In the past two years, I have been to shul no more than a dozen times. A crisis of faith? Not at all. Because my neighbourhood has no eruv, and I have very young children, I rarely go to services on Shabbat — when I would not be able to carry or push them — and attend, instead, on Yomtov, when the restrictions don’t apply.
I have been a shul-goer all my life. But on the rare occasions when I do make it nowadays, I feel like a stranger. I have no regular place to sit; I don’t even know where the “good” seats are. I know some people, yes, but in a 1,200-family shul, it can take a while to spot them. I am not entirely sure of the customs of this particular synagogue (we were members elsewhere before the children were born). It is all very disorienting.
Perhaps as a result, as we approach the High Holy Days, I can’t help but feel a renewed appreciation for the thousands of secular Jews who are about make their own annual appearances in shul — the so-called “three-times-a-year Jews” (that’s only three times less than me).
For the majority, the shul experience must be utterly alienating. At least I know exactly what’s going on in the services. But if you don’t speak or perhaps even read Hebrew, and the tunes are unfamiliar, and you have no-one to talk to in Kiddush, and you don’t even know where to hang your coat, how connected are you really going to feel on the longest service of the year?
And yet, most of them keep on coming, year after year. They may be motivated by habit, nostalgia, guilt, love for Judaism, identification with the Jewish people or spirituality. Perhaps they are just trying to get into JFS. It doesn’t matter. On the most important days of the Jewish calendar, they want to be counted in the congregation.
The upsetting part is that when they do turn up, they are not always welcomed generously. Inevitably, someone complains about people who turn up three times a year “stealing” the seats of the regulars — although the “guests” may have been paying for those seats all year round. Remarks about women who “forgot to put their dress on” have become clichés, as have snide “jokes” about their tans and expensive cars parked around the corner. And have you heard the one about the worshippers who did not know which way up to hold their siddur…?
To be sure, much of the tension is the result of frustration at the lack of decorum in shul. This is inevitable when you have too many people, many of them unfamiliar with the services, sitting through hours of schlepped-out davening. And no, not everyone is always dressed appropriately, or behaves appropriately either.
But let’s be honest. There is also a strong element of snobbery at play. Some of “us” — the regular congregants — tend to look down at “them” for being far too flashy (for our tastes) and far too ignorant of anything Jewish, and resent them for daring to disrupt our comfortable private club. I am told that the reverse is also true: the three-times-a-year Jews look down on the “regulars” for being far too dowdy, religious and nerdy.
But there is no place for such sentiments in shul — which does not belong to any individual Jew, no matter how many times a year they attend. In this age of assimilation, we should be grateful for every Jew who makes the effort to attend, every Jew who is still with us. We must welcome, cherish and cultivate them — if we want to see their children attending year after year, as well.