My JC mailbag bulges with responses from all parts of the community, great and small. And I do mean small. This message, just in, is from a nine year-old: “Please write something about how terrible it is for children, not being allowed back to shul.”
Well, that got me where it hurts. Orthodox synagogues are now sending out guidance for attendance. The T&Cs are standard. Anyone over 70 should “think very carefully” before going to shul, more so if they have “an underlying condition”. When I was a boy, someone who was pregnant was said to be in “a delicate condition”. Now, anyone past three score and ten is treated as a walking timebomb. One shul, I hear, has told its over-70s that, if they want to attend, they will have to indemnify the synagogue against the consequences of their catching Covid-19 in the pews. How likely is that? I don’t mean Covid —that’s real, but a Jew suing his shul for damages over an act of God? This must be a shul with little faith in its members, and even less in the One above.
At the younger end, we are told, “Children under bar and batmitzvah will not be permitted to attend services… as appropriate social distancing will be difficult to enforce.” Come again? Many kids have gone to school throughout the pandemic as sprogs of key workers, and more since restrictions were eased. Have schools found distancing “difficult to enforce”? Possibly, but with added staff and a dash of good humour they kept kids happy and healthy without a single case of Covid being reported in any Jewish child in London over the past two months (I checked).
If schools can do it, shuls can too. What’ll it take? A few volunteers to keep children occupied and a total rethink of our superannuated premises. All my life, I have seen shuls ignore the glaring absence of one vital demographic. Young mothers stayed away from buildings designed by colourless men in less-sensitive times. Orthodox women were further inhibited by the lack of an eruv. Well, life has moved on, dads now change nappies and there’s an eruv to make life easier for frum mothers to take babies to shul. Since synagogues have reopened, I keep hearing from rabbis on webinars that nothing will ever be the same again. They are right, but we have to make it happen.
I don’t want to generalise, but unless you were taken to shul as a kid, the odds are you will never set foot in one at all. Consider David Beckham, a retired footballer of East End origins. In what appears to be his only interview on the half of his heredity that is identifiably Jewish, Beckham told a JW3 audience: “I was never brought up Jewish, but like I said, my grandfather was, and every time we went to synagogue I was part of that.” Mark those words: “part of that”. Going to shul is the one bit of Jewishness that remains meaningful to this sporting icon, the lone connection to his inner Jew and chief impetus for him to attend our fundraising dinners.
A deeply observant friend made a remarkably similar observation: “My father,” he said, “was never much of a shulgoer, but I loved sitting there beside my granddad. If I go today, it’s because of him.” Can you see the danger? If we let Covid exclude the oldies and the infants from shul, we will kill both past and future.
Vast improvements have been made in childrens’ services, with ice-cream kiddushim and other diversions in forward-looking communities. But shul is not about distracting kids and giving mums a chatter room. The most important part for children is the act of going to shul, the family bonding and making memories. My father, a taciturn man beset by tragic losses, did not find it easy to connect to me as a child. My strongest image of him is walking to shul, his hand in mine, marching wordless towards a common goal. The seats we had in a shul long-since demolished are the only patch of turf I regard as ancestrally mine.
My nine year-old complainant is right. Children must be allowed to feel a sense of ownership about shul, the same rite of possession that bonds me to Beckham (who is now acquiring Jewish in-laws). They must feel not just welcomed in shul but entitled and if that means reconfiguring the service from Anim Zemirot up, so be it. Once upon a time people went to shul for (in Yiddish) a shtik Covid. We cannot allow this other, evil Covid to destroy us by locking out our people, young and old.