Do we need synagogues?


“What do you think about the debate going on in your paper?” Michael Feinstein, CEO of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, asked me at a recent meeting.

I must be honest. I wasn’t certain what he was talking about at first. Debate? What debate? In my paper?

“You know, the one about synagogues and education.”

Oh, that debate.

Rabbi Adam Raskin of Har Shalom threw down the gauntlet in his op-ed, mourning the synagogue education programs being threatened by alternative programs that emphasize “fun” and “convenience” and “no synagogue membership.”

Feinstein, and I would agree with him here, argues that we need to understand the reality of today’s family schedules and that however and wherever families can connect Jewishly is important and to be celebrated. He spoke of the innovation of ShalomLearning and how families end up being more involved with their children’s Jewish education through this program, offered by the JCCGW, than they may be at a traditional synagogue supplemental education program.

And then Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek wrote about the placards announcing free High Holiday tickets — no membership required — and wondered why synagogue membership had to be advertised as a negative.

I agree with him as well.

I worry about synagogues. I wonder how much to fight for them and how much to just let them go. I’ve heard the arguments — synagogues were needed at a time when Jews didn’t have other options for community. Now that we are allowed in country clubs and universities and businesses and charitable organizations, we can form communities elsewhere. We can hire tutors or enroll our children in alternative Jewish education programs, hire a rabbi, rent a country club and have the b’nai mitzvah we want, on our terms, with our friends and family.

No synagogue rules to contend with.

After all, isn’t this our Judaism? To connect with individually as we each interpret it?

Or maybe it’s a matter of price. Synagogue membership is expensive. Is it worth thousands of dollars to attend a few days a year — especially if our children are finished? And what if they need a new roof? Capital campaigns are even more money. Better to put the money into the country club that we actually enjoy going to.

I’ve heard Birthright blamed. Free trips to Israel make young Jews think all things Jewish should be given to them — that it’s their birthright.

But the point, and success, of Birthright is to eliminate all barriers to entry and get someone who may not have otherwise gone to Israel, to go and once there, to fall in love (both with Israel and possibly the cute Jewish girl on the bus). Birthright, when it’s successful, is just the beginning of the relationship.

So I don’t think the problem is cost. I think it is value. I think, for many American Jews, the value of a synagogue is not clear. Especially if one lives in an area where there is a large enough Jewish population that Jewish friends can be made at school, at work, on the tennis court or the golf course.

If synagogue services don’t resonate, then all too easily synagogues turn into the place where we send our children to be educated until they become a bar or bat mitzvah. “Just make my kids love Israel and being Jewish and don’t ask me to do anything,” was the response I too often heard from congregants when I served as chair of the committee trying to make my synagogue’s educational offerings more innovative.

And now — if Jewish education and b’nai mitzvah services are readily available for less money and more convenient times — there goes that need.

So, what are we fighting for?

Maybe it’s time, like it was when the era of the priests came to an end and the time of the rabbis began, when synagogues were built to reach the now dispersed community and connect us through prayer. Maybe the time has come for something new.

Maybe it’s time to let the synagogue go the way of the Dodo bird.

But I don’t think so. Not yet at least.

I think about the way I feel this time of year. I think about sitting in my shul, surrounded by my congregation, listening to my rabbi. I listen as I hear the familiar tunes and notice the passage of time in the faces I first met when I was a nursery-school mom. I walk down the hallways where I pushed a stroller and chased after toddlers and posed for bat mitzvah pictures and celebrated confirmation.

What would it feel like to not have it?

I can’t wrap my head around an alternative. What? Sitting home alone creating my own holiday ritual? Sitting in a hall with folding chairs surrounded by people and being led by clergy I would only know for the few hours my ticket bought?



Yes, I have Jewish friends from elsewhere. Yes, I have communities outside my synagogue. But who would know my children well enough to perform their weddings? What would I do when the day comes when I have to bury my parents?

Where would I go?

Maybe this is why we don’t value the synagogue as we perhaps should. Because we know it’s there. We don’t know, as previous generations knew, what it was like to not have a place to go. Perhaps we take it for granted.

So for those of us for whom this time of year may be the most we are in our sanctuaries, for those of us who might even complain about going these few days of the year, let’s promise to take a moment and try to imagine what it would be like to not be able to go.

What would that be like?

What would happen to our year — our lives — without a synagogue?

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