Can we run a Saturday book club in shul?

February 23, 2012

Question: Someone at our synagogue has proposed that we run a book club on Saturday morning as an option to the main service in order to attract more secular people to shul. Is this a good idea or taking the idea of an alternative service too far?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

It depends on the nature of the books you review. If they are purely secular without any Jewish connection, then it seems to me to be a pointless exercise.

I disagree with the prevailing attitude on most shul boards that so long as we get people into the synagogue complex, it doesn't much matter what they do while they are there. I think too much emphasis is placed on synagogue attendance as the litmus test for Jewish commitment.

Synagogue attendance is not an end in itself. It is a means towards a deeper connection with God through prayer and Torah study. Synagogue youth groups that invest heavily in slick PR to “get the kids in the door” without providing programmes of Jewish substance are deluding themselves and the young impressionable kids in their care.

There is nothing intrinsically valuable about walking through synagogue doors if nothing of Jewish value is imparted or imbibed before walking back out an hour or two later.

The same is true for adults. There is little point in attracting scores of people to the synagogue only to engage them in the kind of religiously neutral activities they can do anywhere else. In fact, if that is all the synagogue offers to its secular members, they will go anywhere else.

This is why it is important to think creatively and qualitatively when it comes to the functions of a synagogue. Not everyone is going to appreciate a three-hour prayer service. In fact, some will not appreciate a prayer service of any duration. For such members or visitors, the synagogue should offer content rich Jewish programmes of a wide variety. A Jewish book club is just one excellent example. Others could be based around singing, storytelling, drama and even food.

As long as the activity is Shabbat-compliant, the only other criterion should be how Jewishly meaningful and engaging it is for those who participate.

There are so many opportunities today for synagogues to reach out and inspire their members and visitors. The challenge is to be bold and creative while remaining true to the purpose of the exercise: helping Jews discover their Judaism.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

There are two entirely different issues here, boosting synagogue attendance and attracting irreligious Jews. You suggest a single solution for both — having a secular alternative to prayers — and although it is an attractive idea, I wonder whether separate solutions might be better.

If services are poorly attended, then surely the answer is to improve them, rather than keep them as they are. Getting people to turn up for a different activity does not solve the core problem of boring prayers. How about trying some of the following: having a choir (if the current singing is appalling and the atmosphere is dire), or getting rid of the choir if it is actually the problem (with the congregation feeling unable to participate and left behind)?

What about sending out notices inviting people not only for yahrzeits, but also when they have a birthday or wedding anniversary? How about introducing study passages chosen or read by members of the community? Why not have congregants give the sermon once a month, or have a discussion rather than a sermon?

If the community is large enough, it can also hold alternative minyanim with parallel services — more traditional or experimental, concentrating on chazanut or on Torah study — and then all meeting up for a communal kiddush afterwards.

What these have in common is making members feel involved and having a contribution to make, so that they regard it as their service, not just the one they go to. To be realistic, it may not increase numbers greatly — because many Jews are simply not interested whatever changes are made — but it will make those who do come enjoy it more.

At the same time it is right that shuls act as the home of all types of Jews, of which secular ones, who often feel strongly Jewish and are attached to Jewish culture, history or values, are numerous. So let there be Jewish book circles, poetry evenings, cookery classes, films shows and badminton clubs. Thus even if Jews do not go to synagogue to pray, they still go for other activities and feel part of the community. However, I do feel uncomfortable with the idea of these being rival activities to services — while many of the religious Jews would also wish to attend, and be forced to choose between them — so hold them at other times during the week.

Last updated: 11:59am, February 23 2012