It’s time for the Suburban Synagogue … Again

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in eJP in September 2019. It takes on added significance in light of the trend during the Covid-19 pandemic to leave cities and take up residence in suburban neighborhoods.  

Ten years ago, I became a rabbi and, over that time, I have to confess that I have frequently broken one of the Ten Commandments. I have coveted. I have coveted as I have seen the attention and accolades that have been given to Jewish communal startups. I have coveted as I read about the programs and experiences that these communities were able to offer. And I have coveted as I have read about foundations pouring money into these emergent Jewish communities, all the while reinforcing the conventional and frequently incorrect wisdom that synagogues are dying. Newsflash: We are not dying – in fact many of us are thriving! 

When I emerged from five years of rabbinical school, I was committed to working in a synagogue. I grew up in a congregation that was a home away from home for me and my family and I wanted to be part of sharing that with a community of my own. I began my rabbinate in a mega-urban congregation with a primary focus on young adult engagement. And in that role, I borrowed from and was inspired by the work of many of these emergent Jewish communities, some that I had experienced personally and others that I had read about. The important distinction for me was that this work was taking place in a synagogue community, a place that these young adults could join in their 20s and 30s and hopefully eventually share with their own families.

I loved the work, but I was aware that, whatever success we might have had with the local young adult population, the majority of them would not walk into a synagogue (or any other Jewish institution) until they began their own families (as is the traditional flow of Jewish life). I wanted a different type of connection. And so, after two years, I took a pulpit in a suburban synagogue. In my urban synagogue it had often felt like the day began around 4pm as schools finished and people started to arrive at our door. I wanted to be a part of a community where I engaged with people morning, noon, and night. I found this in the “traditional” (suburban) synagogue. The young adults were still in their 30s but now they frequently had children and sometimes mortgages, and I had a community to serve from across the generations, engaging with people of all ages and stages of life. This was the sacred work that I wanted to do; but I still looked over my shoulder at the emergent communities, gaining ideas from the work that they were doing.

My frustration came from the fact that, rather than simply supporting the work of these emergent communities, many academics, analysts and opinion leaders and the foundations they influenced seem to advocate an anti-synagogue agenda. These groups took pride in rejecting synagogue as a part of their identity. And it felt like the Jewish community was preparing itself for a new dawn with the death of the synagogue and something new emerging. In one fellowship in which I had the privilege of participating, I felt that there was an agenda for the rabbis to quit their pulpit positions and develop the next Jewish startup. It was never said explicitly, but it was there implicitly in so much of what was said and done.

Many of the emergent spiritual communities rejected the label of synagogue because they said that they weren’t going to have a membership dues structure. It wasn’t right to call them synagogues because they were not providing a religious school or other programs that are so often, a staple of synagogue life. Or often (and it seemed to be a badge of honor) they weren’t synagogues because they didn’t own their own buildings. I’ve been coveting, but I’ve also been watching, and today many of those communities (like synagogues) have membership models around a structure of (dues) contributions. As the participants of these programs and communities have gotten older their needs have shifted and traditional “synagogue programing” has been added for their families. And now, in some cases, we’ve even seen the purchase of property and real estate.

I can understand why they didn’t want to be called synagogues (especially as a means to fundraising), but if it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it’s a synagogue.


Fifty Years in the Making – Time for a change

Throughout Jewish history synagogues have adapted to new social and cultural realities. But many students of the American synagogue have argued that we have gotten stuck in an institutional model that served Jews well in the 1960s and 1970s as they moved into the suburbs of metropolitan areas all over North America. In some ways, it was so successful in serving that generation of Jews that there has been resistance, from both professional and lay leadership, to make necessary changes.  To their credit, the emergent communities, just by virtue of their success, have put the reimagination and renewal of synagogues on the agenda. But they also leave us with a significant challenge that needs to be addressed today. So much of the focus of these emergent spiritual communities has been on younger Jews who have moved into re-gentrified urban neighborhoods. But I fear that funders and pundits have neglected the suburban synagogues that function in neighborhoods where hundreds of thousands of Jews continue to live.

A look at Boston’s recent demographic study tells a story that is similar throughout the country. The suburbs still account for 37% of the Boston Jewish community.  The telling statistics are in the age breakdowns; while of 18-34s only 29% lived in the suburbs, the numbers rose to 47% of 35-49 and 57% of 50-64. We know that people are having children later and therefore moving to the suburbs later. This means that the percentage share of the suburban community may have fallen, but the direction remains the same – move to the suburbs when you have children.

But when these families move to the suburbs, what do they find? Over the last couple of decades, we have ensured that the Jewish communal experience in our urban center has developed, innovated, and grown through generous philanthropic investment. At the same time, the suburban synagogue has been left behind, mostly bereft of outside funding. There has always been a disparity between what could be offered in an urban center and what could be found in the suburbs, but over the last couple of decades, that gap has widened significantly.

Today, when families move to the suburbs, what kind of Jewish community are they going to find? These people in their late 30s and early 40s are unlikely to build the same communities that they helped to create in the city. With the commitments of family and this next stage of life, they simply don’t have the time to invest in building the next startup in the suburbs. And when they explore what many synagogues are offering, they find a Judaism and a program that has failed to keep pace with their expectations for what the community they want to belong to should look like. While a percentage of these young families will join the best of the synagogues they can find in their suburban environs, we know that more and more will simply decide that synagogue affiliation and its attendant costs is not for them.


Tikva – The hope for the suburban synagogue … again

When I was looking for a synagogue community to serve and in which to lay down roots, I knew what I wanted. I was interested in finding a community that was willing to go on a journey with me as we reimagine what the synagogue can and should look like today. I wanted a synagogue community that was willing to take risks and invest to offer a relevant and modern Judaism. Most of all, I was searching for a congregation to which I would want to belong and that my family could call home. That is how I came to Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, MA, a suburb west of Boston.

It is easy for communities to say that they are willing to take risks and that they are prepared for failure, but to believe it you have to see it. At Temple Shir Tikva, when the JCC decided to withdraw from providing an Early Learning Center (ELC) at the synagogue, the cheapest and safest choice at the time would have been to close it altogether. But Shir Tikva recognized the need to invest in young families, to take a chance, and to be ready to fail. They therefore took over the running and management of the ELC, owning it as a synagogue endeavor. In the first year they budgeted for a loss, which never happened. Instead the ELC has grown to such an extent that there is now a waiting list; the gamble has truly paid off. We need synagogues that are prepared to take risks, that are not afraid to fail – I saw that in this community.

Today we know that people are looking for different models of Jewish engagement and connection. While for some, the traditional service structure and experience still work, there are others who have been inspired by external traditions to seek an alternative Jewish path. At Shir Tikva I found a community that had invested in starting a Spirituality Center, looking to provide an opportunity for its members to experience different elements of Jewish life.

We also decided to re-think our membership dues structure.  We took the risk that people who walk through our doors and give us a try will stay, and so, for that first year, we have introduced a Complimentary Membership Program. The risk was somewhat offset by the fact that our synagogue is situated in a geographic location with the potential for growth, but in so many places, that potential is not enough to encourage the leadership of a congregation to experiment with its dues structure.  At Shir Tikva, in two short years we have seen our membership grow by over 20%. It doesn’t show any signs of slowing down yet, but we need help to keep pace.

For the last decade we have focused on entrepreneurship within the Jewish community and invested in people who have sought to build something new, but we have neglected intrapreneurship – those people who are innovating within existing institutions. There are so many synagogue intrapreneurs doing exceptional work to ensure that their communities remain vibrant, modern, engaging, and relevant places for Jews. But we have neglected to talk about these synagogues enough and to celebrate the rethinking that is taking place in so many suburban synagogues.  

The challenge for the future

Today we are simultaneously in a moment of crisis and of opportunity. It is true. The synagogue is not the only way for people to connect to Judaism, but for over 2,000 years it has been the way most Jews became exposed to the beauty of our heritage. With the right kind of communal and philanthropic investment, suburban synagogues can continue to innovate and provide a community that will resonate with an ever-changing Jewish population.

When I look at the world and so many of the challenges we face, I passionately believe that people need synagogues more than ever. When we look at the loneliness of the isolated society that has developed around us, the opportunity to belong to a religious community offers an important antidote. When we consider the challenges of the modern world and our 24/7 culture, we know that Judaism offers so many responses and remedies that can be meaningful and helpful. And as we witness a sense of powerlessness and fear about the direction in which our world is moving, the synagogue community can provide the anchor to weather life’s storms.

If the last decade of Jewish communal giving was defined by an investment in startup Judaism and emergent communities, I believe that in the next decade there needs to be a comparable investment in well-established suburban synagogues. Many of us are ready to partner on this sacred work. We are ready for help make suburban synagogues a place where the next generation of American Jews can experience a vibrant and innovative form of Judaism.  


Rabbi Danny is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, MA. He was a member of the inaugural cohort of the UJA Federation of New York’s Rabbinic Fellowship for Visionary Leaders and has a weekly podcast Two Minutes of Torah, which was included in a list of the Top Seven Jewish Podcasts. He is married to Micol Zimmerman Burkeman, a Jewish educator, and they are the proud parents of Gabby and Benny.

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