Are synagogues passe?


by Rabbi David Greenspoon

Organized Jewish community faces an increasingly challenging landscape: Congregations are “graying” along with the Jewish community; affiliation rates are in a downward spiral; younger Jews are less willing and less able to assume a congregation’s debt load; more and more congregations are closing – or being foreclosed; more synagogue professionals are being produced from and beyond the denominational seminaries and schools than ever before, only to find fewer and fewer congregational jobs exist for them to fill.

In many of American Jewish communities, there are resources beyond congregational life that can meet one’s Jewish needs literally cradle to grave.

Need a mohel/mohelet for a brit? You likely have several options. Looking for a hospital or nursing home visit? Many communities provide Jewish chaplains for patients in health-care settings that do not already have them on staff. Looking for a bar mitzvah tutor or other private instructor who will meet on your schedule? Skype opens up nearly overwhelming possibilities for world-class instructors around the world. It is easy to find rabbis, cantors and non-clergy specialists to officiate at life-cycle events from baby namings to b’nai mitzvah to burials and everything in between. You can add into this the array of day schools, camps and youth groups that do not require synagogue membership.

The DIY Jew of the 21st century, uncommitted to synagogue membership, has to love this rich array of resources. There is no fuss with committees, no muss with restrictive policies or crazy synagogue politics, and the convenience couldn’t be better. You can get your Jewish needs met with, when and how you want to, and on your budget.

Call it fee-for-services or whatever you like. It is the reality and it is here to stay.

The various synagogue models currently in place will still be around for a while. The successful ones will be places where community is experienced in meaningful ways within and beyond its walls, and that can survive the fiscal challenges inherent in congregational life. Some congregations around the country are already embracing new approaches. Smaller, intimate, storefront congregations operating in retail spaces are a growing phenomenon.

At the same time, a whole new approach to community is emerging built on shared commitments to commonly held interests. These are people already committed to community, even as they don’t want a traditional congregation, even one in a nontraditional venue. From New York to Los Angeles to Jerusalem there have been new types of communities emerging. Each reflects its own local, organic needs and thereby offers suggestions for seeding other communities.

Can Machon Hadar’s emphasis on serious learning become a model for a community beyond New York? Can the Jewish social consciousness of Ikkar in Los Angeles inspire something similar elsewhere? Could Shira Chadasha’s model of a “davening community” in Jerusalem work somewhere else an ocean or two away? The possibilities are certainly intriguing.

Rabbi David Greenspoon teaches in the Jewish text and thought department at the Upper School of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville. His blog is “Views From Outside The Box: Musings Designed to challenge, affirm, and inspire.”

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