There is an article on Ynet by Rabbi Levi Brackman about the eroding nature of the traditional Synagogue.
We in Perth should look carefully across all our shule and alarm bells should be ringing. Sadly they are not. I would like to cite some trite examples, but out of a will towards Shalom Bayit, I will refrain. It would not take much for a number of people to get very upset and offended, and frankly they are not people who deserve to be upset and offended. Nonetheless, with so much complacency it may be worth shaking up our own ideas a little.
I have blogged before about the rejection of institutionalism and the limitations of formal communal settings that are such a large contributor to our current situation. These sentiments also sit behind this post.
It is estimated that in Perth, about one third of the community are financial members of a Synagogue. Furthermore, it has been said that in terms of Diaspora standards, this is a relatively high ratio. I am not sure why we should be satisfied with anything less than 100%. The statistic means that for every Jew in Perth who chooses to belong, there are another two Jews who choose not to. Some people see the Synagogue as a place for tending to the families needs when it comes to death and mourning, but little else except a little occasional preaching. Who can blame them? Who wants to sit in a service for hours at a time, listening to the same tunes, observing the same exclusionist and judgemental culture, and being engaged in the occasional feribbyl.
To overcome the complacency that has set in, here are the five key areas of focus that I believe we need to place at the centre of our Synagogue agendas. I challenge you to pick up the annual report of any of our Orthodox Shules, and see the recurring theme outlined as follows:
1) Education (quantity)
Why is it that we are happy with one director of education in the Shule, when ten would still not be enough? How come our budgets can accommodate functions, facilities, and social activity, but fall short when it comes to engaging an education agenda?
2) Education (quality)
The education that we do get is somewhat fractured, even at Day School level. Firstly, there is an emerging polarization between the “haves” and the “have not’s”. Those who provision their own extra curricular education charge ahead, with many of their peers left behind. Secondly, we permit within our school teachers who are not respecting enough of their own tradition to be observant to teach these values and observances. The demonstration of personal example should without question be a pre-requisite.
3) Education (affordability)
The proportion of Jewish children in Perth who do not receive a Jewish day school education is growing. The facilities and focus on addressing the needs of these students is not growing. The current model of funding for day school education is not sustainable. Period. Yet we are not planning for this as the epidemic-crisis that it represents to our continuity. We are trying to address the problem by raising funds. We are not trying to address the problem by setting up alternative modes of education.
4) Education (learning)
The best Jewish education is free thinking. To develop the language and Jewish literacy skills required to enable this is a challenge of the highest order. Suggesting, particularly in an informal Jewish education environment, that our interpretive and conclusion drawing ability is sufficiently developed without the knowledge and learning base that is needed to sit behind it can have catastrophic results. We need to encourage independent Jewish learning, but also with the right tools and resources to support it.
5) Education (core focus)
How many members of our Syngagoues recognise that they are members of an educational organisation, not a religious organisation? Why should we care enough to want to die Jewish, when we do not care enough to live Jewish?
The future of the Synagogue is all about education.
Suddenly Generation Z is talking to us, but we are not listening. They are saying that membership on the basis of a sense of obligation alone is not enough. They are saying that community is about people, not formalities and structures. They are saying that Judaism should be an intellectual challenge, not an intellectual burden. They are saying that they can see right through our capacity constrained and self-imposed limitations to embrace Judaism for ourselves.
I think the best opportunity for Perth is not to try and reform any of the four Orthodox shules, but rather to collectively resource a new Shule, for young adults. Somewhere between Carmel School, the Zionist Youth Groups, and a complete lack of affiliation with any of the current established shule’s, a new place could be developed. There would be no baggage, no ties, and the focus would be on Jewish learning, accompanied by the convenience of tefillah facilities, not as a core focus of the place. I guess that won’t happen as there is far too much parochialism amongst the shule bodies already.
I agree with Levi Brackman that traditional shules will die. Not because of their leadership structures or style of Rabbinic authority, but because of their lack of genuine appeal to the next generation, and their lack of self-realisation that they are not in fact places of worship, but rather houses of learning.