A high-level United Synagogue report released this week suggests turning synagogues into social and cultural “Jewish destinations” as a remedy to decline.
The 10-yearly review, led by Hendon United Synagogue chairman Marc Meyer, says US communities should “provide cultural and social activities in synagogues to attract a cross-section of members to become more engaged”.
With the support of the Chief Rabbi, Meyer gives the idea increased urgency in his report, given what he says is the “spectre of disaffiliation that haunts our community”. He says: “Now is the time to change… We will need to be nimble, to take risks and hard decisions and, most importantly, we will need a new mindset.”
Reviewers spoke of “tough challenges” ahead, noting that disengagement in UK Jewry has been “as high as 1,000 per year” for the past 10 years. “Apathy and disengagement are by far the biggest adversaries,” said US president Stephen Pack. “We must transform our shuls from being solely houses of prayer to places of religious, social and cultural engagement.”
Meyer said: “The growth of JW3 and interest in Limmud among US members illustrates an increasing appetite for varied offerings.” However, the recommendations appeared to conflict with the wishes of members, only six percent of whom said an organisational priority should be to provide non-religious communal facilities.
Meyer urged a refocus not only in terms of model, but geography, too, as changing demographics meant the US was “not well-positioned to capture pockets of growth and may be overexposed to pockets of decline”. He added: “The US has not been quick, flexible or decisive enough to refocus attention.”
Pack agreed, saying: “It is not acceptable that the majority of our shuls, rabbis and assets are in areas of Jewish decline. We will actively seek out pockets of Jewish growth.” Meyer said the 144-year old institution, which has 40,000 members, had gone from something “helping English Jews express their Englishness” to something that now “helps British Jews express their Jewishness”.
Elsewhere in the report, Meyer called for more vision, asking: “What kind of organisation does the US aspire to be? The US will need to define how each organ of the community interacts with each other. Stakeholders again and again describe clarity on that point as essential.”
He added: “The US needs to define how it will manage growth and decline, how it will create and empower leaders, how it will motivate its professional, lay and rabbinic staff, and how it will incentivise performance.”
Other recommendations of the review – which took nine months and included a survey of 3,930 members, included: “creating a cascading communications campaign” and clarifying what the money is spent on, with one chairman saying “the US’ finances are fundamentally blurred”.
It comes a decade after the last assessment of the US by Rabbi Saul Zneimer and 20 years since Sir Stanley (now Lord) Kalms’ report. Meyer paid tribute to Jonathan Miller, Brian Markeson, David Frei and Richard Taylor, who all led working groups.