Have synagogues had their heyday?

Masorti leader argues that synagogues are too prayer-centric


The chief executive of Masorti Judaism said that synagogues are too focused on prayer in a Limmud discussion of the future of the institution usually regarded as a mainstay of community life.

Matt Plen argued that most British Jews did not attend shul but synagogues did not speak to “the vast majority” as they were “prayer-based”.

“Synagogue is focused on the one aspect of Judaism which many are unable to connect to – tefillah, prayer.”

Instead, he suggested developing communities on a broader notion based, along the lines of the founder of Reconstructionism in the USA, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, who posited that Judaism was not a religion, but a civilisation.

“We need to reconceptualise Judaism as a civilisation and reconceptualise our institutions in light of that idea,” he said.

It might take in Torah study, tzedakah and gemilut hasadim (social volunteering), but also culture and politics as well.

He cited one group supported by Masorti called the Chavura which catered for young families; they might meet for a Shabbat morning singalong or for apple and honey and learning on Rosh Hashanah but the one thing they largely did not do was pray.

Dan Libenson, from the USA, co-host of one of the best-known Jewish podcasts, Judaism Unbound, argued the decline of synagogues was “not a great tragedy”.

Judaism was in a state of transition similar to the period after the destruction of the Second Temple when it took several centuries for alternatives to the centrality of the Temple to take root.

The previous widespread affiliation of Jews to synagogues in suburban communities was a “blip” in history, he contended. But the religiosity of Jews had never been great.

The business model of synagogues resembled those of a gym which relied on many paying members not turning up, otherwise the facilities would be overwhelmed, he said.

Instead, he argued for a Judaism where people would “pay less and get more”.

It was ridiculous in some places to try to sustain two synagogues of different denominations when their clientele was largely the same – and more could follow the example of Hillel Houses on campus which had one centre serving multiple denominations.

As example of new organisations, Mr Libenson cited Moishe Houses for young adults, or One Table, which encourages people to celebrate Friday night with others.

The oldest member of the panel, Ron Wolfson, professor of education at the American Jewish University, said he was “worried about the future of Jewish institutions, and not just synagogues”.

For synagogues to engage people, “it’s not about programmes, it’s not about marketing, it’s about relationships. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

The 20th century synagogue model was “transactional” – people paid membership dues in return for a rabbi officiating at life-cycle events and High Holy Day services.

But the model for the 21st century needed to be “relational” – where people were “known and seen”. It was not just about welcoming them but listening to their stories and sharing stories with them.

Although synagogues may be resistant to change, the pandemic had compelled them to adapt their activities online. “I wasn’t sure we’d be up to the task, it seemed completely overwhelming. And yet synagogues did it.”

Synagogue leaders had told him that attendance was up.

“All the hard work paid off with an overwhelmingly positive response from members and quite a few others who tuned in.

“The bottom line is synagogues can’t go back to the way it was,” he said.

Miriam Lorie, a co-founder of the Kehillat Nashira partnership minyan in Borehamwood in 2013, saw a growing trend towards grassroots “pop-up minyans” and “freelance rabbis".

“People want smaller, more personal, more intimate communities,” she said.

She also emphasised the importance of participation. “People love being part of something when they can do something themselves.”

But she did not think “synagogues are going to die any time immediately”.

And she did not discount prayer. “People have an ongoing spiritual need this year more than ever potentially.”

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