What the [UK’s] General Election can Teach our Synagogues

In the words of Isaac Bashevis Singer “we know what a person thinks not when they tell us what they think, but by their actions.”

By Rabbi Danny Burkeman

As the dust settles on the recent General Election the campaigns and results have come in for widespread retrospective scrutiny. Despite living in the United States, having followed the campaign, I was delighted to be able to watch the bulk of the results come in live. Seeing the commentators, as well as many politicians, struggle to make sense of the unanticipated outcome added to the interest of the evening.

I am a Rabbi, not a political analyst, but I believe the election results offer a number of important lessons for our work in synagogues.

The day before the election the opinion polls suggested a very tight race between the Conservatives and Labour. The result proved very different, with the Conservatives gaining an unexpected overall majority; while Labour’s 232 seats were significantly lower than forecast. The analysis of the Labour defeat will continue for some time, with many divergent opinions. Several commentators have suggested that Labour simply didn’t offer the people what they wanted; as David Miliband said: “they didn’t want what was being offered.”

In synagogues we may have many programs we want to offer, but the leadership, especially the Rabbis, need to be conscious that what we want to offer may not be what our members want to receive. We need to meet people where they are, not where we want them to be. They will ultimately “vote” with their feet so we need to be conscious of what they want, and what we are willing and able to do within our understanding of Judaism and synagogue life. Otherwise just like Labour we could see many more empty seats.

The other major loser was clearly the Liberal Democrats, crashing to 8 seats; they are now a shell of their former selves. Their defeat, as Nick Clegg acknowledged, appeared to be as a result of their entry into the Coalition; it is likely that without their support the Conservatives would have been unable to govern for a full term; the Liberal Democrats kept the institution standing at tremendous cost to themselves and to the dissatisfaction of their members.

Often in synagogues we expend significant amounts of energy in protecting structures and programs because that is the way it has always been. We need to be aware that times change and if our members no longer want such programs we have to be willing to think differently. Programs and activities desired by synagogue members in the 1980s are not necessarily what people want today. Refusing to be flexible may mean our members become unhappy and desert the synagogue.

Despite gaining 12.6% of the national vote, UKIP were still losers, gaining only one seat; their result stands in contrast to the focused SNP who received 56 seats for just 4.7% of the national vote. This reminds us in our synagogues that we need to be focused, we cannot do everything at once, and if we want to be successful in bringing about change it needs to be gradual with a step-by-step approach.

The success of the SNP offers other lessons; coming hot on the heels of their defeat in the recent referendum on Scottish independence (a reminder that we need to be prepared to fail forward). The people of Scotland voted to remain part of the union, but they then voted, en masse, for the nationalist party at the next opportunity. They remind us that we have significant numbers of people who want to remain part of our synagogue communities, but also want to have their say on the direction those communities are going in.

Finally, the biggest winners were the Conservatives; despite the polls suggesting it would be a challenging night for David Cameron the public gave them an overall majority. Since the election people have talked about “shy Tories”, people who didn’t want to share their Conservative support with pollsters.

We can ask people what they want from their synagogues, but they won’t always tell us the whole truth. Telling the Rabbi that you don’t like the format of Shabbat services or aren’t interested in adult education can be difficult, and advocating for major changes can be overwhelming. In the words of Isaac Bashevis Singer “we know what a person thinks not when they tell us what they think, but by their actions.” People come to the synagogue events and programs they want to and ignore the ones that are of no interest. Rather than listening to the polls we have to see what works and what doesn’t work, it is essential that we communicate with our communities.

The General Election might not have been intended as a lesson about synagogues, but it offers some important insights. We might not have an election to worry about, but if we don’t listen we might very soon find ourselves out of office.

Rabbi Danny Burkeman is a member of the rabbinic team at The Community Synagogue, Port Washington, New York.

This article originally appeared in The Jewish News, Britain’s biggest Jewish newspaper; reprinted with permission.