Jo Grose

Prayer should be at the heart of shul

Just as we should take care of our physical and mental health, so too does shul provide a gym for our souls


A member of the Moroccan Jewish community prays at the synagogue of Em Habanim in the capital city of Casablanca on January 5, 2021. (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP) (Photo by FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images)

January 14, 2021 19:34

Debate has raged in the pages of the JC recently as to the purpose of a synagogue. This is not a new conversation: for 150 years the United Synagogue has brought Jews together for both prayer and wider activities.

Our vision is to see our members, and the wider community, engaged in Jewish living, learning and caring. We offer engaging programmes in addition to inspiring services. For Judaism to thrive, it cannot just take place in shul: Jewish life must be found in our homes as well as in our schools.

But we also know that some forms of prayer don’t speak to everyone and we are mindful of the United Synagogue’s Hebrew name, Kehilla Kedosha, Knesset Yisrael: we are proudly Orthodox and welcoming to all; we offer both a place to pray and a space to gather.

The concept of shuls as community centres has developed significantly within the United Synagogue over at least the last 60 years, providing access points for a diverse membership, many of whom feel shul isn’t for them. 
Communal worship is what makes a synagogue a synagogue but community is built around genuine relationships. Communal experiences, whether prayer, a meal, a lecture, a kiddush or even an online coffee morning brings meaning to people’s lives and a sense of connection to others.

The Chief Rabbi talks about turning houses of worship into “powerhouses of Jewish religious, educational and cultural experience”. Jewish learning (including Jewish history, culture and Zionism, in addition to religious texts), seniors’ teas, walking groups, youth clubs, music recitals and poetry readings sit alongside cooking for the homeless and clothes collections as well as prayer services.

United Synagogue communities benefit from the support of a professional central body to complement local programming. Our Chesed department assists members in need, Tribe inspires our young people and our social responsibility team helps asylum seekers and homeless people. 

What happens in the shul building is only a part of what makes up community life. Some of our communities don’t even have one and very deliberately bring people together in homes, parks and coffee shops.

Nevertheless, prayer remains a core Jewish practice. Rabbi Sacks called prayer “spiritual exercise”. Just as we should take care of our physical and mental health, so too does shul provide a gym for our souls. Prayer, though it can be said almost anywhere, is, in its fullest expression, a communal activity: we pray for others, not just ourselves, and express our beliefs through our prayers. Regulars attend our shuls to pray three times a day to fulfil this optimum form of collective prayer.

We recognise that no one style of service works for everyone. Some shuls offer multiple options to meet different tastes: a service just for women, perhaps, a family one or an early morning Shabbat minyan. Despite being Ashkenazi, we welcome a number of Sephardi minyanim on our premises.

Covid has challenged us to reimagine community. Outdoor shofar blowing and Chanukah drive-ins drew large (Covid-secure) crowds. Online speakers can attract more people than in person. Framed well, volunteering engages people of all ages who might not attend a programme at shul., our free on-demand TV station, can reach people who wouldn’t normally watch something Jewish, racking up 150,000 views since the summer. Shorter, more focused services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur gained such positive feedback that they should form part of future offerings.

Post-Covid, we expect to see a hybrid model of community, with prayer and programmes both online and in-person. There is always more to do, but the United Synagogue has offered both services and wider activities during its 150-year existence and, please God, we will continue to do so.

Jo Grose is the Director of Communities and Strategy at the United Synagogue

January 14, 2021 19:34

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