A friend of mine who is shomeret Shabbat recently confided that she has stopped going to shul on Shabbat morning because she finds the service boring. I suspect there are other people who think the same way but continue to drag themselves out of the house from a sense of duty.
The traditional liturgy has remained fixed, frozen, for hundreds of years. The music may change, but the words are the same. There is little room for improvisation. Two or three hours of antique Hebrew, even if interspersed with a sing-song and a few apercus from the rabbi, are for too many people a chore rather than a captivating spiritual experience.
One response to shulphobia is simply to shrug it off. Organised worship, you can argue, is not the be-all and end-all of Judaism. Judaism is a 24/7 religion you can practise anytime, anywhere, whether making a berachah or dropping a coin into a charity box. In biblical times, Temple attendance was only seasonally required.
Nevertheless, the Shabbat morning service does matter. In the diaspora, it remains the weekly centrepiece of congregational life, the time when generally the largest number of members gather together, when the ideals of the community are collectively shared and celebrated. When the Tabernacle is constructed in the wilderness, as last week’s sidrah recounted, it is so that God may dwell “among them” – the people together.
Many synagogues today offer alternative minyans. But alternative minyans, at least in Orthodox synagogues, are not all that alternative. So perhaps it is time to welcome an attempt to try something new – the series of pop-up minyans launched by Rabbi Naftali and Dina Brawer , on which we reported reported last week.
Their Experimental Minyan is an attempt to refresh the Shabbat morning service, using meditation, niggunim (Chasidic-style melodies) and, rather than simply rattling off words on a page, giving a thematic thread to the service by exploring topics like gratitude or love as they are expressed in various prayers.
When the United Synagogue’s strategic review talked of engaging services, it probably didn’t mean something like this. But if the Brawers’ experiment catches on, others may have to take note. If congregations want to encourage more people to come to shul on Shabbat, they may have to learn to be more innovative and creative.
For details of the next pop-up, see Facebook.