The word ‘synagogue’ has its roots in the Greek word of ‘synagein’ which means to ‘bring together.’ Some of the oldest archaeological evidence for synagogues date back to the 3rd century BCE.
In fact, many historians think that ancient synagogues existed as early as immediately after the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE. Following the destruction of the Temple, people began to gather together in private homes to assemble, pray and undertake religious education now that there was no centralised place of worship in Jerusalem.
No matter their origin, synagogues have had an important place in Jewish ritual worship for over 1000 years.
Today, we all understand that synagogues do not merely serve as houses of worship, but also represent a place of gathering, assembling and education. This is reflected in the Hebrew word for synagogue – ‘Bet Knesset’ which means ‘House of Assembly.’
Synagogues also have an added importance to communal functions as they provide an opportunity for communities to gather together for social, leisure or benevolent purposes, whenever the need arises.
Our communal discourse often focuses on how to better engage with young people to attend services, purchase membership or feel a sense of kinship and connection with their shules.
However, I think the most important question is the following: how from president to member, are we going to ensure that that synagogues and community centres will draw in the next generation of congregants, young persons and leaders to inspire, to motivate and feel connected to Judaism?
Organised religion is on the global decline. Across all faiths, this results in falling turnout at services, declining belief in God and a general disinterest in traditional practices and beliefs.
However, if anything, I think the current COVID-19 crisis that we are in the middle of experiencing, has shown that there is plenty to be hopeful about in relation to our shules.
Earlier this year, our shule along with shules across Australia was forced to shut their doors when the first coronavirus lockdown was implemented by the government. This resulted in us having no active in-person services or programs during what is usually one of our busiest times of year, the lead-up to Passover,
As a rabbi, I have never been more inundated with so many calls from congregants and members of our community expressing their sorrow at not being able to attend services.
These calls were cross-denominational and were from people of all age groups. Many reported that they were feeling lonely and sad that they would not be able to gather together for the festival. They noted that while they may not be the most religious or observant people, the fact that they were unable to attend a service this year had left them particularly bereft.
In fact, the general theme of the phone-calls I received indicated that people had begun to realise the important role that the synagogue played in their lives in combatting loneliness. Without services, they realised they would miss the communal feel and vibe of the shule which had helped them to feel a part of a community.
Therefore, I think that the global pandemic has helped us all to reframe our thinking about the importance of our communal lives and how our synagogues play an integral role in helping us to gather together, see each-other and feel a sense of belonging.
In the six weeks that we were open between Melbourne lockdown periods, our synagogue reported a 60 per cent increase in persons seeking a spot in what soon became our tightly-contested minyanim.
What changed in the six weeks between lockdown periods that we were majorly oversubscribed with a waitlist for every single one of the services that we conducted? Did people suddenly become more religious? Did people want to connect with God during the global pandemic that wreaked such havoc around the globe? Was there a sudden shift in thinking?
I think the answer goes a little deeper.
While we once saw synagogues and the opportunity to gather together each week as things that we could take for granted, the absence made our hearts a little fonder. The rituals that we conducted week on week, which were put on pause due to the government lockdown meant that we felt that something was missing.
And this was not just limited to the prayer services. We missed seeing our friends. We missed gathering together and schmoozing. We missed complaining about the weather and teasing our friends about their support for a losing football team.
We missed our communities.
The global pandemic caused by COVID-19 has affected all segments of the Australian public and has been particularly difficult for vulnerable persons who are elderly, disabled, living in poor health or isolated.
Our lives have been upended. Not just our Jewish lives, but all areas of our work, social, recreation and family lives have shifted.
But presented with such challenges we are provided with the opportunity to consider the things that bring us meaning and a sense of community.
Lockdown has helped us realise that our synagogues, which have always provided us a place to gather, are integral to our communal beings.
As a Melbournian, currently in second lockdown I look forward to the day in which we can all gather together again in our shules, together as a vibrant community.
I know that these lockdowns have helped me to reframe my thinking and greatly increase my appreciation for community ans synagogue, now, even more than before.