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    Putting synagogue members on probation

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared in the Jewish Chronicle (London) on 21 October, 1988.

    Perennial discussion about the wearing of black ties and dinner suits on Kol Nidre night brings to mind sartorial problems encountered in many Australian synagogues.

    After a Maccabi Shabbat service one year, marking the annual interstate Jewish sports carnival, a team official anxiously asked whether I had objected to male team members coming to shule in open-necked shirts and sports blazers. I replied that I did not consider this in any way unseemly; the teams came as Maccabi members and were dressed as such.

    But then I started thinking about the whole subject. What is seemly in the synagogue?

    From the point of view of what one wears to shule, the Australian climate and way of life make it inappropriate to expect the same formality that I was used to in England, though worshippers must, of course, show some commonsense and recognise that the synagogue is admat kodesh, a holy place.

    On Shabbat mornings, I generally see little that is unacceptable in terms of patterns of dress. But I must say that sometimes — at bar-mitzvahs and weddings, for example — there are problems, such as ladies who come in clothing that is provocatively revealing (one wonders whether they have any notion of seemliness) and men without head-covering (and I am not speaking about gentile visitors). How can they imagine that a handkerchief or a piece of paper on the head is seemly or dignified?

    There are other sartorial problems we all tend to encounter, such as men normally possessed of a good dress sense-who wear a crumpled, frayed and shabby tallit which has not seen tzitzit on the corners for many a year.

    But the question of seemliness goes far beyond dress. It surely applies, too, to:
    • so-called worshippers who sit in synagogue with a Siddur upside-down and unopened;

    • people who know they are to be called to the Torah and whose Hebrew is not so good, but who make no effort to rehearse the b’rachot beforehand or obtain a copy of the text in transliterated English letters;

    • parents who turn the synagogue into a baby-sitting service, depositing their children-there before going off to work or to a sports match or other un-Sabbatical pursuits;

    • those who talk non-stop during a service, including the sermon, and then complain that it’s hard to hear the rabbi or chazan. The truth is that every word, of a service or sermon is audible — if people will listen;

    • people who insist on having bar-mitzvah or wedding ceremonies at an Orthodox synagogue, but who see nothing incongruous in proceeding straight to a non-kosher reception;

    • those who are mightily concerned with their own koved in shule (God forbid they aren’t noticed and honoured!), but somehow don’t bother to come the following week to honour others — or even to honour the Almighty!

    Seemliness is an essential ingredient, of a synagogue. In shule, the
    rule is, as the customary inscription over the Ark reminds us, “Know before Whom you stand.”

    Moving beyond the somewhat superficial, let us consider what shule membership involves, or ought to involve.

    In Australia, as in Britain, there is a fairly high rate of synagogue affiliation: about two-thirds of the community belong to congregations.

    (There is, of course, a major problem presented by the remaining one-third, who are quite shameless in making the fullest use, when they need them, of the rabbis and religious facilities provided by the membership fees of those who responsibly accept their financial obligations.)

    But my question at this moment concerns not the non-members, but the members. Do they make the most of their synagogue affiliation, or do they punctually (more or less) pay their membership fees and then sit back with a satisfied feeling and consider that duty has been done?

    For such people, the synagogue is almost a form of idol-worship. They worship the building (“What a beautiful synagogue I belong to!”). They worship the thought of membership (“I belong to the most prestigious synagogue in the community!”). They worship their ancestors (“My family have belonged to the synagogue for countless generations!”).

    But does affiliation to the synagogue call them to the worship of God? Does it impose on them high and demanding ethical and moral standards? Does it give them the instinctive feeling that they have to get to know more about their faith? Does it proclaim to them the words of the prophet, “the religious person must live by his faith”?

    We need a complete rethinking of the qualifications and criteria required for synagogue membership.

    In one congregation I know, you cannot join unless you keep Shabbat. In another, your synagogue seat depends not on what you pay, but on whether you attend regularly and render service to the community.

    There are congregations (mostly in the United States) where a condition of membership is that you give — whether a lot or a little, but something — to Israel.

    William B. Silverman once wrote an article advocating probationary membership of synagogues. “The ability to pray,” he argued, “must have a higher priority than the ability to pay. An applicant for synagogue membership must undertake a period of intensive study in Judaism, with required attendance at worship services, and some service rendered to the synagogue and the Jewish community.

    “A board of review, consisting of the rabbi and lay members of the congregation, should interrogate the applicants, both husband and wife, and their children, at the completion of the ‘year of probation,’ to determine whether they have qualified for membership in terms of Jewish knowledge, attitudes and practices” (“Jewish Spectator,” March/April, 1965).

    This sounds tough. But what is the rule in, for instance, Rotary if a member fails to attend a given number of meetings? What happens in other organisations if a member does not pull his weight? Why should the synagogue not make demands of members in religious as well as financial terms?

    True, we can do without the distasteful notion of the rabbi and board operating an inquisition. But in less formal terms we must find a way of helping members to recognise that joining £he congregation involves them in inescapable commitments — specially in terms of living a religious life.

    Will we lose members this way? I don’t believe it. A moving book called “The Shabbat,” by Samuel H. Dresner, offers a comment about Shabbat that applies to Judaism as a whole:

    “We have underestimated the American Jew. He is no longer running away from Judaism. The challenge of the total Sabbath as an answer to the problems of modern man may find a deep and enthusiastic response oh the part of thousands of Jews who are genuinely seeking a way of Jewish living and thinking…”

    In many a place, there are synagogues famous for pioneering significant communal developments and movements. Surely there are synagogues prepared to give a, lead in this crucial area, too — to show they are congregations that believe it is unseemly to belong to a synagogue without living by the principles it stands for.

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