Come and enjoy the prayer necessities

There is a widespread view within Judaism that our religious services must be made to be more relevant and personally engaging.


There is a widespread view within Judaism and, indeed, all the great faiths that, in a world where secularism and materialism are such powerful forces, our religious services must be made to be more relevant and personally engaging.

The United Synagogue strategic review recently came to this conclusion, prompted by a revealing statistic. Over 60 per cent of US members said that engaging religious services are a very important factor in choosing to join their synagogue; yet only 39 per cent of members said that they were "very satisfied" that their synagogue was delivering for them in that regard.

The problem is both profound and urgent, but the solution is within our grasp.

In keeping with the term beit knesset, which literally means "house of gathering", our synagogues provide a wide range of activities to make everyone feel at home. On Shabbat and Yomtov, we have correctly sought to master the art of providing additional reasons to encourage people to cross the synagogue threshold, such as creative and tasty kiddushim, meaningful life-cycle events, guest speakers, exciting educational events and an enhanced social environment. We must continue with all of these initiatives, but never at the expense of cultivating a passion for the very essence of the shul experience - our prayers.

There is no question that many of the younger members of our communities feel less motivated than their parents or grandparents to attend synagogue out of an appreciation of heritage and a sense of duty. They are far less inclined to sit passively in a congregation waiting to be inspired by an impressive chazan or rabbi. They are yearning for a deeply personal, spiritually uplifting experience that they can master for themselves. Our challenge is to provide them with the tools to do so.

Good opportunities to make progress abound. By ensuring that our barmitzvah boys and batmitzvah girls know their way around the siddur and can appreciate the beauty and relevance of tefillah (prayer), they will forever feel at home in any shul around the world and be able to take part in a prayer service.

Some communities can benefit from explanatory services, while others will appreciate services which include brief insights being added into the formal standard proceedings, so long as the natural flow of the service is not affected.

One of the most fascinating prayer-related developments of recent years has been the increased worldwide popularity of Carlebach-style services, with energising and uplifting tunes which have made prayer more accessible and enjoyable. This is among the factors feeding the beginnings of a counter-trend in our community against materialism and superficiality in favour of a genuine respect for and pursuit of spiritual growth. We are seeing increasing numbers of congregants in our shuls crying out for participant-centric Shabbat and Yomtov experiences, not bimah-centric ones.

Prayer is an axiomatic feature of every faith. We treasure the daily opportunities provided to us to refine our conduct and develop our characters. Bearing in mind the transformational impact of tefillah, our question should be not why should we bother but rather, what are we missing.

Our prayer services are a wonderful combination of beautifully crafted, prescribed Hebrew passages, woven together with numerous opportunities for impromptu, personal supplications in a language of one's choice. Tefillah is far from being just a means for us to place a list of requests before the Almighty.

Every service presents the opportunity for a genuine life-enhancing experience. One fine example of this is Selichot, the season of which commences in Ashkenazi circles tomorrow night. Stirring passages, moving songs and private devotional prayers combine to make this a wonderfully meaningful communal event.

So, where to begin? If you have never left a prayer service feeling deeply inspired and motivated, or if it has been a while since you felt that way, contact your local rabbi and let him know; the best place to begin is among a congregation seeking the same goal.

If you live in or around London, why not join us this Saturday evening for a unique late-night Selichot service at Finchley United Synagogue at which hundreds of people will turn their hearts to heaven with a beautiful spirit of humility and enthusiasm? I will be encouraging everyone to join in with the singing, and the melodies will already be familiar to many. This midnight Selichot will serve as a model for what can be achieved at all our services right through the year.

Join us on Saturday evening. Join us over the High Holy Days in synagogues across the country. Join us with happiness and enthusiasm and please, don't just listen - join in. Hum the melody, say the words, sing the prayers with all of your heart, together with us. You will be glad that you did.

The choral Selichot service at Finchley Synagogue begins at 11.30pm tomorrow (Saturday 5 September)

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive