Are Synagogues Still Relevant?
Tue, 03/15/2011
Special To The Jewish Week

The recent release of a draft strategic plan for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) is simply the latest indicator of the challenge facing non-Orthodox Judaism in the United States. The USCJ press release was accompanied by data showing that the movement has lost 14 percent of their affiliated families since 2001, and twice that percentage in the Northeast Region.

Several months ago the Union of Reform Judaism announced an 18-month Think Tank to include all the major arms of the Reform Movement. It came on the heels of significant cutbacks in their national staff and the near closure of one of the campuses of Hebrew Union College. While some of these cuts were driven by a bad economy, of more serious concern was the loss of membership in the movement’s congregations. The Think Tank was designed to consider the prospects for Reform Judaism’s future.

Similarly, at a recent national gathering at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Reconstructionist rabbis were challenged to “rethink the rabbinate” in light of the shrinking market of non-Orthodox Jews and the lack of congregational job opportunities.

In many Jewish gatherings of professionals and lay leaders, fingers are being pointed at the synagogue as an increasingly irrelevant institution. The only Jewish institution that suffers greater criticism is the synagogue’s stepchild, the afternoon religious school.

Jewish funders are more eager to fund alternatives to synagogues than innovations within synagogues. Benefitting from this trend are independent minyanim, outreach programs to non-traditional populations (e.g. 20-somethings, LGBTs, interfaith families, etc.), public-space Judaism, environmental programs and social justice initiatives. Indeed many of these new initiatives are benefitting from a burst of energy from the younger generation in things Jewish and growing support for social entrepreneurship to reinvent the Jewish community.

There is much to celebrate in these new developments, but it would be unwise to write off synagogues just yet. The cumulative cost of all synagogue buildings and professional staff in America represents the single biggest investment of Jewish communal dollars that exists. As a class, synagogues can be criticized for not adjusting quickly enough to changes in American society and culture, and they are losing market share as a result. However, I don’t know of anyone who believes that what synagogues offer can be replaced by the Internet.

Over the past 20 years there has been some important thinking and experimentation happening in the synagogue world. Synagogue 2000 (now 3000), STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal), Clal (The National Jewish Center for Leadership and Learning) and synagogue-innovation grants by the Legacy Heritage Foundation have all produced important literature and program models that suggest that synagogues can be compelling institutions to the next generation of American Jews. As someone who has been involved in all of these initiatives and who has been consulting to synagogues and working with rabbis ever since the publication of my book, “Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews Can Transform the American Synagogue” (2000), I know firsthand of pockets of innovation in the synagogue world that can and should be replicated. Where the synagogue transformation effort has fallen short is that these national initiatives have competed more than they have collaborated and now the philanthropic dollars are moving in a different direction.

I fear that the liberal denominations are about to repeat this mistake. Each denomination, pressured by their respective internal stakeholders and critics, feels a need to “do something.” They will view each other as competitors in a shrinking market and hope to prove that, in the long run, their response is the magic bullet for a Jewish community in decline. Knowing that in 25 years, some existing seminaries will disappear and some denominational initiatives will need to close shop or consolidate, they mistakenly believe that “the last one standing” represents an organizational victory.

This approach is shortsighted and the Jewish community will suffer if it is not corrected. Now is precisely the time for the liberal movements to look past the turf wars and to collaborate with each other. Now is the time to bring together the small universe of professionals who have been working the vineyards of synagogue transformation and harvest their collective wisdom for a strategic plan forward.

Most Jews do not care one whit about the future of the denominations. However, we know that many Jews are hungry to find communities of meaning that can support them in their search for spirituality, for wisdom, for emotional and communal support in times of joy and sorrow and for efforts to advance peace and justice in the world. This should be the agenda of every American synagogue and there are ways to help them deliver this to Jews in new and exciting ways.

The over-techified, over-commodified society that we live in has produced a generation desperate for settings and experiences that are transcendent, sacred and holy. Now is the time for the non-Orthodox denominations of American Judaism to join together and help their synagogues become these types of communities of meaning.

Rabbi Sid Schwarz is a senior fellow with Clal: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. The founder of the PANIM Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, he is a consultant to Jewish organizations and synagogues throughout the country.

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I think that the trend of colossal congregations is not a sustainable model. I believe Sid is correct, and that the answer is simple. If we place more emphasis on ideas and ideals, and less on physical worship space and pulpit gimmicks, then the details will take care of themselves.


Shalom All,

For most Jews the answer to the question in the title of Rabbi Schwarz's post is no. That which used to be the sole provenance of non orthodox synagogue membership is available for free, online or ala carte at far less cost. Other than for a life cycle event, or an occasional high holiday worship service (which are available a la carte), most non orthodox Jews couldn't care less one way or another about a synagogue as a place that provides the opportunity for Jewish community, whatever that might mean.

Other than political liberalism (a standing joke about Reform has been to say that its theology consisted of the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in), anti anti semitism and an accident of birth, there is no meaningful agreed upon articulation of non-orthodox Judaism. The non orthodox movements and their synagogues will eventually go the way of the Catskills and the Jewish Deli, sadly for the same reason: irrelevance. The further away we get from the Eastern European immigrant experience, the more irrelevant Jewish ethno-cultural markers become for most Jews. Quite simply, nostalgia is insufficient as an engine for Jewish continuity. Clara Peller zl’ of “Wendy’s” fame had it right when she famously asked:

Non Orthodox Judaism, its leadership and its institutions ought to be answering her question. For, "In the absence of vision, people will be unrestrained.”
Mishlei 29:18. Where are the non orthodox visionaries that will provide the necessary focus?

The irony is not lost on me that a Pastrami sandwich from the slowly dying Jewish Deli:

juxtaposed with Clara Peller’s question (which clearly, crisply, concisely and compellingly frames the non Orthodox status quo), represents a metaphor for what needs to be rediscovered in order to create a meaningful contemporary non Orthodox Judaism. Based on results, the status quo is broken and beyond repair.

Non orthodox Judaism (not to be confused with peoplehood/ethno-cultural Jewishness), must be re-envisioned, retooled, and re-engineered to become a relevant, practical, application oriented way of life that is consonant with the 21rst century reality that Jews find themselves a part of. Rabbis and other Jewish teachers must let prospective congregants know through bimah teaching and other educational efforts and experiential opportunities, that indeed, you have walked or are walking in their moccasins. We must give folks answers to the questions, “Why Judaism? Why be Jewish? Why do Jewish?”

Then and only then can one even begin to think about an effective delivery system. Will this be the non orthodox synagogue? Who knows?


I don't see any contradiction between the notion of liberal synagogues being reinvigorated and there being fewer of them. In their heyday, liberal synagogues never had participation levels matching their memberships, but people joined anyway out of a feeling of "otherness" or a sense of filial duty. We are not going to "re-engage" this population enough to counteract the natural forces of assimilation - not when birth rates are so low in the liberal community. (In the liberal world, if you get a Jewish couple to become passionate and engaged, they pass it on to maybe 1 or 2 children. In the Orthodox world, you get 5 or more kids raised with intensive Jewish education and experiences.) Short of a national religious re-awakening in liberal upper-middle class circles, fewer Jews in the present and future will affiliate with liberal synagogues. But the liberal Jews who really want it will come together to build special communities. This is already happening all around the country, but usually in only one or two "hot" synagogues in each city - places where the really committed liberals can find each other in sufficient numbers to really feel a sense of community. In other words, membership levels and participation levels will match each other more closely than ever before. Imagine liberal synagogues where the ONLY members are the ones who come to synagogue when there isn't a bar mitzvah, come to the Simchat Torah party, volunteer in the religious school, and attend the rabbi's classes. For some liberal Jews, I am sure this sounds amazing. What this means for building funds and the like is anyone's guess, especially when these are the families most likely to also choose Jewish camps, Jewish day schools, trips to Israel, etc. Free from their association with truly uncommitted shul members, the liberal movements might actually emerge with a compelling message and model of committed Jewish life that may enable them to grow in the future. But anyone who thinks that this possible growth won't be preceded by significant contraction is fooling themselves.

The tone of these types of articles always interests me. Non-Orthodox denominations have been searching for the last 50 years for the 'magic bullet' that will somehow interest families and youth in their 'brand' of Judaism.

A quick look at demographics will tell you, without any question, that the only magic bullet that is retaining families and youth is authentic, traditional Judaism.

Where I come from (Toronto), Reform and Conservative Temples are quickly adding as much 'traditional' 'Orthodox Style' elements to their routine as their congregation will tolerate.

I am under no illusions as to the willingness-or lack thereof- of the progressive Jews to move 'backwards', but without it I see no other reasonable alternative to prevent continued assimilation, disaffiliation and erosion of any connection whatsoever of the next generation to Judaism.

If you define Judaism as liberalism, change the liturgy, and preach partisan politics from the pulpit , you redefine Judaism out of existence. For the deracinated children you create, what is the point of Judaism or going to synagogue. Why not got to more and more extreme chaverim, or drop out?
And for those who disagree with your politics and radical attempt to redefine Judaism, you make time in the Synagogue unpalatable if not a hostile environment.

I run a non-synagogue program and I am confident that synagogues are not going to die. The synagogue is still the number one place that Jews and non-Jews look first when seeking community. The marginally knowledgeable don't know about the alternative groups. I am happy to say that I work with many congregations who are striving to be a better job from the inside out. Additionally, the congregations in the SF bay area are remarkably good at collaborating. I have great faith in them.

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