Prayer should not be the primary function of a synagogue

Shuls should be, above all, places where we can come together as we are – believers and non-believers


Mezuzah affixed to the doorpost of Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul

January 04, 2021 14:29

So, the truth is out at last. As reported in last week’s JC, it was suggested by Matt Plen at a Limmud session that synagogues did not speak to the “vast majority” of Jews, because they were too “prayer-based”.

To some, this will be heresy; after all, surely worship is the primary function of synagogues? But they are forgetting what is the very meaning of the word: it is Greek for house of meeting: a place to gather, but not necessarily to pray.

To those still shouting “heresy”, it is worth remembering that the main Hebrew term is beit knesset - which also means “house of meeting”. It is only a secondary term, beit tefillah, which refers to it being a “house of prayer”.

But what is key is not semantics, but the reality of the lives most Jews lead. Prayer is a minority sport most of the year. Just think of the crowds at Yom Kippur who force us to have overflow sections, or move completely to town halls.

This is not to castigate the non-worshippers, but to state that synagogue leaders have been deriving the wrong conclusion about the relationship with the once-a-yearers.

Until now, it has been “they are the wrong sort of Jews; we have to persuade them to come every Shabbat and to be more like us”.

I would argue that, instead, the attitude should be: “We are clearly not answering their needs, and we should change in order to cater for them”.

This is predicated on the view that there are many ways of being Jewish – religiously, of course, but also socially or culturally... and not to put a value judgment on which is the best way.

We know that many Jews are atheists or agnostics, but whereas you cannot be a Christian atheist (you either believe in Jesus or you are not a Christian), you can be a Jewish atheist.

He or she may value their Jewish heritage, support Jewish charities, defend Israel and read the JC, but not feel at ease in synagogue. Our task is not to guilt-trip them, but to remodel the synagogue so that it provides a home for them.

That is why when we recently enlarged the synagogue in Maidenhead for our 850 families, we decided to ‘get real’, make the Prayer Hall slightly smaller and increase the size of the social and cultural areas. It was part of a business plan to rebrand ourselves from primarily being a house of prayer to being a community centre.

It was also recognising the changing attitude to time: Shabbat is not the main Jewish day of the week for many of our members. For some it is Sunday and our Jewish film evenings; for others, it is Monday and the Jewish history sessions; for others, Tuesday and the Israeli dance group.

Moreover, virtually none of those who religiously come on those days, attend Shabbat services. Their Jewish day is different, and their choice.

This does not mean sacrificing services or giving up on mitzvot, but regarding them as options, rather than sole ends. Synagogues need to be places with many entry points and it does not matter which one people take. Once in, they may move on to other areas.

What Jews want most of all is for synagogues to be a safe space in a rough world. They should find warmth, welcome and honesty, a place to be themselves as they are, not as some want them to be.

Prayer should be heard there, but also many other Jewish sounds, especially by those who previously felt they did not belong.

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain is minister of Maidenhead Synagogue and author of Confessions of a Rabbi (Biteback)

January 04, 2021 14:29

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