Yom Kippur may be the billed as a sombre day, but it also symbolises why Orthodoxy is still stuck in the past.
Every year it seems to be the same. I sit in synagogue, and see the ‘once-or-twice-a-year’ kind of people come and go. It’s packed on Kol Nidre, the evening service, and on the following day’s morning service.
By 2pm it’s at a low ebb. It all goes downhill when the prayer for mourning parents (Yizkor) occurs, as anyone with living parents is asked to leave. Many don’t return.
I was on security at this point this year.
This is one of the few prayers where people, even with the most tenuous of links to their faith feel the need to observe.
But 100s of people walk off. Most are under 30, most don’t come back until later for the closing Neilah service, if at all.
This is an annual routine. An exodus of youth from shul.
And a reprieve from the the mind-numbingly boring repetitive service that ensues.
‘Mussaf’ the additional service drones on, and bleeds into the afternoon service. From around 2-6pm, it is seemingly an endless rolling standing prayer, listening to slow burning tunes, as one-by-one, more people nip out for a few hours.
The prayers combine with archaic English translations, beating-of-the-chest whilst apologising for ’sins’ we haven’t done, and using books referring to ‘King Edward’. Yes, they’re that old.
I’m all for preserving tradition, but this is killing it, because shuls are emptying.
And, this has never been more important: The Institute for Jewish Policy Research’s recent survey showed a dramatic decline in synagogue membership for Orthodoxy.
It claimed synagogue membership since 1990 has experienced a 37 percent decline.
The ‘Central Orthodox’ share has gone down by eight percent over the past six years, and over a third in the past quarter of a century to 2016.
With the exception of shuls in major population centres where there isn’t a spare seat, for most synagogues, Yom Kippur is the day when those least in touch with their Judaism get back in touch, once a year, for a few hours.
For thousands, it’s their only annual contact point.
These are the ‘once-a-year’ type people. They pay their membership, and are a silent majority.
Well they are coming less, and leaving earlier, and by 2pm on Yom Kippur, ‘once-a-years’ have gone home.
And next year, they might not go at all.
Many just fast at home now, because they don’t feel connected to the antiquated uninspiring service any more.
And since they’ve stopped going for a few hours on that one day a year, why even bother paying for a membership any more?
Losing fringe shul-goers is what is driving some of that declining membership.
This uninspiring service needs an update.
Perhaps there could be more discussion and explanation, proper study, or a break.
Rounds and rounds of endless repetitive prayer isn’t doing the trick any more. Maybe it worked in 1950. Not today.
There should be other ways to relay the message of Yom Kippur than to bore people silly.