Time to change: we must adapt say shul leaders


The United Synagogue should play a greater leadership role in British Jewry while offering more cultural programmes to attract secular Jews, a major review has concluded.

Europe's largest synagogue body must move away from regarding shuls as "religious sanctuaries" and make its centres more welcoming if it is to succeed.

The 140-page strategic review, published this week, follows an extensive survey of the US's adult members last year. Responses were received from more than 5,500 members.

They told the organisation that it should not consider other religious denominations as the "adversary", but that general disengagement and disaffiliation pose the greatest threats.

The review said the US needed to expand into areas where young Jews live, rather than staying in areas of decline. An inquiry into the cost of kosher meat in Britain should be considered, along with other cost of Jewish living issues.

US in numbers

80,000 US members - including 40,000 adults - which represents 28 per cent of UK Jewry.
67 rabbis in 63 communities
£250m in assets – mostly synagogue buildings
73% of members are satisfied or very satisfied with shuls

The US's three most valuable pieces of real estate are collectively worth around £50 million, and the organisation acknowledges the probable need to sell off buildings in order to release money and reinvest in much-needed areas. US leaders promise the review will be a plan of action as it heads towards its 150th anniversary in 2020.

Review author Marc Meyer, chairman of Hendon Synagogue, said the US must be "nimble" in its approach.

It needs to emulate organisations like Lubavitch in getting rabbis out to areas where young people are settling, rather than simply waiting for a new community to take shape.

US chief executive Steven Wilson said there were "two or three areas where our gut instinct tells us we should be putting a talented rabbi in - today, not in three years. Like in Islington".

Stephen Pack, US president, highlighted Mill Hill east as an area for expansion. "There is a massive housing development there. A very high proportion of them are being bought by Jews," he said.

While the US was in a "sound financial position", Mr Meyer said communities were not always making the best use of their properties.

"There are buildings or parts of buildings which are sitting empty for six days a week except for Shabbat or Yom Tov," he said.

Mr Pack said the organisation needed to "sweat its assets more. Some communities have got a building which is probably too big for their needs.

"So how can we take that site and develop it and make it something which is fit for purpose and realise its value?

"We have got some very early-day ideas of partnerships with other people."

One issue that will be taken on board is the feeling among members that the US has been punching below its weight and should be taking more of a leadership role on the wider community stage.

The US could be "quite a powerful force" in representing the views of its membership, Dr Wilson said.

"It should be heard on issues that are important to the Orthodox community: shechita, brit milah, schools."

Mr Meyer said what had most surprised the review team was the "warmth and attachment" that existed towards the US.

Whereas the Kalms report into the US in 1992 was a response to crisis, this one, the leaders said, was all about opportunity.

Mr Pack said: "The organisation is stronger than it has been for generations."

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