Why bother with synagogue?

Why bother with synagogue?

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Yair Aronshtam FLICKR

Rabbi YAEL SPLANSKY

Holy Blossom Temple, TORONTO

Rabbi MARK FISHMAN

Congregation Beth Tikvah, MONTREAL


Rabbi Fishman: Synagogue attendance is one of the perennial concerns of every rabbi. Will there be a “nice” crowd today? Will people be inspired to keep coming back?

Many shuls offer new and exciting – one might even say avant-garde – programming, while others stick to a tried and true formula. What do you think is the most appealing part of our synagogue services and how do you frame your service, in light of what people want?

Rabbi Splansky: A recent Gallup Poll asked people who attend a synagogue, church or mosque at least monthly, to rank the reasons why. Seventy-six per cent said it’s the sermons and talks, while 64 per cent put programming for children and teens as a top priority and 59 per cent identified community outreach and meaningful volunteer opportunities as motivators.

It is both thrilling and daunting for a rabbi to hear that in 2017, what people want most of all is Torah. The days of the big sermon are behind us, but people still crave learning and they turn to rabbis to be their teachers.

Rabbi Fishman: Perhaps one reason why the rabbi’s sermon remains so appealing is that people are not sure what he or she is going to say. That anticipation keeps people riveted. Plus, like a good exercise session, people feel rejuvenated afterward.

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I also think people are offered too much “junk food,” when it comes to entertainment and social media – absorbing meaningless cat videos on YouTube and silly jokes on Facebook has robbed many people of matters of real worth and meaning. To leave our homes is to be bombarded with the shines of our times: advertisement billboards and the media. To come to synagogue is refreshing for many.

Rabbi Splansky: I believe most of our people aren’t looking for a simple truth, but for complicated and nuanced truths. They are not satisfied with a list of dos and don’ts – they prefer a lifelong series of challenges and guideposts, which push and elevate us in the direction of sacred purposes. Even those who attend less than monthly have a hunch that Torah-rooted Judaism can be an engine when we are strong and an anchor when we are vulnerable.

Ben Bag Bag’s teaching from 2,000 years ago is as true today as ever: “Turn the Torah over and over again, for everything is in it. Reflect on it, grow old with it and do not distance yourself from it, for there is no better path than this.” (Pirkei Avot, 5:26)

Rabbi Fishman: For me, the rabbi’s sermon is a chance to inspire, to teach, to bring to the forefront of people’s minds the burning issues of the day. I feel a lot of anticipation before giving my sermon. I wonder whether it will touch people’s hearts and minds, and leave them with some inspiration.

For some people, just getting to the end of another week can be a Herculean task. Others want to hear some words of encouragement and be reminded that they can overcome the challenges they face. Still others want to be pushed and religiously inspired to reach for higher levels in their own lives.

But at the end of the day, it’s important to keep a sense of perspective and humility. The sermon may be important, but it’s important to remember that the congregant may be thinking of something entirely different while we are speaking.

Rabbi Splansky: That same Gallup Poll also surveyed people who attended a synagogue, church or mosque at least monthly while growing up, but who seldom or never attend today. The most often cited reason (44 per cent) was that they prefer to worship on their own.

Meanwhile, our Torah scrolls are now set to the Book of Numbers, in which the Israelites are counted and recounted.  Why do we do this?

Our sages imagined God counting the souls of Israel again and again, as if each were a precious gem. Another metaphor, so central in our High Holiday liturgy, depicts God as a shepherd who makes each sheep pass under his staff, in order to assess their deeds and their needs. Perhaps rabbis should learn to count not as the demographers count, but as God, who nurtures each one of us to realize our own potential.