We need to create communities for the 'shul-allergic'

Matt Plen triggered debate with his comments at Limmud that synagogues were too preoccupied with prayer. Here he explains his reasoning


The time has come to admit that synagogues do not serve most Jews.

Since I made this claim as part of a panel at Limmud 2020, I’ve been taken aback at the strength of reaction – on both sides. Rabbis and community leaders from the United States, Canada and the UK have agreed with me, while one blogger has suggested I am as dangerous to Judaism as the 17th-century false messiah Shabbetai Zevi.

But the facts bear out my argument.

Based on research carried out by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR), it’s thought that only half of the UK’s Jews belong to synagogues. And according to JPR’s 2013 National Jewish Community Survey, while 76 per cent of Jews attend synagogue at least once a year, only 28 per cent attend once a week, and a quarter do not attend at all. These numbers are dramatically lower in the major centres of world Jewry, Israel and the United States.

Anecdotal evidence supports this. Even committed members of synagogues do not necessarily attend services. I know dozens of people who volunteer, teach, learn, and even take on leadership roles, but never show up to pray.

While an observant minority (of all denominations, Progressive and Masorti as well as Orthodox) are committed and presumably satisfied shul-goers, even the best prayer-orientated synagogues are not meeting the needs of the Jewish people.

So should we try and get Jews into shuls, or should we change our model?

The answer is both. There are people out there who might love synagogue if exposed to a really good one, and most of us want shul at key lifecycle moments like marriage and bereavement. We should not give up on them and we should work hard to make sure our synagogues are compelling, spiritual and relational community spaces.

Masorti Judaism, the organisation I lead, is working hard to grow our synagogues and to found new ones. The latest example is Ohel Moed, a prayer-focused congregation set up recently by young graduates of Noam, the Masorti youth movement.

But for the majority of Jews, we still have to recognise that the current model is wrong.

What kind of change do we need? One direction could be organisational: changing how we operate to appeal to those – particularly younger – people who are resistant to traditional institutional structures – dues-paying membership, committees, hierarchy, and rigid denominational boundaries.

But this ignores the heart of the problem. I believe alienation from communal life is caused by our insistence on focusing almost exclusively on prayer. Prayer perhaps the hardest part of Judaism to connect to, especially in our secular times, yet we keep trying to push it as the mainstay of our Jewish lives.

I’m influenced by the great 20th-century American Jewish thinker and community leader Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, whose most famous book, Judaism as a Civilisation, argued forcefully that Judaism is much more than a religion.

There are lots of other bits of Judaism to connect to, all of which are more intuitive for us and no less authentic to the tradition: Torah study (broadly understood), Hebrew and other Jewish languages, life-cycle events, practical home-based ritual around Shabbat and holidays, tzedakah (charity), gemilut hasadim (acts of loving kindness, which could translate as volunteering), music, social life, food, culture, politics, and more.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once suggested that Kaplan’s agenda was to “base [Judaism] on something other than religion… on what he calls Judaism as a civilisation or, as we would put it today, Jews as an ethnic and cultural group”.

But this is not the case. In fact, Kaplan was a profoundly religious thinker. He believed that the Jewish people were still bound together in a covenant. This was not a “contract” with a supernatural God, but an obligation to bring the Divine into the world by working collectively to make it a better place.

Kaplan continued to emphasise the importance of Jewish observance and spirituality as things that bind Jews together and enable them to fulfil their mission. But his Judaism as a civilisation was much broader than our customary conception of a prayer-focused religion.

Lots of shuls, while keeping prayer at their heart, do embrace these other areas of Jewish life. I know hundreds of committed, active synagogue members who learn, volunteer and contribute, while rarely attending services. But what would it look like if we created whole communities that emphasised these other areas and downplayed prayer?

For example, Masorti Judaism has been involved in supporting a new community, created by young adults and young families, called the Havurah. It was founded by people who wanted Jewish community but described themselves as “shul allergic”. It hosts regular activities including Shabbat morning singing for families, Jewish learning, tzedakah projects, and festival celebrations. It looks and feels a lot like a shul – but with hardly any prayer.

One final thought. The UK Jewish scene now features lots of organisations that address these broader areas of Jewish civilisation, but hardly any of them fulfil the vital role of a synagogue – being a community. Many of them are focused on providing a product or a service, seeing people as customers, and not concerned enough with what a community should be about – building relationships between its members.

There are traces of this in some non-synagogue institutions – for example the network of Limmud volunteers, Moishe House, and Zionist youth movements. But the UK Jewish community needs to find a way of incubating and scaling this kind of initiative, as a third way between customer-focused organisations and synagogues focused exclusively on prayer.

The future lies in institutions focused on relationships, participation and the broadest possible understanding of Judaism.

Dr Matt Plen is the chief executive of Masorti Judaism.


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