Are we over shule?

Are we over shule?

'COVID-19 has changed the paradigm in how we access, absorb and are motivated by spirituality, learning, and a sense of being part of a community'.

Signs on the doors of Sydney's Central Synagogue in March.
Signs on the doors of Sydney's Central Synagogue in March.

OF course I am not implying that our two-thousand-year-old tradition of people gathering to pray in a holy sanctuary is over, but I truly believe this COVID experience has exposed holes in current shule strategies, financial models and engagement programs.

Shulegoers can be divided into four categories. Those that attend daily and weekly services; those that attend on Shabbat and the Jewish festivals; those who attend on the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; and the last group, those that attend life cycle events only – births, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and funerals.

All groups have been affected, although I feel the avid shule attendees have suffered the most. These people have missed the spirit of community and group prayer plus the morning kiddush, herring and whisky after shule. After the easing of the first round of restrictions this group was most eager, forming WhatsApp groups to monitor attendance and to ensure that davening was COVID compliant.

Next we have the lifecycle eventers. These people rarely think or consider about attending shule other than for a simcha. For those that had bar or bat mitzvahs, child namings or weddings planned, or even the unfortunate death in the family, this period has been challenging and shules have been scrambling the best they can to coordinate and provide something that resembles the traditional model used pre-COVID.

Shules now have to ‘pivot’ their offering just like businesses have done. The old business model of members buying a seat that they use once a year is antiquated and unsustainable. It is puzzling to me how ‘attached’ people who come to shule once a year are to their allocated seat. If they show up, even at the end of the final prayers on yom tov and someone happens to be sitting in their seat, it’s a disaster.

Shule membership needs to be an annual subscription that offers a variety of programs and events, including a seat for yom tov. Members need to feel that they get value during the year so when their membership invoice arrives they feel not only obligated to pay it but also a sense of loyalty and enthusiasm in maintaining their association with the organisation because they feel a true connection.

Shules really should be referred to as ‘community centres’. People essentially join a shule to be part of a community. Whether it’s a generational association or an immigrant family arriving looking to be connected, shules are a place to belong, engage, learn, share, as well as to pray.

I am concerned that members may not return to shule after the COVID lockdowns. Personally I have enjoyed not rushing home on Friday afternoon to make an early winter davening and the late starts on Saturday morning spending more time with my partner and children. This has led me to thinking that shorter davening is the answer. Less time on the logistics of the prayer service and the rabbi’s speech and Shabbat morning could be completed in half the time as done in most communities in Israel.

I fear for traditional Orthodox shules in Melbourne such as Toorak, Brighton, Elwood, St Kilda and Caulfield. The product offering and financial model must adapt to the ever-changing world of social media, online learning, virtual communities and what engagement means in this present time. COVID-19 has changed the paradigm in how we access, absorb and are motivated by spirituality, learning, and a sense of being part of a community.

Shules need to be more inclusive, more responsive and more innovative in their service delivery if they want to maintain their current audiences and have any hope of securing the next generation. Be it involving women more in the service, more English explanation of the prayers, meditation or more singing, shules need to focus on what each generation is looking for.

As a supporting foundation of community life, the shules must engage and support dynamic, warm and engaging leaders. These leaders can be men or women but must have a blend of Torah knowledge and more importantly possess natural warmth and an infectious inviting and engaging personality that people are attracted and drawn to.

These rabbinic, halachic and educational personalities are the ones to inspire and motivate us back to our local communities. The building blocks of the new age rabbi or rabbanit are not just about scholarly knowledge and wisdom, they are about a natural relationship that develops with people, that leads into friendship which is directed into personal spiritual growth which results in an increasingly engaged and connected community be it by prayer, learning or sense of belonging.

Daniel Jenshel is a previous Jewish Care board member, immediate past president of Caulfield Shule and on the CCARE advisory board. The ideas presented in this article are his personal views and do not represent any organisations he is currently associated with.

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