The United Synagogue will never forget its 150th anniversary, though not for the reasons it would have wished when putting together its calendar of commemoration. Instead of a gala dinner, a grand synagogue concert and other events to mark the milestone, it found itself hastily readjusting to a national emergency.
But there is at least the consolation that for the official anniversary Shabbat this weekend, synagogues have the option of again meeting for some kind of service within their buildings after months in lockdown. Celebratory material will be going out to households in advance.
What remains British Jewry’s largest religious organisation was brought into being by an Act of Parliament in 1870 when five London synagogues formed a union for those who “conform to the Polish or German ritual”.
Its Hebrew name, Kehillat Kadoshah Knesset Yisrael, the Holy Community of the Congregation of Israel, signals its inclusive intent — to provide a traditional Orthodox home for anyone regardless of their level of observance. “It’s there for all,” says its president for the past three years, Michael Goldstein.
While its 62 synagogues may have been physically dormant since late March until last week, they have turned to technology like never before to keep in touch with members.
“The whole concept of the United Synagogue is kehillah, community, and what we have managed to do over the last three-and-a-half months is adapt our community. I think we have done an amazing job as an organisation in maintaining community online,” he says.
One popular innovation has been the Friday evening Kabbalat Shabbat services streamed by a number of synagogues before Shabbat comes in. “It’s been one of the highlights of the new normal,” he notes. “The attendances are wonderful in many places. I think it is one of the things we will encourage shuls to maintain.”
In response to the crisis, the organisation “increased the pace” of chesed (social care) work. “We are still sending out hundreds of food parcels on a weekly basis.”
But perhaps one statistic above all illustrates the “sudden shock” of Covid. “We buried more than four times the number of people in April 2020 than we did in April 2019.”
Not only did the US have to deal with the practicalities of arranging more funerals; it had to do so while trying to keep staff safe and providing comfort to families when the usual mourning rites were restricted.
When Mr Goldstein went back to his own synagogue, Mill Hill, which reopened earlier this week, it was the first time he had been able to recite Kaddish since the funeral of his own father more than three months before — the US does not recognise virtual prayer gatherings as a minyan.
Hitherto, he had been davening with a group of people in his community by Zoom every day. “We developed a moment whereby, at the three or four times during the course of the service where we would expect to say Mourners’ Kaddish, there was just silence and the mourners were allowed to have some personal reflection.”
While life is now returning to synagogues, it is being done in “baby steps” and caution is the watchword. Getting people back into their habits of regular attendance is “something I think is going to take time”, Mr Goldstein reflects. But the US is clear that people should not feel pressurised.
As the summer moves on, activities will resume. Over the holidays, the youth division, Tribe, is planning day camps in schools.
Major anniversaries are often times when organisations can look forward to a windfall of congratulatory donations to help build up their funds. Yet like other communal institutions, the US now has to wrestle with the financial fall-out from the virus.
“We have seen a big drop in all our sources of income over the last four months and so we need to be very cautious to make sure the organisation recovers financially,” he says.
In April and May, it experienced double-digit drops, though June was a little better.
“While we are able to withstand what we think will be quite a big fall in income during the course of 2020, we need to make sure we are financially sustainable. So there needs to be some corrective action.”
No project has been put on ice and “we will accelerate some of the things we were going to do on the sustainability side”.
While proud of its recent success in seeding new communities such as Mill Hill East, the US is likely to be “more cautious” on that front now. And it is going to have to scrutinise more closely some of the ageing communities it helps to prop up — although when asked which, he is guarded. “I’m not giving names”.
As for the impact of Covid more broadly on British Jewry, he believes it has given “a big wake-up call in terms of general communal sustainability”. Organisations will need to work more closely together for the greater good, Mr Goldstein suggests.
“Our community has been wonderful and incredibly well invested. But we need to think about a greater coming together,“ he says. “If you look at the history of the US and why and how it was created — when a number of shuls came together and said we are better together — I just hope that the community realises.”
For instance, he highlights the “myriad” adult education charities with “wonderful educators”.
These could be “more effective if a few came together and strengthened each other. The same with chesed. I’m not advocating merger necessarily but a greater sense of collaboration.”
Although coping with Covid has proved a “massive interruption”, the US is nevertheless still looking “to build a future and that is what we continue to focus on”.
When he was elected to his four-year term in summer 2017, one of his main aspirations was to try to stem the fall in members — part of a general trend within British Jewry of declining synagogue affiliation.
Membership “continues to erode but at a very, very small rate”, he reports. But the US trustees maintain “there are ways we could be growing our membership”.
Consider the increasing numbers at Jewish schools over the past couple of decades, for example.
He cites the Jewish Community Academy Trust — a consortium of four, now five, primary schools launched by the US last year — as “probably the most significant piece of communal infrastructure that Anglo-Jewry has seen for decades”.
Jcat’s trustees are “now looking at the next wave of schools to bring in over the next couple of years”, which will have financial implications as most of those schools require short-term investment.
Meanwhile, schools have just revised the entry qualifications for applications in the wake of Covid, replacing “actual attendance with virtual synagogue attendance”.
Translating family engagement with schools into US membership remains a challenge — particularly in view of a tendency within British culture at large “not to join things”.
Moreover, “we suspect there are lots of people who are very happily using our facilities but who aren’t members.
“We are not going to turn people away. But we would like to find a way in which we do ensure those people formally join us.”
There also remains the issue of “attracting young people and young married couples to formally get involved. And that work certainly has not abated.”
And while the US had made “huge strides” in recent years in encouraging women to become more involved in communities — the latest initiative being the creation of the post of women’s officer in local synagogue leadership — “we absolutely won’t rest on our laurels”.
As for religious leadership, having first advertised a year ago for a new dayan for the London Beth Din, the US is “on the verge” of making a senior appointment.
It will also be looking to appoint “a second dayan who will be from one of our communities”.
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis is due to reach pensionable age at the end of 2022, when he will be a year older than when his predecessor, Lord Sacks, retired at 65. But there is no talk of what-after.
“I don’t think Chief Rabbi Mirvis has any plans at this stage to retire,” Mr Goldstein says. “I don’t think it is an issue.”