Jonathan Muskat
Jonathan Muskat

The Orthodox Union ‘Back to Shul’ grant: Is there a more pressing need?

The Orthodox Union recently launched a new $100,000 challenge grant designed to support congregations that create innovative programs and services to invigorate synagogues and stimulate congregants to re-embrace synagogue life.  I assume that the thinking of this grant was that for over year now, many people have left their synagogue and have not returned.  Now with people getting vaccinated and feeling more comfortable to participate in regular, everyday life, there apparently is some concern that Jews who are members of OU shuls who will now return to shops, movie theaters and restaurants may not return to synagogues.  The OU hopes to gain a wealth of best practices to bring people back to shul which it could share with the broader OU community.

I certainly am interested to hear about these best practices that perhaps I can use in my own shul, but I wonder if this grant is necessary and perhaps whether the grant should be used to support another perhaps more important goal at a time like this.  I happen to think that most people who have not returned will return to shul.  I think we can articulate three different groups of people who have not yet returned that will soon return.  There are those who very much see the shul as their spiritual center and the only reason why they haven’t returned is that they don’t feel comfortable medically and in time, perhaps when they are vaccinated or perhaps some time thereafter, they eventually will return to shul.  There are those who aren’t coming to shul because there is no childcare or inadequate childcare due to COVID restrictions.  Again, in time, as state regulations on indoor public gatherings continue to ease such that better childcare will become more available, then more people in this category will return to shul.  Finally, there are those who come to shul primarily for social reasons, i.e., for Kiddush.  Again, in time, as state regulations on indoor public gatherings continue to ease such that Kiddushim will be permitted in shuls, then more people in this category will return to shul.

I think that the only group that may not return to shul is the group that was dissatisfied with their shul before COVID and the pandemic was the impetus to push this group to form its own community, perhaps through a backyard minyan, an opportunity that perhaps they could not create before COVID.  This group misses very little from their shul and they are happy with their new community and I am skeptical whether any innovative program will bring them back to shul.  I would think that shul leadership should engage these individuals to understand the cause for their dissatisfaction and then try to formulate policies to address their concerns to bring them back to shul.   As such, I wonder if this type of grant is necessary to bring people back to shul.

However, I would prefer that the OU launch a challenge grant that asks synagogue communities to re-imagine synagogue life.  Our absence from shuls for an extended period of time has perhaps provided us with perspectives on how to make synagogue life more meaningful.  After all, our absence from synagogue life has given us the opportunity to reflect upon both what spiritual benefits we took for granted that we missed during the pandemic and perhaps what spiritual benefits we achieved in the absence of synagogue life that we can replicate as we return to our synagogues.

We have the opportunity to start fresh now.  This new beginning begs the question, what are the best practices to ensure that when we fully return to our shuls, we will implement services that reflect values of passionate, soulful meaningful davening that may not have existed pre-COVID?  What are the best practices to ensure that our children, especially our middle schoolers and teens, feel engaged spiritually in synagogue life in a way that perhaps they were not engaged pre-COVID?  What are the best practices to ensure that more and more members engage in the core values of Torah, tefillah and chesed in our communities?  Before COVID, many of our synagogue communities were on auto-pilot, and we did many things right, but maybe this pandemic has given us pause to say that in certain areas, maybe we can do better.  I would love to see a grant that addresses this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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