The experience of “Royal Jews” — those living in the royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, whose story I have just published — may provide an important template for other synagogues.
Before 1980, when I arrived as its rabbi, Maidenhead hardly featured on the Jewish map of England, whereas now it is one of the biggest non-metropolitan synagogues, consisting of 800 households. Significantly, it was not due to changing demographics, as in the case of expanding areas elsewhere, but two other factors.
The first was a sustained outreach campaign. It took the synagogue to non-members living locally rather than expecting them to come to it. It meant they first met the rabbi in their front living room, not at the shul. It assumed religious inertia on their part, hence the synagogue took the initiative. It also assumed that, once introduced to communal life, they would find it had much to offer them.
This was linked to the second factor behind Maidenhead’s growth: rebranding it. No longer a prayer centre, but a community centre with something for everyone, be it bridge club, poetry circle or zumba class. This was based on the fact that services may be an important part of congregational life but do not cater for all Jews, as many are agnostic or atheist. It was a method that corresponds to many business models for diversifying one’s appeal in a diminishing or competitive market. It certainly proved successful, leading first to rebuilding the premises and then moving to larger ones.
It highlights an issue that is often avoided but needs recognition. Even when Maidenhead is packed on Yom Kippur with “once-a-yearers”, half of the community are still absent. Yet they pay a considerable annual subscription to belong — not because of guilt or burial rights, which have both lost the emotional and financial grip they once held — but because they relate to Judaism in an entirely cultural way.
There are many who religiously come on Sunday mornings to buy a baigel at the kosher shop, or to study Jewish history on a Monday night at adult education classes, but would not dream of coming to services. They may eat Jewish or learn Jewish, but do not believe Jewish or pray Jewish.
Some might answer that Judaism without God is meaningless. The Maidenhead response would be to assert that Judaism is as much a culture as a faith and there are many different ways of identifying with it apart from davening. Synagogues should not only tolerate the non-religious, but regard them as equally important members. It means not thinking of them as non-attenders if they regularly go to the book circle but never come to services.
All credit to the new JW3 cultural centre, which has spotted a gap in the market. But should synagogues have allowed it to exist in the first place? Might it not denude many shuls of existing members who only joined because they had nowhere else to go Jewishly, but will now feel JW3 satisfies their involvement? In recent years Jewish schools have had the side effect of depopulating many synagogue religion schools and lowering the much-needed participation of parents in shul affairs. Similarly, JW3 may, unintentionally, add another nail in the traditional synagogue’s coffin by sourcing cultural activities outside it.
But if the Maidenhead experience is an argument for synagogues taking on the role of a culture club, there is also a caveat. Judaism cannot survive by culture alone. Jewish atheists may pass on cultural traditions such as a love of chicken soup, Woody Allen and Fiddler on the Roof, but gastronomic and musical tastes do not usually last for more than two generations. The attrition rate is even more so when Jews are surrounded by a powerful external culture.
True, the legacy of believers is also not immune from erosion, but the structure of personal life around religious rituals, family life and communal ceremonies can have a power that endures for a significant number.
It suggests that for synagogues to survive, they should neither ignore their core religious role, nor make it their sole activity. Nor should they make value judgments about their members based on their religiosity. Many a rabbi’s children have lost their faith, and many an atheist’s offspring have rediscovered theirs — and both should be able to find a home in their local, all-purpose synagogue.