schmaltz herring, since would-be candidates take part in Shabbat morning Q&A sessions only after the congregation have finished knocking back sponge cake/cheap whisky chasers.

It would be unfair either to name candidates or enter into discussions about their varying merits, since decisions have yet to be made. Anyway, if you really want to know, you only have to drop by any Shabbat table in the Broughton Park/Prestwich area and you’ll find out — because that’s all everyone is talking about. Endlessly.

But what this three-horse-race approach did allow was the ability to cross-reference and compare responses to concerns within the community.

And what became apparent was that one vexatious issue still remains a difficult one to answer. What’s more, it’s one which relates not only to my own congregation but to many of the towering, crumbling synagogues of north Manchester. And that is how to revive the heart of a shul, the Shabbat morning service. For without a strong spiritual heart in the traditional 9.15am to 11.45am slot, how else can a shul community seem a strong and cohesive force?

Yet, poke your head round the doors of many of the once “big names” in our corner of the world and you`ll find that the attendance is lousy and the atmosphere about as lively as the Stretford End after David Moyse’s lamentable squad execute yet another dismal performance.

But to address the problem you have to find the cause. And setting aside demographic discussions about decline in religious practice, the other significant issue is competition.

For it seems that within a two-mile radius of my shul alone, there are now 40 different minyanim on a Shabbat morning. Yes, 40. A sort of Haagen Daz for the spiritually inclined, since you can find a flavour of service to suit every shade of worship —from the creamy vanilla of the traditional chazan/sermon combo to the now fabled hashkama service, a crack-of-dawn gathering of tipsy larks who attack the service like the proposed HS2, so that they are done and dusted before most of us have fastened our dressing-gowns and reached for a second piece of buttered kuchen.

And the numbers of minyanim are climbing since the prevailing ethos seems to be that if you don’t like what’s on offer, just start another one — as one chap did when he was told his children were too noisy for one particular “alternative” service.

Choice is a wonderful thing. And you could argue that worship is worship. But this splintering of places to pray and scattering of congregants to the four winds is annihilating our shuls, even when the minyanim happen under one roof. Young marrieds go here, early risers go there, women and children come later, their men go earlier because they want to be home for a whisky-flushed doze in the armchair while the kids are out. Since when did we get to be so communally dysfunctional?

Of course it would take a brave rav in any congregation to address this head-on — perhaps insisting (not asking) at the very least that minyanim come together once every few weeks as one cohesive unit. Or to stock-take and then import into the main minyan whatever it is that makes alternatives so attractive. A man who would do that would get my vote in any shul.

For it strikes me that we mobilise quickly enough when we`re threatened from without. Why is it so hard to do the same when the threat comes from within?

Last updated: 4:45pm, February 8 2014