I have spent the last twenty years working in synagogues in different capacities. First as a Hebrew school teacher and youth director, and the last eight years as a rabbi. I have witnessed firsthand the benefits and challenges that synagogues face today. I have seen the ability of community to help those who are suffering, and the struggle of even large synagogues to meet the needs of a daily minyan. While I am not a demographic expert, I believe that there is an iceberg dead ahead for synagogues in North America.
At the core of the problem with synagogues is how the life of the synagogue is oriented. Most, if not all, North American synagogues revolve their weeks and calendars around Shabbat services. If you think about the staffing and training of a synagogue, you’ll notice an inherent contradiction in revolving around prayer. While some employ full-time cantors and musical directors, many synagogues operate with a rabbi as their sole clergy. You take a person, provide them with some (if not enough) pastoral training, educate them in Talmud and Torah for five years, and then place them in an institution that operates not as a center for Torah study or counseling, but one built around an entirely different medium–prayer. It would be as if you trained someone to be an ophthalmologist and then asked them to open a practice as a cardiologist; two related, but highly different areas of expertise.
Another problem with revolving synagogue life around prayer is that what we do at Shabbat services can hardly be classified as prayer. When the rabbis of the Talmud set out to replace the sacrificial system, they defined the experience of prayer as one in which the practitioner experiences “joy and trembling.” They were describing a moving spiritual experience in which a person connects with something greater than themselves. For the vast majority of people, this is a far cry from what they experience on a Shabbat morning.
Another problem are the prayers we read. When they were written, the dominant theology of the authors was that God was some sort of accountant-king who sat enthroned on high, judging us with scales of good and evil. In the 21st century, this theology of domination and submission has been replaced by one of cooperation and partnership between us and the Divine. The prayers we recite do not reflect this shift in theology. In addition, since the prayers were written in Hebrew, most of our congregants don’t understand the words, and if they did, they would no longer want to read them.
Two thousand years ago, the rabbis set out to replace sacrifice with a new form of worship. They took the idea of worship and applied it to an entirely different medium. That is exactly what successful communities are doing today. There has been a resurgence for many entrepreneurial communities, and that should give us some hope. People are still hungry for spirituality and a connection to something greater than themselves. We can look at many thriving communities that have sprouted up around the country and take solace in the fact that while synagogue membership is down, people still thirst for meaning that we can provide. To do this though, we must reorient ourselves around something else. Many of the entrepreneurial communities have revolved themselves around Shabbat dinners, cultural program, meaningful adult education and social action instead of a three-hour Shabbat morning service.
The future of the modern synagogue comes down to one question. Is it possible for synagogues with a great deal of institutional memory to radically reorganize themselves? Instead of pouring resources into services and a kiddush, are synagogues ready to experiment with a Saturday morning Torah study instead of prayer? Even more radically, instead of coming into a building for most of a weekend day, what if spiritual communities went out and took a Shabbat hike?
If non-orthodox Judaism is to have a vibrant future, it will be created outside of the sanctuary. I expect that it will likely take place beyond the walls of synagogues as well. If I am right, then the question is: Will congregational rabbis be bold enough to experiment with new ways for Jews to experience Jewish life or will they continue to put the majority of their efforts into leading religious services for fewer and fewer people?
The most successful communities have started to find alternative ways of organizing. Whether it’s around social justice, cultural or educational events, most thriving synagogues provide different types of engagement. The most successful communities know how to offer multiple entry points. We know that people still have a spiritual hunger, we just have to do a better job at meeting their needs. Instead of morning services, have a morning filled with study; instead of Friday night services, have a meditation or yoga session followed by Shabbat dinner. If that’s too scary, then pick and choose highlights from the prayer book and explain why those prayers are still meaningful.
Whatever we do, we need a new way to organize our communities based around a spirituality and lifestyle that better speaks to contemporary Jews. We need to do a better job at meeting people where they are instead of asking them to recite ancient Hebrew prayers. If we do this, we can build a brighter future than we can even imagine. If we do this, our synagogues and institutions can be transformed from empty palaces into spiritual homes that will nurture the Jewish soul for generations to come.
Rabbi Ben Goldstein serves Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, CA. Rabbi Goldstein has worked in the Jewish nonprofit world for the past 20 years and is passionate about blending non-dogmatic spirituality with the wisdom found in Judaism’s sacred texts. You can follow him on Twitter @rabbigoldstein_.