As synagogues began to carefully and slowly reopen for limited in-person services, I found that I and many others were not in a hurry to return, despite being long-time weekly, if not daily, participants. Being a traditionally-observant Jew and a rabbi, putting on a tallit at home, and davening/praying/reflecting, sitting on my front driveway, has been wonderful. And when thinking about what I missed (or didn’t) about being in synagogue, I was surpised at my answers. So, I reached out through my social media network for some reality testing.
“What do you miss about being in synagogue?” was the question. Responses clustered in two areas:
- Spiritual / Religious – People who genuinely missed the communal prayer experience
- Communal / Social – People who missed being with people to socialize, shmooze, share kiddush
To the fair, the split was 50/50. Full disclosure, I’m defintely more the social/communal synagogue person.
What really struck me was: Lockdown and pandemic have put these questions front and center: What are the value propositions of the synagogue (particularly American, but not only)? What does being part of a synagogue add to my Jewish (and general) life?
During my years as a synagogue rabbi, not once did I ask a member: What do you most value about being part of this congregation and community? How does being here help you to lead a better life? What could we do better to help you get what you need from being part of the synagogue? And as a synagogue member, not once has a synagogue I’ve belonged to asked me any of these questions. The first time a rabbi did ask was when I zoomed into early Friday night services at a local Reform congregation during this pandemic. The following week, the rabbi, a total mensch, called me to say: I hope you enjoyed the services. What did you like about it? What would you have done differently? Well done, Rabbi!
Rant #1: In one community, we were visited by a leader of a local congregation. The visitor never asked what we were looking for in a synagogue. He never told me the value-added of being part of their particular congregation. His welcome to us was to tell us that the synagogue was great, and all the benefits of membership (including details of cemetery plots!). And of course, he handed us a membership application. The following weekend we visited a different nearby synagogue, where humor and warmth permeated the walls. Needless to say, that was where we chose to join.
Rant #2: Don’t assume your rabbi or leaders in the congregation you belong to has been at shiva homes, checked in on those who are home-bound, or visited or called those who are hospitalized. Take my word on this. Some synagogues, rabbis, and leaders are good at this. Others are terrible. Really terrible.
Rant #3: I seek inspiration and a little musar (instruction on character growth) from shul. I want to learn something about Torah, understand how to translate Torah to real life, be inspired to action. Too often I’ve instead received lessons on Zionism (which is very important to me, but not my primary need from shul attendance), frequent references to the Holocaust (very important to me, but also not what I focus on for my shul needs). I’ve sat through speakers going up on the bima and endorsing political candidates and rabbis making snide remarks about political figures they don’t like. Oddly enough, in the political “sermons”, never did the speeches include reference to the specific core values that the speaker found he had in common with the political figure. Just a generic “good for the Jews” or “good for Israel”. Forget about the fact that they are risking their tax exempt status, it’s just unacceptable.
Rant #4: Only a small hard core group of people sit engrossed through a 2-3 hour weekly service. The rest of us zone out periodically or spend quality time in the hall or basement catching up with friends. Or (in my case), open a sefer (book of religious texts) and study, when services have dragged on. Here’s the thing: Those same synagogues that hold three hour Shabbat services are now finding ways to hold Rosh Hashana services that last one hour!
So, I’m going to be in shul on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. We’ll all have our masks and social distancing. It will be good to see some people that I haven’t seen in months. I’m sure the one-hour service will be good. And when the holidays are over, I’ll have some deep soul-searching about what I actually do value about synagogue life, for myself and in conversation with my colleagues in the community that I am blessed to serve.
If you’re reading this and are a synagogue rabbi or leader, think for a moment about what your people are looking for now. It may be the same as before the pandemic, but it may not be. Some of them have zoomed into other congregations and have found models and approaches they never knew about, and are appreciating. Many are looking for comfort, cameraderie, and meaning at a time of pandemic, economic downturn, and political turmoil .
Ask your people if they’re getting what they want and need. And listen. Please.
Wishing everyone a shana tova, a happy and sweet New Year!