I didn’t expect to write this review. But then, none of us expected the events of the past week. When I sat down to write about my most recent shul visit, I had all my usual crutches in place. A list of my observations on the day. The synagogue’s website open in my browser. And a curling post-it note, on which I’ve scrawled “If you can’t say anything nice, at least say something funny”.
But before I’d typed a single word, a friend sent me a text: “The US have closed all buildings and cancelled all services.” For a moment, I thought he was referring to the United States. But there was no mention of a total American shutdown on the BBC. Then it clicked. Of course, he meant the United Synagogue, which had announced its decision to close all its synagogues and centres.
Within a day or so, synagogues affiliated to other denominations had also closed their doors. And it no longer felt appropriate to write a snippy review about fishballs or decorum or the competence of the choir. Instead, I watched social media like a hawk, noticing the speed with which synagogues scrambled to fill the void and ensure people could continue to feel a sense of community.
It’s painfully ironic that, at a time of crisis, when people need connection and human contact the most, those are the very things that we have to avoid. And it shouldn’t surprise me that synagogues are the places that people turn to, and the places they miss the most when their doors are shut. After all, the Hebrew word for a shul is beit keneset —a place for getting together.
So, what will we do, as a community, when our synagogues are closed? In some synagogues, live-streamed services are being set up, so that members can virtually participate in prayer. A dial’n’daven service, if you will.
For others, the focus has been on maintaining pastoral care, via regular contact with members, through email or social media.
Shul membership can require an email system with the capability of NASA’s space programme; members’ inboxes are often inundated with shul emails — bereavement notices, shivah details, cheder updates, information about fundraising events, and the all-too-frequent Considerate Parking Request.
But in this climate, as we gear up for weeks or even months, of effective lockdown, those emails have a taken on a new comfort, bordering on necessity.
What the past week has proven very starkly, is that our synagogue buildings might be closed, but our synagogues are much more than buildings. Every day, I notice new online events, hosted by synagogues — talks, discussion groups, learning sessions — all arranged to maintain that sense of community we need so much right now.
And I find myself in something of a unique, and privileged, position. I reckon the only person who has attended more synagogues across more denominations than I have in the past two years is the Israeli Ambassador.
I’ve attended services in huge cathedral-style buildings with ornate oak panelling, and tiny ones in ad-hoc premises with folding chairs and a rickety Ark. I’ve sung along to guitars at Progressive services, and listened from behind a thick curtain at Lubavitch. And I’ve sampled — and judged — a range of kiddush cuisine that would make the Bake-Off judges jealous.
I’ve written my reviews with care and consideration. It’s possible I’ve sometimes been a bit too snarky for some. But what I can say, after over two years of doing this project, is that our synagogues are run by people who care about their communities, care about their members, and work incredibly hard to create spaces that are warm and inviting. This past week has reminded me that, even for those of us who don’t attend shul regularly, we are part of a collection of incredible community spaces, and we’ll miss them when they’re locked shut.
As for me, and the Secret Shul-Goer column? Where will I go to pray? Well, the current advice from Downing Street is to try, as far as possible, to work from home. So that’s what I’ll do. I’ll be joining as many live-streamed services as I can from the comfort of my own home, and will try to review them as usual. The kiddush/decorum/warmth of welcome ratings might have to be altered.
I’m toying with ease of set-up, glitch-free volume control and picture blurriness.
But for the times that a live-streamed service isn’t possible, I’m preparing myself for solo prayer. Initially, I tried praying in my front room, where the décor is bright and the furniture quite comfortable. But nobody joined me, and the experience was rather unfriendly.
So I’ve decided instead to break away, and form a new community in the dining room.
Apparently the kiddush is better there.