Shuls aren’t offering what many seeking a Jewish identity need

Shuls aren’t offering what many seeking a Jewish identity need

Rabbi Danny Burkeman
Rabbi Danny Burkeman

By Rabbi Danny BURKEMAN, The Community Synagogue, New York.

Danny Burkeman
Rabbi Danny Burkeman

From afar I have been following with interest the development and opening of JW3, London’s new JCC. On visits back to England, I always paid special attention when driving along the Finchley Road to see what progress had been made with the building.

I was struck when the sign went up: “There’s a big space in London’s Jewish life, the new Jewish Community Centre will fill it here.” It was the first time I remember seeing a public declaration that here was a Jewish community building, and I saw it as a symbol of a newly confident and invigorated Anglo-Jewry.

Several of my friends talked about their excitement for this new addition to the London Jewish scene; and as luck would have it I happened to be visiting England on opening weekend. I was visiting my grandmother, who lives opposite the JW3, and I looked on, amazed, at the line of people queuing to be among the first to see the inside of our new centre. The chief executive, Raymond Simonson, spotted my family across the road and invited us in.

Inside, I was struck by the facilities and the variety of programmes, but more by the number of people of all ages and from across the religious spectrum eager to see JW3.

Since then, I have watched with interest from America as the centre and the events it offers continue to dominate my Facebook and Twitter feeds. People have raved about Coolooloosh, there were great reports about Listen, We’re Family, and of course during December everyone talked about the ice rink. It feels like there is now non-stop Jewish activity on the Finchley Road and people appear to be coming in significant numbers to be a part of it.

Living in America, I have grown accustomed to Jewish community centres being a fundamental part of Jewish life and complementary to the work synagogues and other institutions do. In the US, we partner with the JCC in providing social action projects for our youth, we are engaged with its new Israel centre and we are frequently publicising events that we think will be interesting for our members.

Over the past few months, one of the big talking points in the American Jewish community has been the Pew Study, an extensively researched portrait of Jewish Americans.

Depending on your perspective, it is either further proof that the community is declining, or evidence of the vibrancy of American Jewry. I am definitely in the latter group but, regardless of perspective, it is clear in the community here people are looking for multiple access points for Jewish involvement, engagement and identity.

They are not leaving their synagogues to search for these opportunities; they left them a long time ago. They want a Jewish identity but find the synagogue is not offering what they need. There is still a significant population joining and engaging with synagogues, but others are seeking something different.

Synagogues need to adapt to find ways of catering for this growing group of people. But equally importantly we need to be offering them other ways of being involved in the Jewish community, and this is where JCCs and other predominantly cultural and educational Jewish institutions can be so important.

While I would not claim that the Pew Study can necessarily teach us anything about Anglo- Jewry and where it is heading, this group of Jews looking for Jewish involvement outside the synagogue is not just growing in America.

I for one am excited the JW3 is establishing itself as a fixture on the London Jewish scene.

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