UK chief rabbi: Prayer services don’t need to last for three hours

UK chief rabbi outlines the way synagogues need to function in a post-COVID world.

 RABBI EPHRAIM MIRVIS attends the Association of Jewish ex-Servicemen and Women annual remembrance parade and ceremony in London in November. (photo credit: HENRY NICHOLLS/REUTERS)
RABBI EPHRAIM MIRVIS attends the Association of Jewish ex-Servicemen and Women annual remembrance parade and ceremony in London in November.
(photo credit: HENRY NICHOLLS/REUTERS)

MUNICH – In reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, many groups of Jews created minyanim (quorums of 10 adults who pray together) in parking lots, streets or backyards. Some brave religious leaders, such as UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, decided to address this phenomenon and offer solutions that would promote the return of Jews to their synagogues.

“There are so many different elements of our response to COVID-19, but we’ve been through a tough time in many respects, a traumatic time,” said Mirvis in an interview to The Jerusalem Post during the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) in Munich. “We need to see what we can learn from the pandemic. What are the lessons on a personal level, family level, community level, national level? And we now have a responsibility not to forget those lessons.”

“We need to see what we can learn from the pandemic. What are the lessons on a personal level, family level, community level, national level? And we now have a responsibility not to forget those lessons.”

UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis

Mirvis shared that the organization that he heads, the United Synagogue, conducted a survey of its members to understand their views of synagogue life in a post-COVID-19 world.

He said that “within communities in Britain, particularly in the United Synagogue, which is primarily in London, we conducted a survey in the midst of the pandemic, about a year ago. And it was very telling. Five thousand people replied, which is a very high number in terms of the overall members of our community.”

The United Synagogue is a union of British Orthodox synagogues, representing the central Orthodox movement in the UK. As of 2020, the United Synagogue had 62 member congregations. It has 40,000 members and is considered to be the largest synagogue body in Europe.

 CHIEF RABBI Jonathan Sacks handing over the position to Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis at a ceremony in London in 2013. (credit: TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS) CHIEF RABBI Jonathan Sacks handing over the position to Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis at a ceremony in London in 2013. (credit: TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS)

“Overall, people were saying, ‘We’d like to spend less time in prayer services,’” Mirvis surprisingly said, but then explained, “It’s not that we’d like shorter services; the service is what it is. But there’s no reason why a morning prayer on Shabbat morning has to take three hours.”

In addition, Mirvis stated that United Synagogue members “want to find better channels for spirituality. People discovered that you can have a Saturday morning without going to shul. I hope they were davening [praying], and now they need a reason to come back.”

Post-COVID-19 Shabbat

According to the Jewish Chronicle, the United Synagogue survey found that “almost one in five United Synagogue members say they are less likely to attend Shabbat morning services in the post-pandemic age.”

According to the Chronicle, online services and programming won 92% approval, “although members were less impressed (60%) by the provision for young people,” an area United Synagogue has targeted for immediate action. In addition, 58% said they were very satisfied with how their shul acted during the pandemic, 14% felt more connected to their community since the pandemic, while 10% felt that they have become less connected.

Despite the findings of the survey, which was conducted a year ago, Mirvis is optimistic. “I would say we’re up to about 80% of where we were pre-COVID,” he said of the participation of community members in prayer services, “and it’s still early days.” He explained that “for some people, particularly some elderly people, they are being cautious. And there are some people who have lost the habit. But, overall, synagogue activity and communal intensity have returned.”

The chief rabbi claimed that one thing that helps bring people back to shul is an annual activity he initiated called Shabbat UK.

“It’s based on the international Shabbat Project, and we do it in our own British way,” he said of the annual Shabbat that promotes communal activities and services, based on the creative idea of South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein. “Shabbat UK was phenomenal,” Mirvis said. “It gave people a reason to come back to synagogue.”

This was the sixth time that the United Synagogue celebrated Shabbat UK, but the previous time was three years ago, because of the pandemic. “There was a three-year gap, but it was amazing. Thank God, it was really incredible,” Mirvis concluded.

Shabbat UK is done in a “British way,” he explained, which means concentrating on community building and activities that bring people together; or, as Mirvis put it: “a lot of hessed, a lot of food, a lot of education, without spelling out to people ‘be frum over this Shabbat.’ The message is to be involved in the community. The result is that many people do keep that Shabbat; because, ultimately, it’s a different kind of message. But it’s very successful. And what we discovered was that the taker was tremendous. Thank God, people are responding well.”

As a result of the survey, Mirvis and his team recently created “Project Welcome,” a campaign whose purpose is to have synagogues grow in numbers and in the satisfaction of its members. “Project Welcome was launched three months ago, and it is offered to all of our communities around the UK. We’re giving sizable contributions to communities to initiate something which they didn’t have before in order to bring people back and to bring people in who never used to come in. Having seen the initial submissions of projects for which they’re going to be getting subsidies, it is phenomenal, and it’s a model that other communities can adopt.”

Asked to give an example of a step that synagogues have taken that is intended to make community members feel better about services, Mirvis returned to the attitudes toward prayer. “Examples would be to focus on who the ba’al tefila [the cantor who leads the service] is. What is the ta’am of the prayer? What do I get out of a service? Is it a performance? Does it include me? Do I feel spiritual? Some of our communities are investing in a different style, which is more inclusive and which is more spiritual, which I believe is very important. We need to realize it must be at the heart of the prayer.”

The chief rabbi explained that there are synagogues that enjoy the cantorial prayer service, but there are those that don’t connect to these old-school traditional tunes in an opera-type style. He isn’t dictating how exactly these services should take place, but the aim is that the community should feel more connected and uplifted by them. The idea is to rethink how the prayer takes place and build a style that most members will enjoy.

When asked whether emphasizing spirituality in prayer services was something more popular in Israel than in Diaspora communities, Mirvis agreed. “We need to focus on the real thing which will guarantee continuity. The kiddush [after morning services, where food and drinks are offered] won’t guarantee continuity, but the faith will. For instance, choosing the hazan according to what the community wants, but with sensitivity because obviously not everyone will agree. In addition, we have to make sure that no one is offended during this process.

“Part of our challenge is that you have multiple audiences within the same tefila. There are some who want a performance; there are others who want to sing together. It depends on age and on what people are accustomed to.”

Mirvis repeats that he is now trying to promote spirituality in the synagogues across the UK. “I think we need to invest in the spiritual side, and that is what some others are investing in. Others are trying to promote a Shabbaton for the community, a time for people to get together. They never had the money for it, so we’re putting in a significant financial investment. Others are investing in their youth programs, because the youth suffered during the pandemic. Some of them feel as if they have lost two years of their lives, or of their developmental life, without a community focus

“My message is everybody has to feel included. It’s not good enough just to come to go through the technical processes. We need a warm reception. We need inclusivity, and that applies to men, women, children, everybody, and people of all ages.”

“My message is everybody has to feel included. It’s not good enough just to come to go through the technical processes. We need a warm reception. We need inclusivity, and that applies to men, women, children, everybody, and people of all ages.”

UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis

Regarding the survey, Mirvis explained that the data showed that the most difficult issue of Jews and synagogues was wearing a mask during prayers. “During lockdown times, the one thing which will put you off coming back to shul was wearing a mask. Not because they’re against the concept – they want to keep the law and the regulations; [but] because it separates between me and others. There was also a shigaon [craziness] of not singing – I don’t know if you had this in Israel.”

Mirvis explained that during COVID, the instructions of the federal government were not to have choirs or any communal singing – something that is substantial in Jewish prayer.

“We had a year and a half without singing in shuls,” he said sadly.

Asked whether it was permissible to sing outdoors, Mirvis said it was allowed only if there was distance. “We had what we call garden minyanim during periods when it was permissible. And that’s one of the things I’m advocating. Let’s continue that together with prayer in synagogues. Let’s hear what the people liked [about these garden minyanim].”

Mirvis added that people in the United Synagogue have said they want their rabbis to speak less. “One thing they said was we want our rabbi’s sermons to be shorter. Okay, so we need to listen. I’ve never heard anyone complain about a short sermon. I’ve told that also to the rabbis here at the CER conference, because it’s not just a UK matter.”

OUR CONVERSATION took place during the late evening hours in the lobby of a Munich hotel. Mirvis shared that he was excited to be back at the CER event after a three-year absence.

“The first conference of CER that I went to was in 1984. I was then a young rabbi in Ireland. That was my first position as a congregation rabbi. The conference was in Amsterdam, and there were about 70-80, rabbis all from Western Europe. Because that was Europe. Then suddenly the Iron Curtain came down. Years later, there are now 350 rabbis who participated. It’s an incredible celebration, particularly because it includes Eastern Europe in such a significant way.”

The chief rabbi added that the timing of this conference is significant, “while the war in Ukraine is happening; to be here in the heart of Germany, when we know what happened to our people. There’s hardly anybody who reached out to help them [during the Holocaust], and there was no State of Israel to help us. There’s a celebration of how Jewish communities across Europe are helping the Jews of Ukraine. We’re also helping non-Jews as well, which is an additional very impressive story, and I myself visited Krakow, just after Passover, to see what our community is doing.

We’ve raised millions in the UK, for the sake of both Jewish and non-Jewish [causes], through an organization called World Jewish Relief. I went to see what we were doing on the front line and in saving lives.... Plus, it’s a wonderful opportunity for refugees to be able to go to Israel. So there’s a wonderful story that’s happening here. I think it was Natan Sharansky who said, If you were a Jew in Europe during the Second World War, you were the unluckiest person. If you’re a Jew in Ukraine today, you’re the luckiest person [because] there are people to look after you.”

He added that, in his opinion, “this is European Jewry in one of its finest hours, responding to this crisis. You hear, for example, from Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich of Poland, and what they are doing is just extraordinary.”

Mirvis said that the situation is “very worrying,” and asked, “Are we seeing the beginning of a domino effect with regard to other countries? Where is this going to stop? It is very worrying. One of the most worrying aspects of this war is the fact that the world couldn’t stop it. Either the world couldn’t stop it, or the world didn’t want to stop it. It has been allowed to happen.”

He added that the second group of Jews we need to look after now is the Russian Jews. “The Russian Jews are suffering. And according to statistics, for every one Ukrainian Jew going to Israel, there are three Russian Jews, and there is deep concern about the future.”

He agreed that other European countries are “benefiting in terms of an influx.” But that’s “not the reason we would have wanted for the strengthening of our communities [across Europe].”

Mirvis recently visited the Noam primary Jewish day school in Zurich. He said that there were 30 new Jewish students at that school from Ukraine. “It’s a small school. That’s why it’s so wonderful,” he said, noting the influence of more and more Jews joining existing Western European Jewish communities.

He concluded by saying “Thank God that the State of Israel exists, and that the opportunity exists for Ukrainian Jews to hop on a plane and go straight there. This is something which didn’t exist in Europe 80 years ago, and it makes all the difference. And in addition, for those who are not going to Israel, European communities are here for our brethren, and we are here for everybody as well.”•