Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Too Much Real Estate, Too Few Jews: The Tragedy of the Synagogue

In Uncategorized on November 22, 2009 at 11:35 am

Well, this kind of says it all.  After revisiting my youth via the Coen Brothers distorted lens of sociology, I wonder about the future of the synagogue in America. For years, very large buildings have been subsidized by those who darken their doorstep a handful of days a year. Never has so much been paid for so little benefit.

These days of short dollars and rearranged priorities bring an end to the sense that synagogue membership is important regardless whether one attends regularly or not. These days, belonging, paying membership, to a shule exacts the scrutiny of a cost benefit analysis not unlike joining a gym, or a golf club. The shule competes for recreational hours as well as dollars, and the shule seems to be losing.

This is a tragedy because no Jewish environment is as self-evidently and unambiguously Jewish for young and old as a synagogue.  Stephen M. Cohen and Gary Tobin, with their statistical keen sense of the obvious,  will tell you that “spirituality” is the hook for the next generation, but of course, they can’t define it. It’s just obvious that it seems not to be found in the synagogue.

I would define spirituality in terms of what I hear from young people all the time. Here are some buzzwords: intimacy, community, engagement, fellowship, security that comes from being together focused on mutual wellbeing.  For them, this is what the Jewish context is supposed to serve and this cannot be realized in places perceived as large and impersonal–regardless of denomination.

Most communities now have too much square footage for too few Jews.  The solution seems to be obvious.  While merging synagogue cultures is fraught with difficulty, sharing space may not be.  Let small communities flourish and proliferate, but let’s give them a room instead of spending fortunes for buildings and their expensive maintenance.

Let heir be a Rav Shechunah (neighborhood rabbi) as they have in Israel, one Rav could serve multiple communities, making periodic appearances while members of these autonomous communities would run the day to day services for their particular minyan.  A community would only be considered viable if it were self sustaining–i.e. that they had a number of people who could lead services, read Torah, or had the capability to pay for it.

There would be opportunities for cooperative celebration for times when it suits the needs of the communities.  Each minyan could still decorate their own space or suite pending on their pocketbooks, but people would not be spending money on spaces that remain empty for large parts of the day or year.  People would not be lost among a sea of well healed parishioners, and people would feel that they are needed to step up and contribute as a necessary member of the community.

In Kansas City two congregations attempted to merge.  Many outsiders saw this as a positive move, but for reasons known primarily to the insiders, the merger failed.  There obviously was a clash of synagogue cultures, but with the model I have described, the cultures stay separate and in tact, only the bills are shared.  What is lost in autonomy is gained in efficiency, intimacy, and what people have chosen to define as spirituality.

These new communities should be centers where learning is a validated spiritual activity equal to, if not eclipsing, prayer.  They should be centers of Jewish celebration for their members and members of their (literally) next door neighbors. Everyone is in this together, but still has his unique voice preserved within the joyous noise of the collective.

If the Federations would subsidize this effort by helping with the rent for the buildings that would provide the space for these communities, some of the functions of the community centers could be realized there as well.

No doubt, there will always be large synagogues, but these days there are way too many of them and they are destined to remain empty most of the time.

In order to grow, it’s time to think small.

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