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Future-proofing South African shuls

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SIMON APFEL

Kevin was one of many young, old, rabbis, shul leaders and other interested community members who attended one of two high-energy conferences in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Their aim was to brainstorm and innovate ideas to future-proof South Africa’s network of Orthodox shuls. The twin conferences drew 85 leaders in Cape Town and 180 in Johannesburg.

“I felt the conference raised some important issues, especially about youth involvement, and we’ve come up with some seed ideas to address them. It’s the start of a conversation,” says Pogrund, one of many young voices to be heard.

“The purpose of the conference is to identify the bright spots within our shuls – to find what’s really working – and develop innovative strategies to amplify those successful practices,” explained Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein.

Discussions centred on three primary themes: “Sense of Belonging”, “Sense of Meaning”, and “Food and Fun”, corresponding to “three real, deep human needs”.

Participants were presented with the findings of a recent community-wide survey gauging people’s shul experiences – what they felt was working and where they felt improvements were needed in each of the three areas.

The study – the first of its kind in South Africa – was carried out by Data Management and Statistical Analysis (DMSA), a Wits University-based independent research company, through CEO, Dr Mark Paiker and senior business strategist, Jenny Greenblatt. Around 3 000 community members were surveyed, representing a wide range of demographics.

“The purpose of the research was to gain insights into the reasons people do and don’t go to shul, to find out what would encourage them to attend more frequently, and how they could gain more from the experience,” says Greenblatt, who led the survey.

Around 60 per cent were regular shul-goers (attending either every day or just Shabbat), while 40 per cent were irregular shul-goers, many only coming to shul on the High Holidays and bar-/batmitzvahs.

“The factors that people are happy with and less happy with are the same across the demographic groups,” says Greenblatt. “This is a very positive result because every initiative we come up with, every intervention we devise, isn’t just going to be for a specific subsector of the Jewish community, but will benefit and appeal to all.”

In terms of the scores themselves, in the “Sense of Belonging” category, people generally felt known and welcomed by their community, felt connected to the rabbi, and were not looking to change shuls.

At the same time, those aged 18 to 24, as well as single people, did not see shul as a good place to meet new people.

Of the three themes tested, “Sense of Meaning” is the aspect the community as a whole feel most comfortable with. Shul services were generally found to be meaningful and enjoyable, though there does appear to be room to make Torah learning at shul more relevant to people’s daily lives.

Many expressed a wish to develop a more personal, authentic connection with their rabbi. Another unsurprising finding was that choirs appeal far more to the older generation than their younger counterparts.

The “Food and Fun” component seems to be where there is most room for improvement, with perhaps the overriding concern being a general dissatisfaction with children’s programming. Somewhat surprisingly, respondents seemed ambivalent as to whether the brocha was an important part of their shul experience.

In addition to the general study, a separate survey gauged the views of 113 shul leaders. MSDA also hosted three different focus groups – for women (Johannesburg), and men and women (Cape Town) and teenagers (Johannesburg).

Significantly, it was the latter that offered the most encouraging findings.

“If we are looking for bright spots, the focus group for teenagers indicated we have an emerging community that are very receptive to the kinds of innovations we are planning to put forward,” says Greenblatt. “They are interested in the shuls, and see a place for themselves in them.”

After hearing the survey results, participants broke up into groups of 10 – each group a cross-section of different shuls and demographics – to discuss the findings and come up with novel ideas and suggestions for enhancing the shul experience.

“Leaders came together across the shuls to brainstorm and problem-solve, which doesn’t happen very often. In general, the conference engendered a generosity of spirit, a concern not just for the needs of one’s own community but for the wellbeing of the community as a whole,” Rabbi Dani Brett, director of Cape Town’s “Torah Citywide” organisation says.

“The most inspiring thing was the positive, ‘can-do’ attitude,” says Nina Cohen, a committee member of Greenside Shul in Johannesburg.

“It was great to be working with other shuls in a spirit of camaraderie, sharing expertise as partners. Shuls are generally strong in some areas, weaker in others. This was about pooling our strengths so we could address our challenges.”

Natanya Porter, a grade 11 pupil at King David Linksfield, representing the Diller Teen Fellows leadership programme, shared similar sentiments.

“It was great to have a platform for giving our shul leaders constructive criticism. We need as many teenagers involved in this process as possible – hundreds of teenagers from all the schools. We all want to be invested in making our shuls as fabulous as possible.”

Among the numerous ideas put forward were a “shul buddy system”, in which experienced shul-goers are appointed to mentor and assist those less familiar with the services; centralised Shabbatonim for kids, alternating at different shuls to ensure a critical mass; empowering and equipping families – religious and not – to host Shabbat meals in their homes; and turning shuls into community centres – places for people simply to hang out or have a braai.

The ideas from the two conferences are currently being collated, and will be discussed and formalised at this week’s South African Rabbinical Conference.

“From there, we will be bringing on board consultants and project managers to help with implementation and make these innovative plans and ideas a reality,” says Rabbi Goldstein. “It’s not just a one-off conference that everyone forgets about the next day – Bright Spots is an ongoing journey with what we expect to be real, practical outcomes.”

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