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Reach out and touch

by: Leslie Bunder - Last updated: 2003-10-21

Time to reach out

The need to reach out

One question I have been pondering for the past few weeks is what are we doing as a community to engage people to be more involved with their synagogues and other communal organisations?

The question came about just after Rosh Hashanah as people spoke to me and told me of the dwindling numbers of people going to their synagogues. A few years earlier they would have held overflows, but in 2003 there is no longer a need for overflows.

So where are people going to or in the case not going to. Why are shuls and the organisations behind them turning off people from their Jewish roots instead of engaging them and igniting Jewish pride?

Are shuls and the organisations behind them really out of touch with their members?

A modern society provides us with so many choices and so many options and going to synagogue for many is one of those options.

There are so many things in life fighting for our time and energy from work and leisure pursuits through to watching TV and of course using the Internet. Each of these interests takes time. And that time naturally has a direct effect on what else we do.

Going to shul for many can be a stressful experience, it can be daunting, it can also be not very welcoming or comforting. These are all stereotypical images people might have that our rabbis and indeed other lay leaders need to overcome. We need to recognise the reasons for people going to shul and indeed for not going.

The shul of 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago is certainly different from that today. A shul is a centre, it is a place where Jews can come together, learn, discuss and pray. But sadly our shuls are not as open and welcoming as they can be. They can be intimidating, if you don't have the gelt, you might not join. If you don't give regular donations you won't be called up.

Of course there are exceptions that address this issue and the image that everyone in the Jewish community has a lot of money! Of course they don't, but we need try harder and be supportive to people who come to shul who may be financially stretched but still have much too offer.

Often, it is the ones with money we seem to pay attention to. But what of the others, the young and old, those not working, those disabled? 
How many shuls have facilities for people who have walking difficulties? How many shuls have drop in facilities for people who just want some help and advice?

We need to make sure that shuls are places where Jews can once again feel comfortable at attending. We need to make sure we don't alienate people so they don't come to shul. We need to provide people with a warm welcome and a place where they feel comfortable.

And that's why it can be encouraging to speak to rabbis and other lay leaders and hear of what they are doing in a bid to bring people back. There are certainly some good projects out there, but how much support do they really get?

By addressing the issues and concerns today and not merely sweeping it under the carpet as we have been doing for years, we are now able to plan for a positive future. There are many good rabbis out there and indeed many wonderful communities who are throwing open their doors for all to come and partake in the shul experience. They are showing that regardless of the congregation, 15 people, 20 people even 200 with a bit of thought and energy you can deliver something worthwhile for people.

After all if people can get enjoyment out off sports, theatre and other
pursuits, why shouldn't they can a spiritual enjoyment out of going to shul?

There are 1000s of people out there seeking shuls that are non-stuffy and thankfully we are now seeing some Jewish communities across the UK beginning to address these issues.

If we are to continue being a strong community we need strong leadership and with that shuls that make people feel welcome and want to be part of the community.

Reaching out is what it is all about!