Bored in Shul: Is it just me or is it really dull?
Liz Pearl @ PK Press
“Virtually all new studies show a decline in shul attendance in many sectors of Jewish society. Anecdotally, many former congregants (or those who rarely came in the first place) cite boredom and lack of mental /emotional satisfaction as central reasons. Services are often perceived as too long and the liturgy is frequently out of touch with a modern person’s primary concerns and aspirations.”
This timely dynamic panel discussion was co-hosted by Dr. Elliott Malamet (Scholar and Thinker of Living Jewishly) and Rabbi Yossi Sapirman (Senior Rabbi of BTC and Founder of Living Jewishly). Joining them were two Millennials, invited guests: Yacov Fruchter (Director of Community Building and Spiritual Engagement at Beth Tzedec Congregation) and Leah Breslow (Senior Manager of Outreach and Programs at The New Israel Fund of Canada), in this honest and wide-ranging conversation focused on how we can possibly navigate the future of declining synagogue attendance and engagement in our communities.
I am very fond of the co-hosting educators, and I have attended their classes many times previously. In a healthy Jewish debate, the speakers expressed divergent perspectives and ideologies, based in historical and philosophical contexts. Our community needs more of this collaborative-type inquiry, I believe, as we tackle the challenges inherent in the ever-changing landscape of Jewish life today, not the least of which is the daunting question of synagogue.
We know where we are coming from, we have a sense of where we are, and yet we are not quite sure where we are headed. The challenging questions of prayer and God are complex, with deeply held beliefs all around the conversation table. And most certainly, wherever we are headed we neither know the destination nor agree upon how to get there. It’s fair to say, we are navigating without a map; and the journey requires deep introspection and heated dialogue.
Several things are certain. We have to make some changes. Change is almost always met with resistance of some sort. We don’t necessarily agree on what changes to make. It’s relatively impossible to arrive at any consensus, so we hope for informed debate and constructive democracy. We pray that together we can take this unchartered journey before it’s too late.
I have been a (family) member of Beth Torah Congregation in Toronto for over a decade. My kids attended YLJ and celebrated their b’nei mitzvot @ BTC. Actually, I’m not much of a shul-goer, and often I proclaim, “I’m not a davener, however, I eagerly attend many non-davening events including: holiday celebrations, classes, special guests and presentations. Of course, this begs the question: how is a synagogue different from a community centre?
Like many of us, I yearn to be connected to Judaism ‒ my tribe, my heritage, my legacy, my traditions; however, prayer per say, is not really my thing. My Hebrew is decent. To be honest, I just don’t connect with the liturgy. Way too much God talk and extolling. Most of the time, I can’t connect with this antiquated worship aspect of the service. It seems most of us experience some ambiguity regarding the various components of prayer, including: language, style, structure and content.
I do however, appreciate that the readings, prayers, blessings and melodies have been passed down for generations and so, in a nostalgic way I am linked to my parents, my grandparents, great-parents and so on. Definitely, sharing these experiences from generation to generation is rewarding and meaningful. And I believe that some degree of shul continuity is essential for my personal and our collective Jewish core.
I have always viewed Judaism as an incredible offering, a generous buffet; we each take what nourishes our soul and sustains our Jewish identity. And we leave behind what does not appeal to us. Synagogue (potentially) provides many sources of Jewish continuity: community, spirituality, prayer, tradition and ritual. A sustainable and accessible buffet offers an assortment of traditional and new recipes. Classical and contemporary.
Here’s another image. My practice of Judaism is like a textured and colourful tapestry: many different threads are woven together, including Jewish history, family history, formal and informal education, spiritual and cultural experiences and synagogue affiliation. I seek out experiential opportunities that are meaningful, thought-provoking, multisensory, multi-media and ultimately stimulate my mind, body and soul.
Regarding shul, I am looking for a safe, inclusive and sacred space to make connections with interesting people, stimulating ideas and shared values. For me, it’s not so much the liturgy as the sounds, the sights, and the tastes. A glimpse of the antique Torah scroll, the touch of a silky smooth tallis, the soulful sounds of familiar melodies and whispers and of course, a tasty Kiddish.
From time to time, I am fortunate to experience a meaningful spiritual moment when my mind is quiet and my soul is sparked. A brief moment of clarity regarding the existential questions. However, much of the time, my mind is wandering and reflecting upon Shul memories from various stages throughout my life.
It was interesting to hear some best practices offered by each of the panelists and several attendees: shorter services, more congregational singing, more break-out sessions, more interactive dialogue, more storytelling and more lay leadership. Implicit in this conversation are the evolving roles of clergy members.
We all want to be more engaged and explore the possibilities of how to effectively tweak the synagogue services thereby integrating the old and the new. Classic and contemporary.
Let’s keep the conversation going.
“Beth Torah Congregation: the family shul serves the spiritual, communal, and educational needs of more than 500 families with warmth and vibrancy. Existing at the nexus of tradition and modernity, Beth Torah offers the wisdom of the ages gleaned from the Torah while speaking to the modern concerns of its congregants with relevance and meaning.”
“Living Jewishly provides experiences for a meaningful relevant and intentional life. Living Jewishly provides opportunities to engage in Jewish Life through unique experiences, exceptional events and relevant conversations.”