Meet the millennial matchmaker who is helping her mates find a shul

Sonti Ramirez is launching a digital platform to help engage Jews to a synagogue


Finding a shul that felt like home wasn’t smooth sailing for Sonti Ramirez, who is launching a digital platform to help engage Jews not formally connected to a synagogue — but who would like to be.

The London-based secondary school history teacher says it’s time that shuls adapted to a more flexible model of membership to capture the attention of millennials like her.

Speaking to the JC about the launch of the Shulmates website, which will help users find a synagogue to suit their needs, Sonti, who didn’t grow up with a Jewish community around her, says that shul “is where I go to be Jewish”.

But when the 32-year-old started out on her shul-finding mission, the negative experiences left her feeling “humiliated” and “rejected”.

“I had been attending one shul for weeks. I knew the staff and security team well, but the rabbi would just ignore me. Then, during a kiddush, he singled me out and said I couldn’t take part in something because I wasn’t married. It was humiliating.”

Sonti started Shulmates in the hope that it would save others from similar alienating experiences.

It originally began as “an informal Friday night dinner”, but quickly gained momentum, with members setting up groups such as Tea and Torah and the Very Jewish Book Club.

“It’s a buddy network for millennials interested in getting more involved in synagogue life, but don’t know where to start,” says the UCL alumni.

Its new website will allow its users — or “shulshoppers” — to access a shul ratings system to help them find a synagogue to visit or join.

“We want this system to be supportive for both shuls and our beneficiaries alike,” Sonti explains.

“For our shulgoers, many of whom are LGBTQ, Jews by choice, racial minorities or neurodivergent, accessibility and welcoming environments are really important.”

Although Sonti eventually found her spiritual home at Finchley Reform Synagogue, she thinks the “all or nothing approach” to membership is outdated.

“I always like to think of the Blockbuster versus the Netflix model,” she says. “People these days, especially my generation, don’t necessarily stick with one community, and shuls haven’t quite caught up.”

She says that those attending shuls where they are not a member are not always made to feel welcome. “There is often a sense of resentment towards people who want to attend but aren’t members, but shuls need to tap into this market.”

Shulmates runs events at different synagogues since, says Sonti, people “like the idea of not being alone when they visit somewhere for the first time”. She says a visit to Sandys Row Synagogue in the East End “was lovely. They were so interested in our group.”

She hopes that Shulmates, supported by a grant from Moishe House, an international network of Jewish communal residences, will help disenfranchised Jewish millennials to eventually find “somewhere they can go to long term”.

Shulmates membership is a mixture of people affiliated to different movements and levels of religious practice.

“We have some people from a United Synagogue background, who want a Liberal or Reform environment, and we have some who want the opposite. Our aim is to help connect people to wherever they want to be.”

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