Standing at Sinai?

Then Moses went up to God, and the Eternal One called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel:  ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself.  Now if you obey Me fully and keep My covenant, then out of all nations you will be My treasured possession. Although the whole earth is Mine, you will be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”


So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the Eternal One had commanded him to speak." (Ex 19:3-7) The people all responded together, “No thanks. We’re not interested.  We don’t get it. We’d rather go to Alton Towers.”


According to the legend, all the Jewish people, present and future, stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah.  This event will be commemorated this Sunday morning at the festival of Shavu'ot. It’s a Religion School morning, so it’s a perfect opportunity for a religious service that involves the entire congregation celebrating this festival and recalling this historic moment, you might think.  


Well no, actually. Those who have succeeded in acquiring places for their children at local Jewish schools will probably not be there because those schools will offer the Monday, as the orthodox-only observed ‘second day’ of Shavu’ot, as a day off school (JCoSS has an ‘optional’ day of non-curriculum activities). Most of the parents of these children will see this as an opportunity for an off-season long family weekend and will be at Alton Towers or some other holiday venue not normally envisaged as a location for Jewish religious observance. No doubt their younger siblings at the Jewish primary schools will celebrate the Jewish holiday in similar fashion (except at Clore Shalom where it’s business as usual next Monday).


And on this coming Sunday, were the synagogue to offer those regular members of its Religion School (most of whom do not attend Jewish schools) a Shavu’ot morning festival service based on the model of a Shabbat morning, most of them would not come. There would be a number of twelve year-olds who would be in shul because their presence at services is a requirement for their bar- or bat-mitzvah ceremony to be allowed to take place.  There might also be one or two ten year-olds: we have entered the ‘you must attend a minimum number of synagogue services in order to enable you to be considered for admission to JFS/Yavneh/JCoSS (delete as applicable). Most of those children would spend the entire duration of the service staring into space, not even bothering to look at the book from which the adult alongside them read or sang. The sheer pointlessness of the exercise (i.e. requiring children to attend services in order to enable them to identify with their Jewish community) is highlighted by the complete non-participation of these young people.


The alternative (which is actually what is going to happen) would be to offer a child-friendly service, based on the siddur used at Religion School. This in turn will potentially alienate the older members of the community, who would prefer something more ‘traditional’. Here we are faced with the perennial problem of the fact that our services appeal to only a small percentage of our membership, and that offering variety serves to upset as many people as it pleases. But this is of little consequence or interest to the majority who aren’t there at all.


Of course, Shavu’ot normally falls on a weekday, as has been the case for all of my years at The Liberal Synagogue Elstree (the last time Shavu’ot fell on a Sunday was in 1998; the next time will be 2015 - which will coincide with the bank holiday weekend - and again in 2016, which will be during term time). As the Jewish schools close for this day (and the orthodox schools for the following day as well) one might expect a good turnout of these Jewishly educated children…

Well, no again, actually. Over the past eight years of weekday Shavu’ot services, the number of children who attend Jewish schools (and their families) who show up for Shavu’ot services can be counted on the fingers of one hand – that’s the total, not the annual figure. It is clear that attendance at a Jewish school does not equate to participation in one’s synagogue community.  Indeed, it seems that exactly the opposite is the case.


But this is not the place to launch an assault on Jewish schools (though it’s worth noting the irony of shul attendance now being one of the criteria for admission to a Jewish school). The issue is the future of the synagogue – in this instance, The Liberal Synagogue Elstree – and Liberal Judaism. We have 50% of our children receiving their Jewish education at Jewish schools and showing up to TLSE for the minimum amount of time required to meet our criteria for being permitted to celebrate a bar-/bat-mitzvah ceremony. Of the other 50%, perhaps half of them experience some form of Jewish education in our Religion School and associated shul-based activities. The rest show up at the age of twelve, join the Saturday morning class and, if they do not have a Hebrew-speaking relative, attend on Sunday mornings to take advantage of the Hebrew tuition that is on offer.


The twice-monthly Saturday morning bar-/bat-mitzvah class is also caught in the same Jewish school/non-Jewish school dilemma.  Some of its participants are at Orthodox Jewish schools, and so have been, and continue to be, exposed to a very traditional view of Judaism on a daily basis. Others have come through the Sunday Religion School, and so have a patchy knowledge of Judaism and Jewish history based on what is at best occasional attendance. Some have had no previous exposure to Judaism at all (including, incidentally, some who are children of non-Jewish mothers, meaning that they fail to meet anyone’s criteria of having Jewish status, not just ours – though it should be noted that children of Jewish mothers with a similar lack of Jewish education and input should also not be regarded as Jewish under Liberal rules). And virtually all of them have no exposure to or experience of Judaism in their homes, whatever their school environment might offer.


The aim of the Saturday morning class is to teach its participants that the Torah ‘…wasn’t just some peculiar relic from a bygone age, and that reading from it wasn’t just an unpleasant ordeal to mark this ancient rite of passage but was, in fact, an opportunity to engage with their ancestors’ struggle to understand their world and an encouragement to try and make sense of ours.  …to search for what this bar-/bat-mitzvah ceremony, this religion called Judaism was really all about: the quest for knowledge, understanding and wisdom…’ (Never Mind the Bullocks p. 125-6). This is hard to achieve when half the class doesn’t really know what the Torah is, while the other half have been repeatedly told by Jewish Studies teachers that it was all written by God. And their parents don’t really care what their children believe as long as someone else explains it to them so they don’t have to worry about it.


So who is left to stand at Sinai on this festival of Shavu’ot? The Exodus account of events at Sinai tells us ‘When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance.’ (20:18). The fear is diminishing, the distance is increasing. ‘The Divine presence recedes; the vision fades; the voice grows silent.’ (Machzor Ru’ach Chadashah, p.196).


What can be done to bring this wilderness generation back to Sinai?