Synagogues Failed But They Can Recover
By: Rabbi Michael Knopf
The Jewish blogosphere and institutional world are alight discussing the Pew Research Center Survey of American Jews. Among other things, the study found that religious identification and belief in God is dropping in non-Orthodox segments of the Jewish world, while intermarriage and denominational disaffiliation is rising. As a congregational rabbi in the Conservative movement, the denomination that has been rapidly losing the most market-share, I have to admit that the findings, while alarming in some ways, were mostly unsurprising. Other statistics, along with personal observation, have been bearing out this reality for years.
Over the last decade, my colleagues and I have witnessed the shuttering of six percent of Conservative congregations. The remaining synagogues have declined. Membership in large Northeastern Conservative congregations, for example, has dropped 30 percent in the last decade. Since most synagogue budgets are tied to membership, many now face serious financial difficulties. The Reform movement has declined, too, though not quite as precipitously.
Many Jewish leaders, especially those from Gen X and the Millennial Generation, do not need a multimillion-dollar study to understand how this has happened, and also how we can reverse it. Consider this profound observation in the Pew report: The "shift in Jewish self-identification reflects broader changes in the U.S. public. Americans as a whole – not just Jews – increasingly eschew any religious affiliation. Indeed, the share of U.S. Jews who say they have no religion (22 percent) is similar to the share of religious “nones” in the general public (20 percent), and religious disaffiliation is as common among all U.S. adults ages 18-29 as among Jewish Millennials (32 percent of each).” What’s happening in the Jewish world mirrors what is happening in other religions.
The observation points to Pew’s landmark 2008 study of religion in America, which noted a sharp rise in those who rejected institutional religious attachments, especially among the young. The findings of that study, like the one on the Jewish population, are far from clear-cut. For example, the 2008 study found that two-thirds of those who said they had no religion believe in God. More than half deeply and spiritually connect with nature. More than a third consider themselves “spiritual," though they balk at being called “religious." Twenty percent pray daily. The study goes on to show how Americans continue to find ways to connect spiritually even as affiliation in religious centers drops dramatically.
The most recent Pew study confirms that even young and “non-religious” Jews still care deeply about their Jewish identities and spiritual lives. It shows steady numbers of Jews participating in a range of Jewish activities. That means Jews still want real community, deep learning and vibrant prayer. They want to be and do Jewish, but view synagogue membership as unnecessary to those ends. Perhaps the most critical statistic is that 75 percent of Jews say they have “a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people,” yet a much smaller percentage belong to synagogues. If synagogues truly facilitate a sense of Jewish belonging, they should be booming. So why aren't they?
Primarily, I think, because we struggle to foster meaningful community. Many disaffected Jews have told me that they experience traditional synagogues as prioritizing policies and membership numbers over people. Synagogues care about how many people show up, but they do not care about the people who show up or about how many meaningful relationships are formed. Membership, meanwhile, is constructed as a fee-for-service exchange rather than a vigorous communal commitment. In that context, people will always feel disengaged, at least until they need a particular service.
Additionally, most of the survey respondents who identify as having no religion do not believe that traditional institutions are places to nourish their mind, heart or soul. They see them, in the words of the 2008 study, as being “too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules,” and not enough on matters of spiritual significance. Traditional synagogues tend to have rigid boundaries, entrenched hierarchies and complex bureaucracies. A Jewish population that is embracing rapidly evolving norms on wedge issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, same-sex marriage and religiously blended families, sees synagogue culture as political and stagnant. To engage a mobile, egalitarian and inventive population that has looser ties, gravitates toward innovation and expects to be heard, synagogues have to shift their culture.
On top of this, new technology has sparked radical, world-shrinking and democratizing changes. Synagogues haven’t adequately understood or responded to these shifts. Americans today have come to expect personalized consumer experiences, instant access to exactly the service or product they want, and not paying for things they can get cheaper or free elsewhere. Is it any wonder that Jews are leaving behind the pricey, one-size-fits-all model of the traditional synagogue for an a la carte, D.I.Y., pay-as-you-go approach to their Jewish lives? I can effortlessly find a freelance Bar Mitzvah tutor. I can readily rent a rabbi to officiate at my family’s lifecycle events. I can access all the Jewish information I could ever possibly need, for free, on the Internet. Want to take a Jewish class? Just log onto the iTunes store. Have a Jewish question? Just Google it.
Meanwhile, Chabad gives away what synagogues charge for, and outside the Jewish world, meaning-making is a boom industry. Oprah plays rabbi to millions. Jews who are otherwise not engaged Jewishly seek spiritual experiences like meditation and yoga. People are loyal not to their tribe, but to the best and most meaningful experiences they can afford. If they're not coming to synagogue, it's not because they aren’t seeking meaning and spirituality. Quite the contrary, there's widespread hunger for faith. People just don’t find it at synagogue.
These are all major challenges, but surmountable ones. In fact, I see a vision of a successful synagogue embedded in this data. This synagogue of the future never stops experimenting and innovating in order to fulfill its mission of improving lives through the power of Jewish wisdom and practice. It seeks new ways to bring meaningful and relevant Judaism to people, wherever they may be. Programs and even religious services are not all held in its building, or exclusively for its members. It defines success not by how many people belong, but by how many souls it touches, the quality of relationships it helps form, and the extent to which everyone feels valued and included.
More than dues, becoming a member of this future synagogue entails a process of learning and relationship-development. Members are held accountable for their adherence to the community’s inclusive principles, based on the axioms that all are created in God’s image and human dignity outweighs all other commandments. People of all ages, relationship statuses, genders, sexual orientations and even religious affiliations feel fully at home at this synagogue.
I see a synagogue that bravely addresses contemporary issues and catalyzes action; a synagogue that works to alleviate the plight of those urgently in need through gemilut hesed, loving deeds; and strives to build a more equitable and peaceful world through the active pursuit of tzedek, justice. This future synagogue works relentlessly to provide worship and learning that is emotionally dynamic, spiritually resonant and personally relevant, in short, to ensure that its "product" is worth the expense. It is better, faster, and more flexible at addressing people’s spiritual needs. It doubles down on relationships, prioritizing people over policies and channeling resources to community building.
Synagogues already have much of what they need to flourish once again. We have the financial means to address virtually any challenge if we are imaginative and strategic about how to utilize them. We have passionate and devoted armies of clergy, staff and lay leaders who are committed to our highest ideals. We can harness timeless and compelling Torah to offer unparalleled illuminating, inspiring and transformative experiences.
The Pew study was yesterday. Synagogues, today is our chance to respond to this changed reality. Tomorrow depends on it.
Rabbi Michael Knopf is the Assistant Rabbi at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley. A portion of this post was originally part of a High Holidays sermon.