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‘I wish they would close all the shuls!’

I was never a big fan of prayer - my mind wanders, I make deals with God - but this pandemic has upped my role in helping others 'do Jewish,' and it's been good for me too
With my mother and sister. (Blake Ezra)
With my mother and sister. (Blake Ezra)

“I wish they would close all the shuls!”

This isn’t actually me writing, but rather Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writing in the 19th century in Germany. Yet, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I have made the same wish on many occasions; praying for a small leak in the roof of the shul, or a snow day to keep the shul closed. Now you may be thinking: “Lady! What’s the big deal? Just don’t go!” Sadly, it would be strange if the rebbetzin didn’t turn up to shul!

I will tell you my issue with shul. It isn’t shul itself. I like people, I like organized religion and I like kiddush. What I struggle with is tefillah — prayer. I always have. This started at a young age.

My parents taught me Modeh Ani — the prayer you say when you wake up, and they taught me the Bedtime Shema — the prayer you say when you go to bed. That was fine, these prayers had focus and had the benefit of being short and fast and generally said in bed. I understand the words, especially of the Modeh Ani, and I can relate. As an insomniac, the fact that at some point I actually fall asleep and managed to wake up seems like a small miracle to me.

After waking up, the next prayer of my day is also heartfelt. It’s a Shehakol blessing — a prayer said in thanks for all kinds of food. I say it with thanks and appreciation to God the Almighty for my morning coffee and now that the Nespresso machine is back in action, I sometimes weep just a bit in my grateful prayer.

Yet the rest of the prayer book is such a struggle. I have memories of being in school, teachers hammering on about my lack of kavana — focus on prayers.

“Really?” I would think to myself.

“If you knew what was going on in my head, you certainly wouldn’t demand that I bring my attention back to God.”

“My attention is already with God. He and I are going over a protracted list of complaints, demands, and expectations.”

“And if it was so important to you that I focus on my prayer to God, why can I see you, dear teacher, approaching me with a ruler to measure the distance between my knee and the hem of my skirt?”

(Incidentally, if I had, at that moment, pulled my skirt any lower down my hips, it would have fallen off.)

Eventually, school-enforced tefillah — prayer — was over, but real-life prayer continued. That is because I do believe that Orthodoxy is the lifestyle that best suits me. I would go to shul weekly. The time it took for me to grab a siddur and a chumash, sit down and find my page, is about the length of time that my attention lasted. Within seconds, I would be distracted, once more reviewing lists with God and counting pages until I could get up and go to kiddush.

Over the years, I have found my moments of joy in the tefillah, ways of focusing on prayer. I still count pages, but perhaps less often. My prayers have never been perfect and it would have remained as such if my husband hadn’t had a midlife crisis and switched careers at 40 to become a rabbi. Now here is the issue: people expect the rebbetzin not only to like praying but to be an expert at it.

Our official induction as rabbinic couple at CNSS, February 2015. The synagogue executive from left to right Anthony Harris, Rosalind Goulden, Ian Wolfson, me, my husband, Gerald Alexander, and Anthony Israel.

I like people. I like hearing their stories and challenges. I wanted to know how I can help. What I started hearing was that people didn’t feel connected in shul.

All of the sudden, I found my calling, I felt confident speaking to people like me who didn’t connect to their Judaism through prayer. They wanted to feel valued as Jews, whether they prayed or didn’t. The reason that I wasn’t too worried as a new rebbitzin was that tefillah wasn’t at the top of my own list of things that I do that make me feel connected to my Judaism.

The reason for this is that the single most influential part of Judaism happens in the home.

When a couple is married, we wish for them to build a bayit ne’eman b’Yisrael — a faithful house in Israel. We don’t wish for them to be fee-paying shul members (as a community rebbetzin, I encourage you to pay your shul fees!). We wish for you to have Jewish children AND to raise them in that beautiful Jewish home you will build; not in shul.

Judaism is a religion in two parts — in the shul and at home. Yes, they work together, and without one the other struggles. The home practices continue in shul and vice versa. While Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are all about the shul, Friday night dinners and seder night are all about the home. Like it or not, much of what happened in the home for many generations was orchestrated by women. Judaism is actually, in my opinion, a woman-centered religion. It is predominantly what we do in our homes that will often decide if subsequent generations will remain Jewish.

We learn from our homes how to be Jewish long before we step into a synagogue or school.

The reason I feel so strongly about teaching Jewish culinary history, where recipes come from, why we eat what we eat and when we eat it, is because a child will smell their very first Shabbat years before they understand what the word Shabbat means. They will gum a crust of challah and eat the vegetables from the chicken soup; we are feeding our children Jewish. We are handing over tradition along with plate after plate of steaming hot food.

It is through the concerted effort of generation after generation — mainly of Jewish women, with the aid of the men — that Judaism has been handed down. It’s not surprising that Judaism, unlike Christianity, has been, for the vast majority of our history, handed down along the maternal line. My focus has always been in my home. Making it a Jewish home, teaching my children how to keep a kosher kitchen, how to prepare for holy days and fast days the way my mother and grandmother taught me.

Does this mitigate the need for prayer and community? Absolutely not! But it should give us pause. This year, if we do have high holy day services at all, they will look very different. The three- or two- or one-time a year Jews may not be walking through the doors of our shuls at all. The Jews who come just to hear my husband sing the old tunes and me to speak about the festivals, won’t hear or see us.

Our Shul Cockfosters and N Southgate Synagogue

As they walk through their own front door, some may notice that, years ago, they put a mezuzah up on the door frame. But many won’t see it. They may light candles for the festival and perhaps a yahrzeit candle alongside, but most won’t light. Some may make kiddush and hamotzi but most won’t say the festival blessings. And what of the main focus of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; prayers? Will they pray?

Many will not even know where to start. They will have been coming to shul since they were infants on Yom Kippur, hearing the story of Jonah and the whale (in truth a big fish). As teens, they would have come to see how their peers had grown up. In their university years and twenties, to find out what their friends were getting up to in life. Later they would come to show off spouses and children. And, in later years, to reconnect with the same friends that they had sat next to during storytime 50 years before. During each of these visits, sometimes only once each year, they will have heard the ancient melodies. Not knowing where in the service they were, or what they meant. They would have waited to hear the blowing of the shofar, not sure why, but something that loud and imposing must be important. They would have bowed their heads for Yizkor, remembering their parents, who had brought them to shul all those years ago. They will have fasted and enjoyed the tea and cake handed out at the end of the service and said, “Rabbi, see you next year” — not in Jerusalem, but right here, in my shul.

I have never before appreciated shul the way I do now. Not prayer, because I still find it hard to concentrate (over the years, I have gotten better at it, though God and I still do many list checks throughout my private prayer). What I have come to appreciate is that my Jewish home is unique. I am fortunate to come from an uninterrupted line of Jewish homemakers, both men, and women, who have fled persecution and survived and have made Jewish tradition an integral part of their home life.

But what of others? Those who have lost the tradition along the generations. The ones whose connection to Judaism starts and ends in the shul. The ones who didn’t raise their children on challah and chicken soup? The ones who brought their children into shul for a baby blessing, and then a bar or bat mitzvah, who celebrated their aufruf in the shul and had the rabbi marry them. The ones who practice their Judaism once a year in shul, yet never forget who they are. What happens this year when there is a break for the first time since World War II? Will they come back next year? Or is this it? The feared break in the chain we have been speaking about for years?

As a rabbinic couple, we have never worked harder. My husband, who loves to pray, has been leading three prayer sessions a day from our living room over Zoom and Facebook Live. Initially the numbers were high. People from around the world tuned in to pray along with him. We had become used to many people tuning in just to listen and know that they were in someone’s prayers. Yet now, weeks and weeks into this situation, funnily enough we are struggling to get a virtual minyan (quorum) as we struggled to get a physical minyan in the past. He and I are giving several lessons weekly over Zoom. Our community is running coffee mornings, l’chayims and Modern Hebrew classes. But, like you, we are all getting weary of screens. In the beginning, we were all amazed by the technology that allowed us to connect in this way but, as time goes on, we have started resenting it. More often than not, I’m hearing my colleagues, who were loving Zoom, are now hating it. But we continue with pastoral care, funerals and shiva prayers as well as bar mitzvahs over Zoom.

The real challenges are coming. The larger question of Jewish continuity, how do we keep tradition alive, how do we keep our members who are already on the fridges, the ‘one time’ a year Jew from becoming the ‘no time’ a year Jew?

I can offer a kind of way forward while stumbling in the dark.

First, as rabbinic figures, we need to find ways to engage our unengaged members in the run-up to the high holy days. What can we do to make them feel involved and looked after? For myself and my husband in particular, how can we do so in an orthodox manner? The answer may be found in those people who felt disengaged while they were in the room. Many of them wanted to feel valued in this very Jewish space. How can we make every Jew feel valued at this time when they aren’t being counted? The answer has always been teaching. Teach each and every Jew that they are valued and needed. That their roles are not less important now that we aren’t in shul. Rather, their roles have reversed.

Yom Yerushalayim celebration at CNSS 2017.

We live in a time when every family, every home and every individual is the torchbearer of our religion. It is no longer enough that the “rabbi does the Jewish.” We all have to “do the Jewish.”

The second is the home. What can we, those of us who have strong Jewish homes, do to help others create a Jewish atmosphere in their respective homes? For years, I have been speaking about the beauty of a Jewish home, the atmosphere we created by baking challah in our homes, of setting up a cholent on a Friday afternoon in anticipation of Shabbat. How these small acts say so much to our households; about the way we would like the next 25 hours to go. Let’s bring more traditions into our homes.

Unlike Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, I have changed my mind. Please let our shuls open, when it is safe to do so, as we need them. But until such time, we the educators, the teachers, we the community leaders, we the rabbis and the rebbetzins need to step up and find creative ways to engage Jews over the entire spectrum of observance so that the break in the chain is just a fracture that can be easily mended.

What will you do? Let us know because, like you, we are scrambling.

About the Author
Ilana has collected many experiences over the last few decades, from interior designer to international educator, qualifying as a pastry chef and working as a journalist for a number of publications. Ilana has lived in New York, Caracas, Rio de Janeiro, and Israel and settled in London six years ago with her husband Rabbi Daniel Epstein and their four children. Ilana is the Rebbetzen of Cockfosters and N Southgate United Synagogue, the Jewish Futures Director of Projects and the founder and director of Ta’am.
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