For years now, synagogues have struggled with the most basic of questions: how to get people – especially younger ones and those with growing families – to show up. Across North America, shul membership numbers are in near-continuous decline, and even with rabbis and lay leaders trying just about everything they can to bring new people in, or former attendees back, nothing seems to be working. The fact is, more and more Jews can’t find a shul to call home.
Which makes it odd, perhaps, that I call not one, but three synagogues home.
The first is the shul of my youth, where I grew up, made friends for life and learned valuable lessons about shared responsibility. It hasn’t had an official rabbi for decades now, and virtually all of the work it takes to keep a mid-sized minyan running – from leading prayers and learning programs, to managing finances, to preparing the weekly newsletter, to organizing the kiddush – is done on a rotating, volunteer basis. A lot of things about my childhood shul have changed over the years, but that central ethos hasn’t, and when I show up once every five or six weeks on a Shabbat morning, I can’t help but marvel at the collective spirit that still permeates the place.
The second is the shul of my present, a large synagogue with a team of rabbis on staff, a solid kiddush and a well-stocked daycare (which is where, if we’re being honest, I spend almost the entire service). Put it all together, and the sheer scope of programs and facilities ensures that my kids are routinely both asleep five minutes into the walk home. There are other shuls within closer walking distance, but none offer such a robust, reliable synagogue experience for my family and me, and so, even in the dead of winter, I still prefer the 35-minute walk (with a double stroller) to more local options. The destination makes it all worth it.
The third is the shul of my future, a modern, mostly young community of like-minded people trying to break barriers by combining an egalitarian spirit with the traditional Orthodox prayer service. It meets only once a month – for now, at least – in the common room of a condominium tower, and if 50 people show up, that’s a success. But just about everyone who davens there feels like they are building something, and many of them are discovering a shul they can be comfortable in for the first time. The question is whether this fledgling group will ever be able to take the next step and become a fully formed synagogue-community. It’s not a given, especially in this age, but they’re doing their best to make it happen, and that’s a win in and of itself.
I guess I’m lucky to feel comfortable in three different synagogues. I certainly recognize that my experience is the exception rather than the rule. But if my three shuls offer a unifying lesson, it’s that there are an abundance of synagogue options out there. And it’s a real shame that so many people are unable to find even one they can honestly call home.