So grateful that we can once again say ‘mah tovu’

Inside a Synagogue (Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash via Jewish News)
Inside a Synagogue (Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash via Jewish News)

Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write as president of the United Synagogue: I’ve not been to shul in months.

I miss it. I really miss it. I find my connection to God and to the prayers I’m saying are stronger in shul. I miss the camaraderie, I miss seeing friends, I miss the buzz of our youth and children’s programmes. And, in case my rabbi is reading this, I’m even missing his sermons.

I’m missing visiting other communities, which is one of the joys of my role, and seeing how each of our shuls is unique yet share the characteristics of being warm and welcoming to all.

The decision we took to close all the United Synagogues is one of the hardest we’ve ever taken. Coming together for prayer services is at the core of what our communities stand for and it has been painful for us to keep our buildings closed. Nevertheless, it was the right thing to do – to protect the health of our members, staff and volunteers.

It has also been a very challenging time for our members who have been deprived of their connection to their community because in addition to being houses of prayer, our buildings are community centres. They host support groups, educational events, social get-togethers, sports sessions, youth programmes and much, much more. 

We were therefore delighted to hear last week’s announcement by the prime minister that places of worship can reopen this weekend for communal prayer services, which will allow us to slowly and safely reopen our synagogues over the coming days and weeks.

In addition, the government’s recent announcement makes clear that, in a Covid-secure and responsible way, we can carefully plan to restart aspects of our broader communal provision too.

I want to pay tribute to the whole United Synagogue team – rabbinic and lay, professionals and volunteers – who have read and digested the government guidance and spent countless hours putting together thoughtful plans to enable our communities to reopen this weekend. I am deeply grateful. 

Things will look very different on our return, and measures such as strict social distancing, hand sanitising, compulsory face coverings and a booking system will all be in place to keep each other safe. Despite this, we are thrilled to be able to open our doors again. 

That said, we remain committed to taking a cautious and steady approach to reopening as we get used to implementing and managing a new way of running our communities. 

Each of our communities will be restarting services at its own pace, depending on the needs of its members, and we will support each community every step of the way. 

As we go back to shul, it is customary to say Mah tovu ohalecha – How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel. 

The Talmud interprets ‘tents’ and ‘dwelling places’ as synagogues and houses of study. Over the past three months we have had to reimagine our homes as our places of prayer and learning – not to mention our places of Zoom meetings, home schooling or self-isolation. It has been a challenging time.

So how extraordinary is it that this very verse – Mah tovu – appears in this week’s sedra (Torah portion), which will be read with even greater gusto this Shabbat. 

This momentous event will closely be followed by another: on 14 July the United Synagogue will celebrate its 150th anniversary. We were founded by an Act of Parliament in 1870. It is an extraordinary history and one of which we are very proud.

This is not how I thought we would be celebrating our big birthday. The pandemic is forcing us to think very carefully about our priorities and how we need to pivot to ensure we can remain strong and vibrant to support the community during the next 150 years.

But for now, we cannot wait to welcome people back to our shuls. If you’re able to, please join us.

About the Author
Michael Goldstein is the President of the United Synagogue