Earlier this month, I had the privilege of hearing Prof. Jonathan Sarna discuss the ominous subject of the demise of the synagogue. Part sociology and statistics, part finger-wagging scolding of mainstream congregations, and part funny monologue, his main message was a challenge directly to the many community leaders and rabbis I saw in the audience: shape up, or the Jews will ship out.
I, too, can list all the failures of synagogue life, as he and the other panellists did, and they are many: Singles feel pushed out. Gays and lesbians don’t feel welcome. People with little kids are only interested in programming for pediatric Judaism. Empty-nesters fill the pews. Large congregations are anonymous, while small congregations burn out their few volunteers. Politics prevail over spirituality. We don’t talk about God enough. We talk about God too much. There’s nowhere for the marginalized to go. There’s nowhere for the observant left-wingers to go. People in their 20s and 30s can’t seem to get engaged, because they’re all on Facebook and Twitter and don’t crave real interaction. (Interestingly enough, when I – an oldtimer – went to tweet something Sarna said to my Twitter feed, I discovered to my horror that there was no Wi-Fi in the shul auditorium where the panel was being held.) And so on and so on.
There was much truth being spoken. I haven’t been a congregational rabbi for 20 years, but I’ve been a Jew in the pew a lot. I’ve seen all the failings of many of our community’s shuls, of all denominations. Yet I’ve also had some amazing and wonderful spiritual highs in synagogues. When? When my fellow congregants let go of their unrealistic and extraordinary expectations; whenever folks opened up to the spiritual nuances of Judaism and were able to let go of their “list” of what the “perfect” shul had to be for them on that particular day. When my fellow congregants were able to bring the best of themselves into the shul and share it generously with those around them, including the rabbi. When my fellow congregants stopped being consumers counting how much bang they were getting for their synagogue dues buck and starting asking, “What can I give back besides money? How can I make this a wonderful shul for others?”
I think the subject itself has two great flaws. The first is the assumption that the demise of the synagogue is fully and only the synagogue’s fault, and that a truly great synagogue is impossible – unless we look at “hip” new shuls in the United States, at their success at redefining membership or dues, or their Carlebach Friday-night synaplexes with seven-piece bands. Without looking at what makes a great congregant, and how synagogues can nurture – even expect – that kind of member, we’re only asking one side of the question. We cry a lot about the demise of the synagogue, but there’s also the demise of the congregant, the Jew ready to serve, ready to build, ready to give and ready to create the shul of their own dreams.
The second flaw is the assumption that independent minyanim or post-denominational synagogues are the answer. Without looking at what the legitimate movements of Judaism can offer and how they can speak to us in a clear and inspirational way, and without asking and listening to those who truly have found comfort and stability in their chosen movement, there is again only one side to the conversation.
Most Jews have some sort of knowledge about the main branches of Judaism – at least they know which shuls they wouldn’t be caught dead in and which organizations to ignore at fundraising times. But we’re woefully ignorant of what the denominations actually teach and preach, and we just might find kindred spirits and guiding principles in those organizations.
I left 20 years in adult education to return to the congregational rabbinate. I wouldn’t have done so if I thought we’re doomed to boring, stale and sterile synagogues that try and be all things to all people, or only demand, uninvolved and passive congregants who complain without putting in any effort to renew their own experience and challenge their own stereotypes. We all have to share the task of rebuilding the shul of the future – with enthusiasm and passion, not out of a sense of panic and defeat.