Do synagogues makes life uncomfortable for single people?

February 26, 2009

Question: I am a single man in my early 40s and, as I get older, I am becoming more conscious that Judaism is a family-centred religion. My immediate family do not celebrate festivals. For many years I have gone to a synagogue on my own but I am finding the prospect is less alluring as the years go by. What can you suggest?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

Your observation about Judaism being a family-centred religion is for the most part accurate. Judaism places a huge premium on marriage and parenthood and it is not an exaggeration to say that the Jewish home is a far more significant and enduring Jewish institution than the synagogue.

This is why I find it ironic that of all the examples you could have chosen to illustrate how you feel as a single person in a family-oriented religion, you chose the example of attending synagogue on your own.

Synagogue is actually the one place where the emphasis is not on family but on the individual’s connection with God. In my shul, not only do husbands not sit with their wives but children rarely sit with their parents, as we have services designed for each age group.

In fact, the central prayer of every service is the Amidah, which is recited in absolute silence, reflecting the intense personal nature of prayer. Having said this, I understand how you feel out of step with so many of the other family-oriented rhythms of our faith, particularly at the time of Jewish festivals.

The responsibility to educate Jewish children does not belong exclusively to those who are fortunate enough to be parents. It is a responsibility that rests on all Jews. In fact, the Talmud makes the bold assertion that one who teaches a child Torah bears merit as if he were the child’s natural father (Sanhedrin 19b.)

Not every person has the opportunity to become a parent but neither does every parent have the special qualities of an inspiring educator. The Talmud appears to value both equally.

With this in mind, I would encourage you to get involved with informal Jewish education in your local community. Volunteer to lead a children’s service on Shabbat, teach a class at Sunday school or help with the logistics and organisation of a youth activity. Communities depend on volunteers to help run so many of their programmes.

As a single person, it may be that you have more time and flexibility than many harried young parents and that you can extend yourself in ways that they cannot. You can make a real difference to our children’s Jewish education and in the process become part of their lives. You will not only experience the deep satisfaction of helping young people grow, but also discover that, in essence, the Jewish people are one family.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

You have hit on an aspect of Judaism that is both a great strength but also a potential weakness. So much centres on the family and domestic life — building a succah together, gathering round the Chanucah candles, attending the family Seder, crowded with relatives and with roles for children— that Judaism is seen as natural to our personal life and we grow up with it all around us. Judaism comes to us, rather than us having to make a special effort to go out somewhere and be Jewish.

It is one of the reasons for our remarkable survival over the centuries despite countless persecutions while so many other civilisations have faded away. Being rooted in the home has ensured that the loss of the Temple, the destruction of synagogues or numerous national expulsions have never destroyed Judaism, for it lives on around the kitchen table and in family conversation.

The downside is that we can ignore the needs of those without family, not through malice but simply because we are so busy with our own lives. We do not notice that it can be daunting going to shul by oneself, and dispiriting returning home alone. We forget that Seder for one is not much fun.

The solution is three-fold: first, those with families should be much more sensitive to those not married, those divorced, and those bereaved, and across all age-groups; you can be lonely at 23, 43 or 83. Invite them to come with you to activities or your own home. As Rabbi Lionel Blue puts it, “religious cooking is generous cooking”.

Second, synagogues should be proactive, inviting those alone to events and seeing that they are greeted warmly. However good the choir or inspiring the sermon, it counts for nothing if a person stands by themselves at the kiddush afterwards. Synagogues can also organise communal meals and help those alone to co-ordinate other activities.

Third, those alone can take initiatives: ask the rabbi who is new to the area, or also by themselves. Invite them round for Shabbat, or a seder or to break the fast; get involved by joining a shul committee; form a table in advance for the next supper quiz. It does require effort and pushing oneself, but it is worth it.

So sit down, plan a campaign for the next 12 months, and the results will look after subsequent years.

Last updated: 6:44pm, March 11 2009