My theory about what makes for rude shuls
The politeness of Progressive services seems altogether absent in Orthodox congregations
SHORTLY BEFORE the High Holy-Days, I attended a Shabbat service at a popular, independent “Modern Orthodox” synagogue in the heart of Jewish North-West London. Throughout the time I was there (and I arrived during shacharit, and left after Adon Olam), I could hear, coming through the windows, a cacophony from the shul playground, where up to 150 children were belting around, shouting, laughing and chasing one another. These were far from being the feral children of Daily Mail scare-stories, but they were running wild, for at least a couple of hours, without visible adult supervision.
There was no children’s service for them to attend since this synagogue, in common with many Orthodox shuls, chooses not to hold children’s services on Shabbat, instead letting the little darlings burn off their energy outdoors.
Inside, meanwhile — even eight rows back from the mechitzah — I could hear the men catching up on gossip and business with their neighbours in an endless stream of chatter that barely ceased when the Torah was raised for hagbah, or when the rabbi was delivering his sermon.
My own background is middle-of-the-road United Synagogue. From when my children were babies until they were well into their teens, I was in shul every Shabbat, joining in the service, cutting cake for kiddush and (I admit it) occasionally indulging in the odd bit of loshen hora (gossip, as it is known in the wider world).
People chatted a little, but knew when to shut up. There were children’s services to occupy the kids and if, after those services ended, any young people were congregating in the synagogue grounds, there were adults around to tell them to keep the noise down.
These days, when I go to shul (not so often, I admit), I attend a large Reform synagogue where decorum is impeccable throughout the service. When they are not enthusiastically singing or chanting, the worshippers are so quiet you could hear a kippah drop. And the children are in children’s services, meaning that synagogue attendance is a learning experience and a place where they understand that good behaviour is expected.
Which got me thinking (cue Carrie Bradshaw Sex And The City- style words scrolling across the screen)… is there a sliding scale of decorum, with the most religious congregations the noisiest and most perfunctory in their participation, and the Progressive congregations those which demonstrate the greatest decorum? And, if so, could it be because there is an assumption in the more Orthodox congregations that being more religiously observant lets you off the hook in terms of secular forms of decent behaviour, such as courtesy towards other congregants and the maintenance of discipline over your children so that they show derech eretz? In other words, if you believe you have the inside track on God, do you believe that humility and courtesy are unnecessary in a house of prayer?
Conversely, if you are a Progressive Jew and have been hearing the message, both overtly and subliminally throughout the entire 200-year history of your movement, that your form of worship is somehow inferior to the longer-established and more Orthodox varieties of Judaism, do you feel the need to be exemplary when it comes to your behaviour in a House of God as a way of proving that you measure up?
But maybe there is a more prosaic explanation: in Orthodox congregations, where men and women are segregated, and haven’t seen their neighbours in the adjacent seats since the preceding Shabbat, there’s a lot of catching-up to do. In Reform, however, you are sitting with your spouse — and how much news can you accumulate to exchange between breakfast and Mah Tovu?
Jan Shure is the JC’s travel editor