The curse of noisy barmitzvah guests and other synagogue discontents

A survey of one of London's largest Orthodox congregations found disruptive visitors and lack of opportunities for women to be the main causes of dissatisfaction


A large number of bnei mitzvot each year should be a sign of a thriving community. But for some members, it is a mixed blessing.

An influx of chattering visitors with little interest in the service beyond the bar- or batmitzvah’s performance can be infuriating for weekly regulars.

Indeed, in a survey done by Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue earlier this year, barmitzvah disruption was given as the main reason why some members had chosen to leave the main service and opted for alternatives instead.

In a report summarising the response to the survey, the following words captured the reaction: “Disrespect, mockery, disruption, talking continuously, feel alientated, influx of hordes, ghastly, invasion, galling, no sense of community, no place for me, not my shul, barmitzvah factory, circus.”

Some thought barmitzvahs should be transferred to a parallel service, while others recommended holding them only once a month, even if that entailed having more than one on the same day.

While 29 per cent of main shul-goers felt barmitzvahs detracted from their enjoyment of the service, 24 per cent thought they enhanced it.

But the second most popular reason for migrating from the main service was the lack of involvement for women.

As a congregation with 2,000 plus members, HGSS, or Norrice Lea as it is often known, is one of the largest central Orthodox communities in the country so the findings may have wider implications for the United Synagogue and beyond. Around a third of the members responded to the questionnaire, analysed by one of the community’s top social scientists, Stephen Miller, emeritus professor at London’s City University.

One of the reasons which prompted the research was the drop in attendance in the main Shabbat morning service. Dr Miller calculates that there are 175 fewer men and women going to it than a decade ago.

Among alternatives are the hashkamah (early morning) minyan and “Coffee and Conversation”, a breakout lecture during the service.

Demographic decline may account for a loss of 50 people he suggests, ie not enough younger members to replace those who pass away.

But around 125 have quit the main service for other options.

In response, some members believe the more formal, “cathedral-style” service has had “its day”. Others believe there is still enough loyalty to preserve the status quo. Still others think the synagogue has been too permissive in allowing alternative services to flourish and want to curtail them.

While some Orthodox synagogues have adjusted their layout so that men and women sit on the same level — separated by a mechitzah — HGSS is one of those which still has an upper gallery. “It’s difficult to argue that women in general feel so strongly about seating and access that this has soured their overall attitude to shul life,” Dr Miller says.

Around 30 per cent of women who had stopped going to the main service cited the seating arrangements as a factor.

But change will not be easy to agree. While 23 per cent the men and women who attend the main service think the current model unacceptable, 22 per cent prefer to keep things the way they are.

Overall, 48 per cent of members support a switch to single-level seating, but 34 per cent are against.

Among strictly Orthodox members — who make up a fifth of the congregation — only a small majority are in favour of men and women sitting on the same floor (43 per cent to 40 per cent).

But younger HGSS members, aged under 45, are strongly supportive of change — 57 per cent as against 25 per cent.

It is not only seating that deters some women. “The service is led entirely by men, without any involvement from women,” one complained. “It’s diminishing my willingness to attend any service at Norrice Lea.”

As for attendance in general, around a third of members come to shul “with some regularity,” Dr Miller found — which leaves two-thirds who turn up only on festivals (or some who do not come at all).

The infrequent attenders cited lack of familiarity with the service and feeling out of place as the most common reason for their absence.

But most were notionally open to coming more often. What might tempt them was shorter services, having discussions on moral and social issues and providing a Shabbat explanatory service.

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