What rabbis can learn from the soccer terraces

As the World Cup gets under way, a soccer-loving rabbi reveals what he has gained from the game

By Jonathan Romain, June 15, 2014
A picture of Rabbi Romain with the mascot of his favourite club adorns a cake to mark his 30 years with his synagogue

A picture of Rabbi Romain with the mascot of his favourite club adorns a cake to mark his 30 years with his synagogue

The sheer passion of football supporters was famously expressed by the former Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly. Explaining his attitude to the game, he said, "Football isn't a matter of life and death, it's much more important than that."

In some ways, it is daft to compare football to Judaism; the former is limited to a rectangular pitch and lasts 90 minutes, whereas the latter stretches across the millennia and permeates all aspects of life.

Yet there are common factors. Both involve their supporters in ritual wear, be it scarf, rosette and bobcap, or tallit, tefillin and kippah. You can pray without them, or attend a match unadorned, and be just as sincere, but having them helps get you in the mood and identify with others.

Then there is the parallel calendar; for some it is Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Pesach; for others it is the League matches, FA Cup and Capital One contest, with a seasonal rhythm just as much.

There are the same highs and lows; the build-up of expectation as an important tie looms, or as you get ready for a festival, followed by the sense of occasion as you stream in to the stadium or the shul, recognise old friends, head towards your regular seat and experience a sense of

Hopefully those entering synagogue know that you'll never walk alone

But your emotions can go dramatically either way. A win, especially against the odds, leads to almost indescribable exuberance, as at synagogue when you have a really good experience and emerge with a bounce in your step.

The opposite can also be the case; a desperately boring game or a disastrous loss can send you home disgruntled, just like a service which you feel does nothing for you and you walk out a stranger.

Most striking of all at matches is the singing, with many who are totally unmusical, or even shy and monosyllabic, leaping to their feet and singing lustily in front of thousands of others.

The key point for rabbis with declining pews is to think about transference. How to translate the passion and commitment of those attending football matches to those at services.

I remember my history teacher at UCS, Neville Ireland, relate his moment of inspiration. He was at a football match after a frustrating week of trying to drum dates of kings and queens into children's heads without success.

He was astounded to hear two pupils from his class sitting in the row behind flawlessly rattling off facts about individual players and the number of goals they had scored. "Ah", he thought, "so they are capable of remembering. All I have to do is enthuse them enough, so that they remember what I want them to remember."

The task of all who care about synagogues is similar, to make them so vibrant as to make Jews feel they want to join in. We can learn from those football fans in three ways.

Firstly, by greeting others, even those we hardly know, but who are sitting around us; not letting them go away unnoticed at the end, but engaging with them, asking if they thought today was a victory or a flop, if the minister was on form or not.

The prime factor in determining whether they come back next week or not is the presence, or absence, of human warmth that they encounter.

Second, by encouraging everyone to join in the prayers and songs even if they seem to be resisting, because getting stuck in helps create a surge of feeling, which then engulfs others, so that we end up sensing that we are on the inside and not looking on from afar.

The Mexican wave which happens at matches is a case in point: it is started by a few, and those nearby often grimace and ignore it, but as it spreads around the stadium and returns for a second wave, those who originally stayed seated leap up with everyone else and are glad they did so. Creating an enthusiastic atmosphere is essential for shuls, too.

Third, inbetween attendance, motivating everyone to read up at home on the facts of Judaism, master the customs and history, so that next time they come, they feel thoroughly at home and part of the supporters club; that they not only matter, but that without them, everyone else there is not fully complete.

I know this from experience as a season ticket holder at my local football club, Reading. When I go there on Saturday afternoons following my Shabbat morning service, I feel that I am moving from one congregation to another.

Liverpool supporters know that you'll never walk alone. Hopefully, those entering synagogue can be made to feel the same.

Jonathan Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue

Last updated: 3:45pm, June 15 2014