TORONTO — Despite serious financial, demographic and cultural issues that have contributed to a decline in synagogue membership in recent years, Jonathan Sarna is confident that synagogues will succeed in meeting those challenges in the long term.
“Synagogues have changed time and again. They are nimble institutions,” said the Brandeis University professor of American Jewish history at a panel earlier this month at Beth Tzedec Congregation.
Sarna was keynote speaker at the event, which an estimated 300 people attended. Rabbi Martin Lockshin and Rabbi Miriam Margles, spiritual leaders, respectively, of the Toronto Partnership Minyan and the Danforth Jewish Circle, also spoke.
The panel – titled “The End of the Shul as We Know It? Crisis and Renewal in North American Synagogues” – was presented by the University of Toronto’s Centre for Jewish Studies, Holy Blossom Temple, and Beth Tzedec. Jeffrey Kopstein, political science professor and director of the centre, served as moderator.
Sarna outlined the three factors he feels have affected synagogue membership the most.
The economic downturn in North America about four years ago resulted in many congregations losing 15 to 25 per cent of their membership revenue, he said. Non-Orthodox synagogues suffered the most, he added.
But the funding problem “pales in comparison with the demographic problems,” Sarna said, referring especially to non-Orthodox synagogues.
“Now we’re seeing the impact of our unwillingness to talk about having children,” he added, citing late marriage, a high rate of intermarriage, and parents not having as many children as in the past.
From a “cultural” standpoint, the Internet and social media have also had an effect on synagogue affiliation, Sarna said. Young people “meet their friends on Facebook and Skype, so they have no particular need to meet them in synagogue.”
Also, he added, young adults are not interested in “continuity,” a former buzzword in the Jewish community.
“The people they respect are agents of change. Creating a new synagogue for the post-Internet age represents a huge challenge. At minimum, synagogues will need to focus on the value added by real connections over virtual ones.”
Things like music and food involve “real community,” he said. “You can’t participate in an Internet choir or an Internet feast. Some congregations are touting Shabbat as a time to disconnect.”
Among the proposals that have been suggested to help shuls address economic challenges, Sarna said Chabad’s “free” model is possibly the most successful.
“It relies heavily on voluntary giving, a huge amount of labour by the rabbi and his wife, and the sale of services like Shabbat dinners and nursery school.”
As well, he noted, efficiency in use of space – something he called a “hallmark” of Chabad – will become much more important to synagogues.
Independent minyanim, or synagogues without rabbis or permanent homes, are other low-cost alternative models, he added.
Sarna said that synagogues will have to reach out to growing numbers of Jewish singles and unaffiliated Jews. As well, “non-Orthodox congregations are going to have to turn to the disaffected children of the Orthodox.”
Rabbi Margles said that alternative congregations like hers, as well as one she worked at in Woodstock, N.Y., are “largely attractive to people who would otherwise not go near a shul.”
She talked of congregants who are “hungry for meaningful experience” and looking for community, but who don’t find it in mainstream synagogues.
In traditional synagogues, she said, “there often isn’t room or time, or inspiring guidance, or a sense of stillness, for shul to be a sense of deep spiritual explorations, and that’s a tremendous loss.”
She spoke of people who feel marginalized because they are gay, lesbian or bisexual, or feminist, or have a partner who isn’t Jewish.
As well, she added, many “feel attacked or silenced because of their beliefs or concerns about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and leave their synagogues “deeply hurt and angry, and not wanting anything to do with the Jewish community or Judaism… If we want people to come to shul, they have to feel welcome, wanted and valued… We have so much to learn from one another.”
Rabbi Lockshin said that his congregation is “part of a small movement trying to stir the pot and expand the roles of women” within Orthodoxy.
Partnership minyanim have a mechitzah, but allow women to read Torah and perform other religious tasks not usually permitted in traditional Orthodox synagogues.
Rabbi Lockshin said he is an unlikely spokesperson for independent minyanim, because he has always been a member of an “establishment” synagogue.
He believes that independent minyanim do “not constitute a large threat” to established synagogues. “The amount of work that has to be done by volunteers is daunting. We do not have the volunteer power to do this every week.” He suspects most participants are paying members at one or more mainstream synagogues.
“It’s my hope for the future here in North America that independent minyanim will find homes inside of large synagogues.”
That way, he said, they will benefit from the synagogues’ infrastructure, and the synagogues will benefit by harnessing the energy of the minyanim.