Faith Focus: What is a synagogue in a lockdown world?

Like all religious communities in Hertfordshire, our synagogue of about 200 families has had to adapt dramatically to our new reality during the COVID-19 pandemic. Without the possibility of meeting in person we’ve had to ask ourselves: what is a synagogue?

Let’s start with language. Anyone with a cursory familiarity with Hebrew will identify that ‘synagogue’ is not a Hebrew word. Strangely, the place where Jews gather to pray and to study is described by a Greek word, meaning ‘assembly’!

The word is probably a translation of the Hebrew name, Bét hakK’nesset (The House of Assembly). Notably, this is different from our Abrahamic relatives, who label their spaces ‘Church’ (probably from ‘The Lord’s House’) and ‘Masjid’ (‘Place of Worship’). Names matter, and to an extent they tell us about the things that they name.

A synagogue is not a place solely to pray or worship, nor somewhere we believe God resides. Instead, a synagogue is more akin to a community centre than a ‘house of worship’. Yes, we do meet to recite our prayers together, but it is so much more than that, with education, socialisation, and critically, eating taking a far more central place in a synagogue’s life than prayer.

To that end, our digital ‘synagogue’ is both easy and hard. Easy because we can still learn together via Zoom, socialise on screen and have coffee mornings and quiz nights – though the catering is somewhat lacking!

It is hard because we can’t really pray. To pray in Judaism requires a quorum of 10 people to be in the same room, and a Zoom room doesn’t count.

We’re having to consider carefully how to broaden Judaism beyond the walls of the synagogue, and beyond the confines of prayer. However, as the language demonstrates, that’s always been the intention – to have a place to gather, but not to be the be-all and end-all of Jewish life.

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So, thankfully, the synagogue will sustain itself – because it is the people, not the place – and we will carry on learning, praying, sharing, and eating, whether in our new digital reality or in the much-missed familiar old analogue synagogue.

Adam Zagoria-Moffet is the rabbi of St Albans Masorti Synagogue, a Jewish community serving Hertfordshire and surrounding areas.