Keren David

Why not talk to the Yomtov-only shul goers?

'A missed year won’t make a great deal of difference to those who don’t see shul-going as an integral part of their Jewish identity'

September 10, 2020 10:25

So, what will those elusive three-times-a-year Jews do at Yomtov this year? Will they log on to virtual services as offered by the progressive wing of Judaism, or book in to Orthodox socially distanced services?

I suspect — and religious authorities worry — that many will not. But I do not share the fears, so eloquently put by Rabbi Yoni Birnbaum on this page last week, that this will indicate a final loosening of the ties that bind these Jews to Judaism.

A missed year won’t make a great deal of difference to those who don’t see shul-going as an integral part of their Jewish identity. People who feel fulfilled, comforted, inspired and uplifted by a shul service of whatever stripe, find it hard to grasp that there are people who hate ritual of all kinds, do not feel spiritual in any way whatsoever, and have no wish to take a more active role than turning up and gritting their teeth for two hours or so.

It’s worth acknowledging that the feelings which bring them back year after year are probably strong enough to withstand a break for a pandemic. Much more of a threat are the large fees that synagogues charge for membership.

Too often our larger communities seem to operate on the same model as gym chains. They take our money and give us access to the things we need to get fit, but assume (and almost encourage) the majority of paying members will not use the facilities available to them. If they were to do so, the gyms would be hopelessly overcrowded, the equipment and trainers would be over-used and over stretched, and the regular gym-goers full of complaints.

This model of operating means that people who quite fancy increasing their fitness can feel daunted, faced with a room full of muscled strongmen, who know exactly how all the equipment works. And the same applies to shuls, which often seem to rely on non-active members to pay for the facilities used by a minority.

This became clear to me when a three-times-a-year Jew told me of his experience on Rosh Hashanah one year. Card in hand he searched for his numbered seat — the seat for which he pays hundreds of pounds a year. But it was occupied by an elderly man, clearly a regular. My friend didn’t want to make a fuss. And he was quite relieved to have an excuse to miss a service that meant very little to him.

Meanwhile his teenage son knew there was no ticket and therefore no seat for him, so was chatting to friends in the foyer.

It always surprises me how little is done to work out just why people come to shul three times a year, especially when rabbis so often use their New Year sermons to address them — a strategy which might have been designed to make people feel uncomfortable and criticised, however kindly it is meant.

If you are a synagogue leader worried about your three-times-a-year Jews losing that annual habit, then take time this year to contact them. Ask why they come for festivals but not the rest of the year. Ask about their lives and families. Ask what the shul can do for them. Ask what might make them more interested, more involved.

More than that, ask for their criticism. Let them tell you why they don’t come to shul. If members leave, conduct (as big companies do) an exit interview. Perhaps you do need to look at — say — the options available for batmitzvah girls? Might a “welcome back” strategy for students returning home after years away be a good idea? Has the shul inadvertently made some people feel excluded or upset?

Some people flocked back to gyms when they reopened — others realised they’d managed fine without. And, of course, there are plenty of alternatives now for exercise — and for prayer. Chabad offers the Jewish equivalent of free exercise sessions in your local park and all over north London you have minyanim that offer something akin to “boutique” personal training gyms.

In a post-Covid world of failed businesses and redundancies, people are going to look at the money they pay for shul membership, and ask themselves if it is really justified. The shuls should be thinking about how to persuade those three-times-a-year Jews that they are valued for more than their fees — and beyond that, work out why teenagers who don’t even have seats in shul on Yomtov will want to belong to a Jewish community when they are all grown up.

September 10, 2020 10:25

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