The secrets of successful synagogues

A new study aims to find out what makes good congregations tick

By Simon Rocker, February 16, 2014
Youthful and growing; Brondesbury Park Synagogue

Youthful and growing; Brondesbury Park Synagogue

The gap between practice and belief among UK Jews was again demonstrated in the new National Jewish Community Survey carried out by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.

Four out of every five Jews, for example, attend a Seder most years or appear in synagogue at least for the High Holy Days. But asked about what was “very” or “fairly important” to their Jewish identity, respondents ranked belief in God only 16th out of 20 — 52 per cent. By contrast, support for social justice (81 per cent) or Jewish culture (71 per cent) was much higher.

From this, you might conclude that the synagogue, the linchpin of Jewish life for 2,000 years, was in eclipse as Jews put their energies elsewhere. Over the past 20 years or so, the creative spirit of British Jewry has been more apparent in ventures outside the walls of the house of worship, whether Klezmer in the Park or Jewish Book Week. But the synagogue continues to be regarded by communal leaders as a pivotal institution. The Jewish Leadership Council has just commissioned a piece of research to help congregations raise their game. It is part of the JLC’s wider “vitality” project — to pinpoint which areas require investment in order to sustain a flourishing community.

“We want to try to come forward with suggestions how to enhance the role of the synagogue,” said JLC interim chief executive Simon Johnson, himself chairman of a synagogue, Hampstead Garden Suburb.

Apart from a national survey of rabbis and lay leaders, there will be an in-depth survey of six congregations, selected because they provide models of excellence in some respects (see panel). “I don’t think we want to say they are the only six shuls where you can find excellence,” Mr Johnson said, “but they are a good place for a research project looking at best practice to start.”

The research is being led by American sociologist Professor Steven Cohen, author of numerous studies of Jewish communities, including in the UK. From preliminary conversations, he believes that synagogues are an undervalued asset. “They are sources of social capital and community which are insufficiently appreciated in Jewish life,” he said. “I believe if you ask people, they will under-recognise the many good things that synagogues do.”

The six synagogues chosen for the study represent a spread across the non-Charedi community, varying in denomination, geography, age profile and size. But one impression gained by Professor Cohen is that British synagogues seem “more adapted to a secular culture” than in the United States.

American synagogues are “more focused on tefillah” [prayer], he observed. “When we asked people here about areas of distinctiveness, tefillah came up sometimes but if it did, it was about kiddush. They weren’t talking about liturgical innovations or exciting new cantorial readings. They talked about community experiences — taking care of children, looking after the elderly, celebrating holidays.

“The traditional religious functions do not dominate the lives of their congregations necessarily.”

Another apparent difference is that “in America, it looks relatively easier raise to money than people. In the UK, it is relatively easier to raise people than money.”

However vital, synagogues cannot survive on volunteers alone. One practical aspiration of the project is to see how congregations can be helped with FRD, financial resource development.

That could be significant in the wake of changing economic conditions. As the wealthy get wealthier and the middle are squeezed, the membership system that synagogues have traditionally relied on for income may come under increasing pressure.

“There is a resistance to raising subscription rates,” Professor Cohen said. “On the other hand, there are people who can afford to pay much more. So the question is how do you create a culture where people will give what they can.”


The following congregations have been chosen to take part in the JLC study as beacons of excellence:

New North London Synagogue: founded in 1974, the Masorti congregation is one of the largest synagogues in the UK with nearly 3,000 adults and children. Rabbi: Jonathan Wittenberg

Beth Hamidrash Hagadol Synagogue, Leeds: dating from 1874, the Orthodox community is one of the largest Northern synagogues with 900 families. Rabbi: Jason Kleiman

Menorah Synagogue, Cheshire: opened in 1963, the Reform congregation moved into a new home five years ago. Rabbi: Haim Shalom

Brondesbury Park Synagogue; the dying Willesden Synagogue was transformed a decade ago and is now a growing United Synagogue community with a youthful profile. Rabbi: Baruch Levin.

Kinloss (Finchley Synagogue), London: under now Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, the congregation, dating from 1935, became a powerhouse in the United Synagogue, renowned for its educational programmes. Incoming rabbi: Jeremy Lawrence.

Alyth (North-Western Reform Synagogue), London: founded in 1933, the Reform community is one of the largest in the UK, serving more than 3,000 adults and children. Rabbis: Mark Goldsmith and Josh Levy.

Last updated: 3:45pm, February 16 2014