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Shuls consider wider ‘menu’ to attract youth

  • mizrachi
Young Jewish people want different things to their parents and grandparents. This includes how and where to pray. So, Jewish communities around the world are devising strategies to draw more young people to shul.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Jul 05, 2018

Although once standard, the cavernous, ornate shul with long pews, towering bimah, and services featuring chazzanut and choirs no longer enjoy the popularity they once did. Larger communities have aged and declined in numbers, with some of their members leaving to seek more intimate, relevant experiences at shtiblach (smaller places of worship).

Waverley Shul gets this, and last Monday evening at the shul’s AGM, it set about planning for the future. In a meeting lasting more than three hours, various strategies were discussed, among which was the pressing need to draw youth to the shul by transforming certain parts of its campus. The proposed plan would result in the creation of a youth centre, comprising a teenagers’ shul, a brocha area, and a recreation area in which games such as table tennis could be played. The plan includes an outdoor sports court. This is one of a few options being considered, but the shul has not yet reached a decision.

“No matter what they say, the wider Jewish leadership is not in touch with the general population and youth in particular,” says Rabbi Gabi Bookatz of Waverley Shul. “In the 21st century, young people are forced to be more independent earlier in life, and Jewish youth see little offered by their shuls or community. Judaism has the answers, and we have the ability to offer guidance to help navigate the difficulties of the modern age, but are we providing it, and are we making them a priority?”

There is consensus that too few young Jews are involved in shuls. “Unaffiliated Jews almost never go to shul unless there is an occasion,” says Rabbi Shmuel Kagan of Mizrachi Shul. “Even then, they are not particularly involved in the service, know what do to, or feel it’s meaningful. Even among observant youth, many don’t attend shul consistently, and when they do, they often arrive late or just in time for the kiddush.”

The Youth Director of Sydenham Shul, Ariel Poyurs, feels the same way. “Youth who are not shul-goers generally spend Friday nights with their families, and then spend Shabbat day at shopping malls and the like,” he says. “Unfortunately, there is little affiliation with Judaism in most cases where people are not attending shul or celebrating Shabbat in some way.”

Those who do attend are opting to go to smaller shuls. Poyurs says that while more “traditional” youth spend time with their parents by attending services at larger shuls and seem comfortable there, the popularity of the big shul is decreasing. “Most religious youth at Sydenham do not particularly enjoy the larger shul model,” he says. “Shtiblach are definitely less intimidating and seemingly more family orientated, so youth, if they want to daven, will usually go there.”

Kagan agrees. “The youth view large shuls as outdated and unrelatable,” he says. “While unaffiliated youth may find them more passive and entertaining, and therefore more inviting, religious youth tend to avoid them. I think the more traditional elements need to be modernised – choirs need to be more lively and less drawn out. Shtiblach offer a more interactive and personal connection.”

Some say larger shuls don’t need to go, but must strive to remain appealing. “The big shuls cannot become irrelevant,” says Rabbi Gregg Bank, Youth Director at Linksfield Shul. “ There is much to be said for generations that come together to daven on a Friday night. We need to adapt the concept. Shuls are incredible platforms for social gatherings, not only prayer, hence the name ‘Beit Knesset’. We aim to get the youth that come on Shabbat into shul, but for us, their mere presence on campus is a success. Keep the model, but adapt it to the times.”

Bookatz says shuls are more than capable of catering for the needs of the youth, but they need to be open to change and embrace the younger generation. “Leaders of communities need to get off their high horse and cater for every age group in their respective communities,” he says.

“The Johannesburg Jewish community is a multifaceted one with many subcultures, and I admit it is therefore hard, if not impossible, to please everyone. The important thing is to know your audience and bear them in mind. Every shul finds itself catering for a niche – they have a clear sense of who they are, what they stand for, and that is what they need to cater for.”

When youth ask to hold their own service on a shul campus, says Bookatz, rabbis must facilitate them, even at the cost of compromising the main shul. “By giving them their own space, you give them a sense of ownership and responsibility,” he says. “They can create a service to their taste, socialise, and create an experience to which they will want to return. It ensures continuity on campus, and a future for a shul. If they aren’t given this freedom, you lose them totally.”

“Youth want to be cared for,” says Poyurs. “Care about kids, and they will come back. Attention from role models is the pillar of a successful youth service and presence. Create an appealing space where youth can express themselves and feel cared for.”

The challenges faced by the community are a global issue. “In North America, there is no doubt that the fastest growing Jewish sector is the ‘unaffiliated’,” says Rabbi Professor Adam Ferziger, Samson Raphael Hirsch Chair for Research in the Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan, who was recently appointed head of an interdisciplinary centre to study Judaism in Israel and North America. “That said, we need to be careful not to be beholden to statistics. Numbers are only part of the story. Judaism was never predicated on quantity, but on the quality of Jewish life.”

One of the bolder characteristics of contemporary Western society, he says, is general discomfort with uniformity, and Judaism is no exception. “For better or for worse, individualism is celebrated,” says Ferziger. “Thus, the age of one synagogue-fits-all seems to be waning.

“No doubt, we mourn the loss of the sense of unity of the large synagogue, which brings together a wide spectrum of Jews from religious, socio-economic, and age perspectives. Nonetheless, smaller groups offer the warmth, intimacy, and common purpose which many yearn for.

“There are large synagogues that have succeeded by creating smaller sub-congregations for prayer, study, and socialising, without completely sacrificing the collective strength and financial health of a large congregation.”

What the youth is looking for, he concludes, is dynamism. “Dynamic leaders who know how to communicate, and do not ‘dumb down’ Judaism, but address the issues with sophistication and nuance, can attract younger people.

“A synagogue that invites young people to take on central lay roles and respects their voices – even when it means losing control over programming, moving to a less formal prayer atmosphere, or heaven forbid, replacing the chopped herring, kichel or fish balls with vegan options, demonstrates that it takes the younger generation’s opinions seriously.”

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