Are Synagogues Passé?


Let’s continue the conversation about the nature of community and the future of the synagogue, some of which has already found its way onto the pages of the Baltimore Jewish Times.

The 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 den-ominational seminaries and schools than ever before, only to find fewer and fewer congregational jobs for them to fill.

In many American Jewish communities, and certainly here in Baltimore, there are resources beyond congregational life that can meet one’s Jewish needs literally from 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 nonclergy specialists to officiate at lifecycle 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 do-it-yourself 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 rest-rictive policies or crazy synagogue politics, and the convenience couldn’t be better. You can get your Jewish needs met when and how you want and on your budget.

Call it fee-for-services if you like. It’s the reality, and it’s here to stay.

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

At the same time, a whole new app-roach 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 emerge. 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 “davvening community” in Jerusalem work somewhere else an ocean or two away? The possibilities are certainly intriguing.

Baltimore’s 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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