Where to go to daven?

  • Howard Feldman 2018
I have always been a bit of a talker. Which is why one of my earliest memories of shul is of being forced to remain silent while seated on a hard, wooden pew at the Yeoville or Berea Synagogue. It felt austere and unfamiliar, and I needed to entertain myself as the choir droned.
by HOWARD FELDMAN | Jul 19, 2018

It was before the days of the eruv, which meant I could not carry any toys to shul. I recall being told repeatedly to stop swinging my legs as I attempted, in vain, to reach the seat in front of me. I also recall the relief that I felt when I heard the announcement to turn to page 81 in the blue Singer Siddur, because it meant that it was all nearly over.

Those were very boring early days.

It didn’t improve much for me. The most repeated line that I heard as a teenager in shul in the ’80s was: “If you come to shul to talk, then where do you go to daven?”

I didn’t want to be rude or anything, but I wanted to answer that surely prayer should be a little bit of a celebration. I wanted to say that we are told to serve G-d with joy and if this was happiness, then I didn’t want to see misery. But I was still respectful back in the ’80s. And so, I perfected the guilty look, spent a moment or two in respectful silence and then went back to talking.

There are those who naturally adore shul. I have never been one of them. And although I would be classified as a “shul goer”, for me there needs to be something else other than the service to encourage me to get there.

This is no small admission as we are deeply schooled and deeply guilted into believing that we are somewhat deficient as Jews, and more than somewhat shallow, if this is our approach to the service of G-d.

That said, I have little doubt that there are many more just like me and that shul attendance fluctuates, based on factors that community leaders might or might not understand.

I believe that many people don’t go to shul purely for the active prayer segment and that there are other factors that draw them there. Identifying what those factors are for each community is critical for the sustainability of not only that community but also the shul attendance in general.

I believe that there has been a shift and that to re-engage members of the community, there needs to be a recognition of the following points:

•     Social media has given people an alternative sense of belonging. The reality is that these environments are shallow and unfulfilling. However, there is a danger that the fiction allows people to replace their understanding or notion of what a real 3D community has to offer.

•     Rabbis are no longer securely fastened atop their pedestals. In recent years, the number who have fallen off (unceremoniously) has underscored this. This, in my view, is a significant shift, and a failure to comprehend this and adjust accordingly is a significant threat.

•     Communal rabbis need to recognise that respect is no longer available to anyone with the title (I am not debating the merits of this), and the reality is that there are fewer and fewer who still see the title as denoting perfection in any way.

•     Authenticity and imperfection is the “new black”. Fail to recognise this in any aspect of life (not only communal leadership) at one’s own peril. Perfection is not viewed as aspirational. It is viewed with suspicion.

In a snap survey I conducted; consisting of me, my one son and three of my friends, I noticed an alarming trend emerging. Shul attendance is not what it used to be.

It might be the cold winter days or it might be that people are tired. It might be that no matter the age, we are all becoming spoilt millennials for whom it is a struggle to get to shul. And many shuls are empty.

But it also might be that communities have shifted and that there is dissatisfaction with what shuls, rabbis and the community have to offer. It is real that that some of us do attend shul for reasons other than purely prayer. The sooner that we identify what that is, the better.

There are shuls and there are rabbis who have already recognised this. They are thriving.

What this means for those who have not is that we urgently need to consider what our expectations are from our communities and from our rabbis. We also need to consider if they are reasonable and if it is possible to meet them.

We need to consider what our responsibility is in all of this and what is the responsibility of community leadership.

Our rabbis need to perform the same exercise not from a precariously balanced position atop the pedestal. They instead need to climb off their pedestal so that they work together with those who need them, to rebuild communities.


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