This past shabbat we had a dip in attendance with many people attending a Shabbat spectacle across town. We had no clergy in attendance, not Rabbi, not Hazzan. Even our cadre of Bimah performers was a little schvok. But a core of capable volunteers led the liturgy from beginning to end, even starting on time. Another person gave a thoughtful sermon of the right length and memorable insight. Some women prepared a glorious Kiddush for us afterwards, complete with the unusual delicacies of roll mop herring and cheesecake plus the usually present scotch and Canadian whiskeys. It was definitely the more shabbos-like place to be. Might clergy be a deterrent to attendance? Maybe even the impediment to kavannah?
.Rabbi Herring who established a now dormant project not that many years ago to make worship in the synagogue a more engaging experience than many of us find it posted a blog entry recently examining the changing role of the Rabbi in the synagogue.
Emcee, host, facilitator, Chief Resident, sage, CEO perhaps. Would it be better for him not to be there or for me not to be there on shabbos morning? The experiment with me not being there has been conducted innumerable times, making it pretty safe to conclude that my presence does not particularly matter one way or another. Unless somebody takes attendance, my presence or absence really has no impact. In some ways the congregation is like the army, there is a cadre of people who are needed and appear when needed. A few get an honorable discharge from the congregation after the last child's Bar Mitzvah, a few go AWOL, but once the proper head count has been achieved and the technical expertise of the bimah participants has been put in place, the companies, battalions, and divisions have little impact in the sanctuary though quite a lot of aggregate impact on the finances. That is why synagogue buildings for the last fifty years have been architecturally designed with relatively small amounts of sacred space and a lot more square footage devoted to classrooms or other areas of non-worship assembly. But the Rabbi provides a focus. Yes, the proceedings will go on in his absence but only to the extent that baalebatim insist on it by applying their personal skills.
So last shabbat, we had some very good baalebatim supplemented by a general attendance that valued their experience in our sanctuary more than they valued the prospect of being amid anyone who's anyone at the synagogue across town. I think many of the people who remain loyal to shabbos and to worshipping at their synagogue most weeks acquired that habit through their Hillel experiences in college or Jewish camping experience, both largely devoid of professional clergy, as are the increasingly popular transdenominational experiences. They are the people who make shabbos happen, though not necessarily every week. If you really want it every week, you need to hire a professional.