The United Synagogue couple who want to do shul differently

Samuel and Shoshana Landau are trying out new ideas in services at Barnet Synagogue


Most mainstream synagogues face an annual spiritual challenge: how to tempt back some of the High Holy Day crowds who flock there two or three days a year to return more regularly.

For the new rabbinic couple at Barnet United Synagogue, Rabbi Dr Samuel and Ma’ayan Shoshana Landau (her title comes from the Chief Rabbi’s course for women educators) it meant doing something different. For the second day of Rosh Hashanah and the concluding Ne’ilah for Yom Kippur, they offered the experimental “Discovery “ service, which included meditation and spiritual exercises.

Judaism should “elevate life”, providing meaning and purpose, Rabbi Landau said. “If I look around most shuls, I don’t know that I’m necessarily getting that feeling. So we need to rethink — or think out of the box.”

For the second day, the synagogue’s traditional chazan-led service moved to the overflow premises in the scout hut down the road, leaving the main sanctuary to Discovery.
By cutting back on the additional piyyutim — the medieval liturgical poems which can be hard to understand even in English — they were able to preserve the core of the service, while allowing time to introduce new ideas.

Although the Days of the Awe are supposed to be a high point in the religious calendar, the experience can often “fall flat”, he said, because of a “disconnect” between what the days are meant to represent and what happens in shul. So whatever motivated people to come — “whether out of a sense of tradition, or of guilt, or of community loyalty” — the Landaus thought: “Maybe we could offer them a service that helps them tap into the magic of the day and not just go through the motions one more year.”

Before the sounding of the shofar, for example, people were asked to go up to someone else, perhaps someone they didn’t know, and share with them what they would be most praying for during the year; then they would pray for each other.

“It’s quite a big thing to share a vulnerability like that with someone else in shul,” Rabbi Landau said. “It’s also quite interesting for the rabbi to say ‘Go and talk!’
“The reception was amazing. There was a 26-year-old talking to an 80-year-old who had just lost his wife of 60 years. That was a beautiful connection of two people who might otherwise never speak. There were tears in both their eyes.”

For the start of the Mussaf Amidah, “we did a meditation to initially become present in the room because so often when we pray, our minds are all over the place.” Focusing on the prayer’s opening blessing, people reflected on “what does it mean to bless God? What does it feel like to say Ata [You] to an infinite Being? Then people were left to continue with their prayers, whether they wanted to  use the formal prayers in Hebrew or English, or just to have their own reflections. 

“It was incredible, almost eerie. You could have heard a pin drop.”

Another exercise was designed to get people to think what really mattered to them. It began with him giving “a parody eulogy of myself, saying things like ‘he spent half an hour a day playing Candy Crush on his smartphone, he always enjoyed watching the football on Sunday afternoon and spent hours researching his football team’— the things we seem to get caught up with in life but we know in our hearts don’t really matter but somehow seem to take over.”

The heart of the exercise was to come up with “three things we would like written on our tombstones. Some people fed back to the shul what they wanted.” One person came up with: “Tried, failed, tried again”.

A nearly full shul suggested an openness to change. “I was very happy to see so much support and the messages after were phenomenal,” he said. Some visitors even signed up to become members.

But the Landaus have no intention of limiting innovation to just twice a year. For the Shabbat during Succah, for example, shortly before the end of the service, for instance, men and women came to the front of the synagogue to sit together for a workshop on Ecclesiastes, which tried to draw practical lessons from the difficult biblical book.

Currently based in Israel, the couple do not take up their post full-time in London until spring. Rabbi Landau will work part-time as a clinical psychologist here — he did his doctorate on mindfulness meditation and spirituality, and teaches Jewish meditation in an Israeli seminary.

Even in the “hallowed halls of the yeshivah system”, Rabbi Landau said, sometimes you might find “a lack of heart. There’s lot of intense talmudic study, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into feeling the warm embrace of God.” 

Like others, he took spiritual inspiration from Chasidic masters such as Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.

If people are drifting away from organised religion, then religious leaders need to find new ways to communicate its meaning. “This shouldn’t be a detached message from the pulpit, this should be something that speaks to the guts and bones of real life.”

The synagogue should be a place “you want to come to, not hauling yourself grudgingly, but where you are excited what shul could offer.”

So should synagogues generally be bolder in their offering? “Yes,” he said. 

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