Britain’s best synagogues
A new report investigates how some congregations are getting it right
WHEN AMERICAN sociologist Professor Steven Cohen came here to carry out a study of British synagogues, he had to learn a new word: “rota”. Was it some kind of food, he wondered, “like roti”.
There were kiddush rotas, security rotas and rotas to help make up the weekday morning minyan. Whereas American congregations generally employ a larger professional staff to run them, their British counterparts depend far more on their armies of volunteers.
Prof Cohen’s report, Exploring Synagogue Vitality, commissioned by the Jewish Leadership Council and cowritten with London-based researcher Michelle Terret, is out this week. Often reports are produced to address problems. But this one is different. It was produced largely to show what synagogues are doing right.
It took six congregations from across the country and from different religious streams that were recommend- ed to him as models of their kind.
“In the literature on congregational life, I don’t think you will find anything as detailed or rich about the inner workings of synagogues in the UK,” he said.
While surveys have shown that many Jews in the West have become more secular and there is much talk of “cultural” rather than religious Judaism, synagogues remain a vital part of the Jewish infrastructure. They “manage to deliver community and belonging,” said Prof Cohen.
Three facets particularly stood out for him, he said. “The power of the volunteer culture — the readiness of people to give their time to their communities. Secondly, the extent to which the communities take care of people in need. Thirdly, the commitment to youth and young people. Those three areas are the most outstanding and distinctive, areas of great strength.”
In a survey of congregants of five of the selected communities, more than half said they were or had been active as volunteers at some stage.
“It’s remarkable, in an age in which Britain is among the most secular societies in the West, where there is not strong ideological commitment in the society to religion,” he said.
Key to a successful synagogue is a “culture of welcoming”, the report found. Strangers are greeted, helped to find a prayer book, invited to a meal. If a new face goes unwelcomed, said Rabbi Baruch Levin, of Brondesbury Park Synagogue, “then we’ve failed as a community”.
A couple who attended a conversion course at New North London Synagogue settled there because it was “the most welcoming shul we’ve been to… we had lots of people around us who wanted to talk about our journey, invite us to dinner. It made us feel that we belong.”
While some of the selected communities are situated in areas of growing Jewish population, others confront demographic decline. “Beth Hamidrash Hagadol in Leeds has been facing that and has been doing a really good job,” said Prof Cohen.
“They adjust. They are expanding their market share of the engaged population and work with other, surrounding institutions in a collaborative way. You’ve got to do that to survive and thrive.”
The report records how the synagogue’s senior rabbi, Jason Kleiman, has opened his doors to young people and encouraged the launch of a social group for 20- and 30-year-olds.
Elsewhere, activities for children have helped parents become more involved in the congregation. One Brondesbury Park member said that it was through the synagogue’s toddler group that she was led to send her child to a Jewish school.
Good communities are built on strong partnerships between rabbis and lay leaders. And good leaders are unafraid to encourage and support others to launch initiatives within their community.
Despite all the folklore about communal arguments, Prof Cohen said he was “impressed by the constant remarks about collaboration between rabbi and rabbi, between rabbi and lay leaders, between synagogues and surrounding institutions.
“It’s not perfect but there is a spirit of collaboration that characterises the better synagogues.”
For all the successes, the report noted that “even in vital congregations, many congregants rarely or never participate in major aspects of congrega-
tional life”. Sixty-one per cent took part frequently or occasionally in social events, while 24 per cent attended Shabbat services weekly.
(That figure is a smaller percentage than the 28 per cent recorded by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in its national survey but the JLC report did not include any Charedi synagogues.)
The highest Shabbat attenders were at Finchley United Synagogue, with 61 per cent of congregants, according to the JLC report.
American synagogues tend to emphasise more their role as houses of prayer, Prof Cohen said.
But the study found examples of “moving” services in the UK and said that what counted was the sensitivity of leaders to the “mood” of the congregation in the kind of prayer services they offered.
While the report can act as a handbook of what’s good in synagogues, it offers some ideas how to make them better. There should be a mentorship scheme to groom future leaders, study missions to look at communities abroad and the creation of a number of central funds to support innovative projects, youth activity and social care. Some congregations “excel in che
sed” — helping the sick, comforting the bereaved and other acts of loving-kindness — but they could do with professional back-up, Prof Cohen believed.
“I’d use the chesed fund to hire social workers to work part-time in congre- gations, where there are people who have problems that volunteers and rabbis can’t deal with.”
For example, he said, how do you help a person who is suffering dementia plan how she is going to care for herself?
Congregations also face challenges in fund-raising. While British Jews are generous in supporting causes in Israel, American synagogues are more experienced at soliciting donations.
“In part, the British community is socio-economically flatter than the States,” Prof Cohen said.
“There are less extremes of poverty and extraordinary affluence. There are proportionately fewer billionaires here, which means huge gifts are not as readily forthcoming.
“You need to have a broader fundraising strategy and the culture here doesn’t necessarily see houses of worship as objects of charity.”
Growing membership at Brondesbury Park Synagogue