When Shul is a Challenge: What Should the Uninspired Congregant Do?

Should a shul Rabbi ever tell a congregant not to come to shul?  Over the past number of years, there has unfortunately been a growing trend in many shuls of “JFK Jews”, or “Just For Kiddush” Jews.  JFK Jews come to shul to see their friends and socialize and for them, the prayers and the sermons are merely a distraction.  Some come at the end of the davening, in time for Kiddush, whereas others come to shul earlier and spend most of their time sitting in the back of the shul or elsewhere, socializing until shul ends.  As shul Rabbis, what should our attitudes be about these members of our congregations?  Should we feel frustrated that they are not more engaged with the service, or should we just be happy that they are in shul at all?

A shul is a place of communal gathering, drawing congregants for a variety of reasons; spiritual, social, educational, and youth, just to name a few.  And each of these reasons is legitimate.  A shul should be a place where Jews can socialize and feel a sense of belonging, and it is important for the shul to create opportunities to make everyone feel welcome.  Nonetheless, after giving this issue much thought, I cannot simply be happy that “just for kiddush” congregants show up at all. To do so, I feel, is spiritually dangerous for them as individuals and for their communities as a whole.

“La’kol zman va’eit.” There is a time and place for everything, and this is true in shul, as well. There is a time when a shul should foster a culture of socializing, and there is a time when a shul must be a place of prayer.  There is a time to speak; when we mingle and enjoy the company of one another.  But there is also a time to listen; when we take in the words of the Torah and Haftorah and hear words of Torah from the Rabbi.

At times this is not easy.  Davening can be long, and it can be especially challenging when many of us do not understand the meaning of what we say.  Some of us feel disconnected from God, making the service feel foreign or uncomfortable at times. I understand that shul is challenging when one is having religious doubts, and I know that some of us struggle with complaints against God because of difficult personal situations. And while some people feel that they themselves can’t sit in shul, they want their children to be a part of shul groups.  And even if they are not in the sanctuary, perhaps it is better for them to at least be in the shul environment than at home.

However, our response to these challenges cannot be to accommodate our weaker instincts.  Normalizing behaviors that pull our congregants out of shul and away from prayer makes the struggle that much harder for those who are trying to remain engaged.  While complacency may be comfortable, it always stifles growth. We must not allow this culture to develop in our communities.

Lest one think that I am out of touch with the struggles of my fellow shul-goers, let me assure you that just the opposite is true!  But while I understand internal struggle, what I cannot accept is behavioral complacency. Of course, many of us struggle with religion.  Many of us have doubts.  In his essay, “Faith and doubt,” Rabbi Norman Lamm explains that it’s okay to have doubt in cognitive faith, which involves intellectually accepting certain propositions as true.  It is normal to have questions and it is normal to struggle with faith.  However, there is another type of faith as well. “Functional faith” is how I behave.  To have functional faith is to act as if I believe.  Rabbi Lamm writes that “this grant of legitimacy of doubt must be limited to cognitive faith, and must not affect functional faith or halakhic practice.  Once we violate a halakhic norm on the basis of a cognitive doubt, we have in effect ceased to function as believers and begun to act as deniers not even as doubters.”   Therefore, while it is normal and it is even acceptable to struggle with the concept of prayer, it should not lead us to shirk our responsibility.  Fake it until you make it!  We should not use our religious struggles as a means to justify and legitimize giving up on ourselves and our spiritual future!  Yet that is what often happens.  Because in Judaism, as the Sefer Hachinuch has pointed out numerous times, our behaviors impact our beliefs.  If we wait until we are fully convinced about the efficacy of prayer before we decide to sit in shul for the duration of the davening, then we may never do so.  And if we do not put in the time in shul, we will not create the space for that enthusiasm and connection to prayer to eventually come. Additionally, while we may think that we benefit our children by bringing them to shul youth groups while we spend much of the davening outside the shul not davening, in reality, our children see our behavior and will model our behavior by not participating either.

If we want to come to shul to socialize during the Kiddush after davening, then that’s certainly acceptable because one of the goals of shul is to create social opportunities.  But if you absolutely cannot sit in shul for two hours during davening, I believe that you should start by coming to shul for a duration that is doable for you. I would much rather that you follow the model to, say, train yourself to run a 5K.  Starting with a 5 minute run in week 1, eight minutes in week 2, and so on, you will eventually build the stamina necessary to run a full 5K.  If you give up the moment that running is a challenge, you will never persevere.  So too, if we normalize non participation we will never grow, as individuals or as a community.  So instead, let us each take a strength training approach. If necessary, come every week for the first month during the last half hour of davening and stay in shul the whole time.  During the second month, come during the last forty minutes of davening and stay in shul the whole time, and so on and so forth.  Before long, we will train ourselves to take this beautiful mitzvah of tefilla b’tzibbur and keriat haTorah with the entire community seriously.

At the end of the day, the way we approach the mitzvot that are difficult for us impacts how we view all mitzvot and how our children will view them as well.  To stop pushing ourselves in the realm of mitzvot is to settle for mediocrity in our religious lives.  We must instead constantly challenge ourselves to push farther and do more.  We must say that when I’m in shul, even if I’m only in shul for a half hour, I’m going to make it special.  I’m not going to spend that time outside the shul.  I’m not going to spend that time in the back of the shul talking.  Even if I may struggle with cognitive faith, I will make sure that my functional faith is not lacking.

Whenever I perform a mitzvah I will strive for excellence and I know that ultimately my persistence and resilience will pay off for me and my family in feeling connected with God.

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