By Eric Moonman, President, Zionist Federation
Many East Coast congregations in the United States are pulling in an increasing number of young Jews. It may reflect an improvement in the quality of the religious service and the sermon, but what I’ve seen suggests otherwise.
It’s simple. The new audience is attracted to a new format of service with good, well-prepared food and wine.
The mood and the environment in many synagogues is becoming open, friendly, more participative and much less male dominated, a feature of many Orthodox services here. The lay leader and the clergy are clearly keen to establish a creative mood which is light and welcoming from the moment people enter the building.
One synagogue, for instance, in Bal Harbour, Florida, called simply The Shul, attracts between 500 and 750 people each Shabbat. The early risers can enjoy a modest breakfast. Late-comers are not frowned on and pray in an additional room with coffee available.
In the main heart of the auditorium, after the Torah reading and a sermon, there is a lively question-and-answer session. The kiddush then becomes the meeting place for all groups and then more discussions take place resembling a “happy hour” or longer!
Yes, all these have to be paid for, but Rabbi Lipska is no slouch and has solicited donors for a very special kiddush bank.
Contrast this with the meagre offerings in many British synagogues. They make you feel you’ll be lucky if you get to share a biscuit.
Of course there are exceptions. Rabbi Shlomo Levin at South Hampstead delivers some of the best food and drink to keep everyone together. Unsurprisingly, his weekly newsletter is titled Shmaltz. In fact, a while back, a member suggested the idea of an additional vodka bar.
The idea is also beginning to work elsewhere in London – Rabbi Geoffrey Shisler at New West End provides a wholesome kiddush, as does Belsize Square.
Nobody is suggesting that if everything is dismal in the synagogue you can galvanise friendship and atmosphere with the introduction of food and drink. But it’s worth noting an increasing number of American rabbis now speak warmly of these facilities as a means of stemming their falling attendances.
The seriousness of this was revealed in a recent PEW Research Centre report showing numbers in Orthodox, Conservative and Reform are all affected by the drop.
That underlies a deeper problem, as PEW revealed that, while American Jews are proud to be Jewish and have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people, the survey suggested Jewish identity is changing in America and one in five Jews (22 percent) now describe themselves as having no religion.
There is a serious challenge to be addressed, as the venerable Rabbi Philip Schecter from Connecticut told me last week. He says that a friendly all-purpose centre is a part of the solution. After all, he said, in the words of one American comedian: ”No arisen means no meeting”!
Back in Florida, Lipska’s shul is really a community home designed to meet the needs of people living around the area. He tells me that, in the same way as a synagogue must be the most glorious building in the community, it must be a spiritually-outstanding environment addressing all needs including prayers as well as life’s rites-of-passage events, social, spiritual and educational.
The Good Kiddush concept aims to address many of these needs in a holy space. At The Shul there is a hot coffee and tea table set up 24/7 for anyone who walks in seeking a moment of respite or peace.
It is clear that this does not diminish the purpose of a synagogue as a house of prayer, study and good deeds. What it does do is to enhance everything about it to make the building feel warmer and more personal and more like a family than a club.
Enough! Why not send your synagogue officers on a trip to the synagogues at Bal Harbour or New York’s Fifth Avenue to see these ideas in practice?