TORONTO — When Rabbi Aaron Flanzraich, spiritual leader of Beth Sholom Synagogue, and Holy Blossom Temple’s Rabbi John Moscowitz came together last week to have a public conversation about the future of Jewish communities, Rabbi Flanzraich said this is a topic that should literally make us sweat.
Referring to the recent Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project, which stated that only 22 per cent of Jews described themselves as having religion, Rabbi Flanzraich asked how we can create a religious community where people find meaning in synagogue and understand its values.
“[At Beth Sholom, we’re working hard] to recharge people. The liturgy is in a different and complex language, yet, despite this barrier, there is a paradox. It contains certain human truths, and we need to explain what they mean and make them meaningful.”
While Orthodox Jews feel they have no choice about attending synagogue, Conservative and Reform Jews have choices, he said. “We have to work harder and better. I deeply believe that [television and movies] are not meaningful and do not resonate in the same way [as our liturgy]. We have to find the right ingredient to make it happen.”
Rabbi Moscowitz responded, however, that he is doubtful this can happen. “We may have to radically change the landscape. It is very telling that all synagogues are organized the same way. The largest space is where the fewest people spend the least amount of time.
“I suggest building around that space, and promoting study as a meaningful activity. There is something about learning and studying that can touch any mind at any age. It might move people from studying to davening.”
Rabbi Flanzraich said he feared, though, that if people turned from prayer to study, they might give up entirely.
“It is a great challenge to try and use the moments when people are gathered, and use their heads to find their hearts. We are wired to think things and not feel, but prayer helps us feel.”
Rabbi Moscowitz said people definitely want to belong to a synagogue. “They feel yearning, curiosity and alienation, and they want to belong [to something]. Most Jews want the smell of tradition in their shul, and to be left alone outside. When they enter a synagogue, though, they want it to seem like synagogue.”
Asked by Rabbi Flanzraich if membership would change if prayer services were cut down, Rabbi Moscowitz said that “people would be outraged. The synagogue to which they belong must [be their representative] to the outside world.”
In the question period, a member of the audience asked about the challenge of intermarriage, and Rabbi Flanzraich said his synagogue is undergoing a change of attitude.
He said this coming spring, the synagogue is having an off-site open house for interfaith couples. “We want to create an environment for those who are uncomfortable speaking to a rabbi. We have to reach out to them and be more proactive. If we engage interfaith couples in conversation, we stand to gain more. In an open market of ideas, we can win.”
On a positive note, Rabbi Flanzraich said that the Pew report stated that 92 per cent of Jews are proud of being Jewish. “[Those numbers] are significantly important.”
A second evening is planned for March 12, to discuss “Can non-Orthodox Jews be religious?”