Listen to the backbenchers

November 24, 2016 23:12

Here comes Rosh Hashanah and here comes the rabbi's ever so familiar sermon. You've certainly heard it before. I've heard it more times than I can remember. The so-so-familiar Rosh Hashanah sermon chastising those Jews "who come only three times a year." But this Rosh Hashanah the congregation needs to finger-wag back at the rabbi. The question shouldn't be what is wrong with the Jews who have failed to turn up, but what is wrong with the synagogue.

This is the number-one problem with our synagogues. They are treated like clubhouses not communities. The rabbi lavishes his attention on the frum core, who are personally invited to everything, while the less frum families are pretty much ignored. This means most synagogues bizarrely mimic parliament (just without the opposition) with active, included "frontbenchers" from the frum families and forgotten - frankly excluded - "backbenchers".

Your average synagogue makes no effort to include, encourage and let alone explain anything to the "backbenchers". As a result, this is more or less what they get from the synagogue: a High Holy Day handshake, a funeral, and some glossy stuff in the post. It should come as little surprise they come only three times a year. Let's face up to it, for "backbenchers", shul is just not welcoming. It really should surprise nobody that Jewish household synagogue membership has shrunk 23 per cent since 1983.

Clubhouse synagogues create an atmosphere whereby frum families treat the synagogue like private members whilst the less observant and ignored ones feel embarrassed - and left out - because of gaps in their Jewish knowledge. This may have been all right in the 1950s but, today, "three-times-a-year" Jews are the majority in all non-Charedi shuls. Good Torah and knowledge is the exception, not the rule.

This atmosphere of shame is alienating and keeps people away. Why is no joy taken in explaining things or in helping people practise more? This Rosh Hashanah, rabbis need to realise outreach isn't optional. It should be the number-one activity, not only of the rabbi but also the core frum families who support him. That Strictly-Orthodox Chabad is the most successful at outreach shows that others are not even trying.

Why is no joy taken in explaining things or in helping?

The second biggest problem with the synagogue is generational. Shuls quite simply take no interest in my generation. This creates a paradox wherein the rabbi is constantly bemoaning the fact that the new generation are dropping out, but millennials are absurdly expected to wait until they are married, old and observant to have a say.

Worse still, your typical synagogue has zero involvement in its management from its young. What do they want, need or think? The synagogue has no way of knowing. If a synagogue does have someone under 40 in the inner circle they are usually fresh from a yeshivah and thus not in the slightest representative of those they claim to want to encourage to come "more than three times a year." What other institution would regularly lament its young drifting away but make zero effort to include, or even consult them, in its running?

The third biggest problem with synagogue is with mixed families. Among British Jews who have married since 2010 around 26 per cent have a non-Jewish spouse. The very fact so many of these families are there on Rosh Hashanah means they want to be Jewish but, instead of being shown what they need - more care, explanations and love - they are made to feel like misfits. The rabbis lament that people fall in love with the wrong people and drop out. But what are they doing to help those who want to stay? Absolutely nothing.

This year, the rabbis should give no sermon chastising "the three-times-a-year Jews." They should listen to them. It is about to be 5777, it really is about time.

November 24, 2016 23:12

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