A season for everything, a time for every experience under heaven…
A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted…
A time for tearing down and a time for building up …
A time for keeping and a time for discarding…
A time for silence and a time for speaking… [Ecclesiastes 3:1-8]
All across the country, synagogues are finding themselves in trouble. In these economic hard times, it is no surprise that donations to religious organizations are down and that synagogues are facing an economic squeeze. But it is not the economy that is creating the bulk of this problem. The real trouble that congregations are finding is a drop in membership and a lack of concern by the larger Jewish community.
It is not a problem unique in the Jewish community to synagogues. Federations and Jewish communal organizations that rely on donations are also feeling pressure. Without a credible number of volunteers to assist any Jewish organization, all of our communal institutions are at risk.
The reason for this drop in interest in synagogues and in the Jewish community, is the result of our collective inability to acknowledge a demographic and the spiritual shift that has been going on for the past decade or more. We have closed our eyes to the situation, usually assuming that if we work harder we can win back those who have left us. I am reminded of a story about a fly trying to get through a glass window by trying harder and harder to break through. There is a door open about ten yards in the other direction but the fly does not see the open door and the easy path to all the fly desires. He only hears the voice, “try harder” and so he tries and tries to break through the glass, and he will die on the window sill.
We see the goal clearly, to serve and lift up the Jewish community of America. We seek nothing less than addressing their spiritual, emotional and educational needs. And if they don’t know what they need, we will tell them. But they do know what they need, and they are telling us, but we are not listening. Instead of paying attention to their needs we are working harder than ever to give them what they don’t want and we are surprised that our efforts do not bear fruit. We are dying in plain view of the goal that we seek but for some reason, we don’t change direction or our approach.
What has changed that we don’t see? First of all there is the demographic shift. The young, professional Jews today are not similar to those that lived just twenty years ago. Synagogues for the past fifty years have been built on the backs of their schools, with the assumption that if we bring in the children, we will bring in their parents as well. It never really worked right, but it did work. Seventy percent of Jews at any given moment were not members of any synagogue but almost all of them had been part of a synagogue at one point or another in their lives. We took that as a given; that we could not hold onto a member for life, so we tried replacing those who left us with new younger families just starting out. Each family was good, on average, for seven years, about the time it took to have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah for two children. After that, maybe a youth group could keep a family around for a few more years, and if we got lucky and the parents did get involved in the culture of the synagogue, we might have a few more years until they burned out or moved away.
But a funny thing began to happen. Jews who used to marry and have children in their early twenties began to wait, and wait and wait. Suddenly 20 and 30 year old Jews were mostly single or just living together. Marriage was held off until they were in their late thirties and forty year old Jews were parents of preschool age children. Synagogues that relied on their school found that they had to wait an additional decade to attract young families to replace those who were leaving. But ten years of living without a synagogue indicated to these families, that they really didn’t need a synagogue at all in their lives. After all, where was the synagogue when they were single? It is a good question. We never reached out to young Jewish singles. Synagogue programming was always for children and families.
Then there is the technological revolution. Jewish communal institutions fell behind as technology surged ahead. Only a handful of synagogues set up websites and those that did, often never took the time to keep them updated. Shining on the home page was a picture of the synagogue building. Followed by information about last year’s Purim party. But buildings don’t draw in people, nor does an out of date web page. What was minimally needed were pictures of people having fun and a list of things that are happening they would want to attend. But even as new Jewish web pages open, synagogues still find themselves behind the technology curve.
New congregations have been starting out by going viral. Minyanim in Los Angeles, Manhattan and many other cities started out merely by setting up a web page and announcing on the internet that those interested should come to a service. Social networking, Facebook and Twitter quickly gathered an interested crowd. Rather than publishing a Shabbat announcement brochure, most information in these new congregations is spread by website. And yet many established congregations do not invest even minimally in technology and continue to hire personnel who have little or no internet experience. To almost everyone under 50, if something is not on the internet, it does not exist. They don’t go to restaurants that don’t have an online menu, they don’t go to stores that don’t have a web page and they have little interest in a synagogue that does not list its activities on the internet.
The Jews we are seeking have needs that are vastly different than the needs of Jews just two decades ago. It is not just about singles vs. married Jews. Young Jews today do not need synagogues or Jewish organizations for their social life. Young and mid-life Jews already have sophisticated networks of friends and favorite things to do. These Jews do not feel limited in life by antisemitism or prejudice. The entire social network of a synagogue, and the networking that used to be such an important part of synagogue life is no longer needed. The internet connects them to friends and entertainment. Cable television offers hundreds of channels to keep them home and movie theaters offer 16 or more screens so that there is always something to do. Young single Jews today live in gentrified sections of downtown, where they are near work and near trendy bars and restaurants. They live in apartment buildings that have fitness centers. There is no way for a synagogue to be the center of their social life.
Jews today wait longer to have children. This means that a Religious school can no longer be the center of synagogue life. For too long our Religious school was the reason a synagogue existed. We wanted to train young Jews figuring that some day they would grow up to be involved in the Jewish community. The Jewish population surveys tell a different story. Religious school did not help raise up a new generation of committed Jews. Many Jews today feel that Religious schools actually drove them away from synagogues. They learned that Jewish education was only for children and when they became an adult, they had no need for Jewish learning. Many times the curriculum of Religious schools never developed beyond fifth grade and the students only learned how to game the system until a Bar or Bat Mitzvah and then they were done. Population surveys tell us that Jewish summer camps and Israel experiences were far more influential to a child’s Jewish education than Religious school. Our education of teens was almost non existent, and we have learned that teens and young twenty somethings are at the most critical time in their Jewish education. And we offer them next to nothing.
If these are the problems, what are the solutions. There are three areas that need to become the core mission of a synagogue if it wishes to thrive and grow.
First, we need to actively invite adults into meaningful programs of Adult Jewish Education. Young and mid-life Jewish adults are looking to be engaged by their Judaism. They are looking for teachers who will let them grapple with texts, will encourage them to engage in discussions on how Judaism speaks to the moral, ethical and spiritual life they are seeking. They want to read source texts on how Judaism wants them to act in family, business and social situations. They want to know that Judaism is a living religion that has something to say about what is going on in their lives. Surveys, overviews and beginners’ lessons can not be all that we offer. These classes need to be followed up with more advanced level classes. We are all guilty of not providing the advanced level of Judaica that these Jews are requesting. In 1950, many Jewish adults had skipped college to provide for their family during the depression or had joined the U.S. Army to serve in WWII. Today, our population has multiple advanced degrees and has little patience for beginners’ classes. We need to provide for them the serious education they require. We need to heavily invest in teachers and materials for advanced Jewish learning. The Melton program has shown us that money is not the deterrent to Jewish learning. If we offer high level classes and clear parameters for learning, we can attract Jews to Jewish learning. Melton does it without synagogues; I believe the learning could even be more significant if it was done under the auspices of synagogues.
Second, Jews today want to pray. For many years, synagogues often acted as if we did not want people to pray; we thought Jews were looking to be an audience. Cantors and Rabbis for years ran the show from an elevated bima at the front of the room. The congregation just watched or followed along in the siddur. Today, Jews want to lead the service and are willing to learn what they need to know so that they have this skill. They look to Rabbis and Cantors to be their teachers and guides. Jews today prefer services led from the center of a circle or from a stand in the middle of the congregation so that they feel like they are an important part of what prayer is all about. A modern synagogue must understand that the days of “one size fits all” services are over. There needs to be multiple minyanim; one for those who like to sing, one for those who like traditional melodies, and one for those who are looking to pray in a learning environment. Some may want quick davening and some may want more singing. Some may look for a teacher to give a D’var Torah; others may want to lead the teaching themselves. We need to have a big enough tent to include everyone in our buildings.
Additionally,I believe that we are also experiencing a new golden age in Jewish music. There seems to be little interest among young Jews who want to pray to listen to a Cantor sing. Jews today are interested in melodies that are easy to learn, upbeat and with enough repetition so that, if you don’t know the tune at the beginning of the prayer, you are singing along at the end. They would rather chant a wordless niggun then to listen to a Hazzan lead a service. I know of Cantors that have embraced this new music and have had much success in guiding others how to use it to lead a service. I have also seen Cantors who belittle this music and insist that the only “real” cantorial music is that from the beginning of the last century. While there is still a following for this kind of music among seniors, and this music may have some life yet on the concert circuit, old style cantorial music is quickly becoming a liability for congregations seeking new, younger members. The issue is not about using musical instruments on Shabbat. I don’t think that younger Jews really care at all about the pros and cons of this discussion. It is all about if the music itself is engaging and uplifting. The rest is merely a matter of personal preference. If the music is right, whether or not there is a guitar, flute, piano or if it is all acapella, just is not an issue.
Finally, Jews today, young and mid-life Jews, want to know that they have made a difference in the world. Many of them were responsible for service projects in high school and took social action spring breaks in college. Now they are successful in business but they look out the windows of their corner offices and wonder if their lives have made any difference to the world at all. Social Action/Political Action (SA/PA) is missing in their lives and synagogues are in a unique position to provide guidance in this area. Certainly there are some standard projects that need to continue. Services to the elderly, to the homeless and hungry are all important. Giving to Federation and other Jewish causes is also part of this mix. But these Jews want to get their hands dirty. I have seen synagogues start food co-ops to provide local grown food for their members, organizing farmers’ markets in their parking lots. A bus load of Jews has gone way out of town to help an organic farmer weed his garden. Picking up litter from the highway, mentoring at risk students, writing to legislators and lobbying for Jewish causes, writing letters to the editor and opinion columns for newspapers and blogs are other possible projects. Party politics may not be the best course for a synagogue but there are a host of issues that are non-partisan and even issues of interest for interfaith dialogue that all can be part of a congregational SA/PA program.
To do all of this, a synagogue needs to be connected to the world. Sections of the synagogue should have a wireless connection to the internet so meetings can be enhanced with video conferencing and so that questions can be quickly answered. Information should be distributed through websites and social networking sites. Synagogues should make sure that almost all office transactions can be performed on the internet even if the synagogue office is closed. (We find that parents often are online late at night and this is when they decide to attend a synagogue event.) In our 24/7 world, it is important for synagogues to at least be open 24/6. Should the daily minyan be able to text a call for the tenth person?
There are still issues with synagogues that remain unresolved. There is a great question about whether or not a synagogue needs a big building anymore. In an age where everything can be outsourced, we may not need to maintain expensive buildings. Meetings can be held in a multipurpose room or in the homes of members. Sanctuaries may need movable seating rather then fixed pews so that the room can be flexible for when there are more or less people praying and so that the room can be used for more than one or two days a week. Clearly when there are multiple minyanim sharing the space, a larger building with many prayer/meeting spaces can work. It may be better for everyone if smaller groups can come together to share space and responsibilities and maybe share volunteers so that empowered Jews can pray and be involved in different activities as their personal/family situation evolves over time.
Dues are another difficult issue. Should there be membership in the community or should it all be a la carte? Do we need large staffs to do the work or should we go small and rely on volunteers to carry much of the heavy lifting at the synagogue? Can we raise enough from the sale of holiday tickets and donations to keep synagogue doors open? Should we look to a “community organizing” model where people who are served pay to keep the service going? Does a synagogue need to provide food after every service or should we rely on our members to sponsor a kiddush by actually bringing food rather than just making a donation?
There is a difficult issue of Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Can we continue to turn an entire service over to the family of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah for their “event” or is it even possible to limit the celebration to just one small part of a Shabbat Service? Does a synagogue have control over the services or can families create their own service that takes place under the synagogue “umbrella” but not necessarily in the “main” service\?. Should there be celebrations in the “auxiliary” minyanim or do all life cycle celebrations have to be a part of the “main” service? There may not be one answer to all of these questions.
We need to stop arguing the details of Halacha. Other than Rabbis and synagogue officers, Jews today do not care at all about the things we are arguing. They don’t care about the length of the service, they don’t care about musical instruments. They are not concerned with the details of Kashrut. They are not concerned with riding on Shabbat. Once they are a part of a community/synagogue that meets their educational and spiritual needs, they will follow along the halachic path that comes with it. After all, Chabad does not seem to have a problem with their Orthodoxy once they have attracted the many Jews who came looking for serious learning and prayer. How much more so will modern Jews be comfortable in an egalitarian synagogue that welcomes mixed marriages and gay singles and families?
Clearly there are more questions than answers but these are the parameters of the directions we need to address. Synagogues can not act like General Motors and assume that people will always want to buy whatever it is that we are selling. That proved to the be short path to bankruptcy. To grow and flourish, we need to rethink the primary mission of a congregation. Synagogues can no longer be a Beit Tefillah, Beit Sefer and Beit Kenesset, a house of prayer, study and assembly. We need to establish our mission around actions: Torah, Avoda and Gemilut Hasadim; Study, Prayer and Acts of Kindness/Tzedakah. We need to listen more to the needs of Jews today and retool our most basic institutions to serve our community.
Rabbi Tarfon teaches: The day is short, the task is great, the workers are indolent but the reward is great and the Master is insistent. [Pirke Avot 2:20]
Let us move forward together.