Bri­tain’s best syn­a­gogues

A new re­port in­ves­ti­gates how some con­gre­ga­tions are get­ting it right

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - BY SI­MON ROCKER

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

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