A 9th of Av Reflection: Strengthening the Synagogue

By Dr. Gil Graff

Although the 9th of Av commemorates a litany of tragic experiences in Jewish history, the destruction of the First and Second Temples remains a core motif of the day’s liturgy. While synagogues existed during the Second Temple period, they became central institutions of Jewish life following the destruction of the Second Temple. The failure of the Bar Kochba War (the closing battle of which is also associated with the 9th of Av) and decline of Judaea as a major center of Jewish population underscored the importance of these “portable sanctuaries.”

The observance of the 9th of Av, this year, comes at a time of heightened anxiety about the security of the State of Israel and – in the aftermath of the Pew Study – of concern about the continuing vitality of synagogues with respect to meeting the needs of “next generation” American Jews. The traditional liturgy of the 9th of Av, referencing the desolation of Jerusalem, is a reminder of the remarkable gift that is the sovereign State of Israel and a call to action to safeguard that gift. That many American synagogues are desolate of people much of the year should, similarly, serve as a summons to reinvigorate this significant bedrock of Jewish life.

Speaking in New York, in 1917, Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein – a charismatic, American-born rabbi concerned about engaging the children of Jewish immigrants who, increasingly, found the synagogue irrelevant – observed: “there is a spirit of religious unrest among the Jewish youth of our City…. This is due to the fact that our efforts in the religious, social and educational fields have been … out of consonance with the sentiments of the American youth.” Goldstein called for a “Jewish Revival,” built around reimagining the synagogue.

Two generations later, in the late 1960s, when many young Jews abandoned the synagogue in search of spiritual fulfillment in other traditions, Eliezer Berkovits, a noted Jewish theologian and legal scholar commented: “It is just possible that our youth is too intelligent to be impressed by a Jewish education that is chiefly geared to a farcical bar mitzvah ceremony which is to culminate in the vulgarity of an ostentatious party, that adds meaninglessness to the farce.” Synagogues and Jewish education, he suggested, needed to relate in meaningful ways to issues of life, providing participants “tools to meet the challenge of the present human situation in all its social, political, ethical and spiritual manifestations….”

Early in the 21st century, national and local synagogue transformation projects have worked with congregational leaders, lay and professional, to make synagogues more welcoming, relational and multi-dimensional. Whether denominational, post-denominational, a bricks and mortar institution or an entity without walls, the synagogue remains a vital center of Jewish learning, community and religious expression. For Goldstein, abandoning efforts to strengthen the synagogue represented “cowardice;” rather than writing off the synagogue, he urged (and practiced – but that’s another story), work to perfect it.

Fortunately, successive generations of American Jews have embraced the challenge of re-envisioning synagogues. Even as Jews commemorate an anniversary of disruption, the “nechamah” (consolation) of our time is the remarkable privilege of anxiety about the well-being of a strong, sovereign state that is home to 40% of world Jewry and initiatives to revitalize synagogues in a country that offers unparalleled opportunity to another 40% of the world’s Jews. Throughout Jewish history, the response of the people Israel to catastrophe has been regeneration and renewal. The 9th of Av should serve as a summons to carry forward the work of strengthening the synagogue, recognizing that its enduring significance rests on the ability to help successive generations find meaning and contribute to the repair of a yet imperfect world.

Dr. Gil Graff is Executive Director of BJE: Builders of Jewish Education.

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  1. Dave Neil says

    I have made repeated calls to people at the top of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism to try to get their act together to no avail. It is so sad.

    Without mentioning names, i have suggested that they do three simple things repeatedly and the amazing thing is I received no response to the ideas whatsoever -just acknowledgement of receiving the emails.

    In any event here are the three things every Conservative Synagogue should be doing and don’t assume since they are obvious that any synagogue (including your own) are doing any of these three things- if you are in a position to get involved and help to revitalize your synagogue please do so:

    #1 Friday night Shabbat dinners. Try to identify the few most committed families of the synagogue – who have beautiful Friday night dinners in their homes and have these veteran Conservative families invite different younger families to their home to both show they what beautiful Shabbat Friday night dinners look like and to create more of a sense of community for your synagogue in general.

    #2 Learn from Success. Take a good hard look at the few Conservative synagogues in your state or around the country that are growing significantly over the past 12 years or so. Those are the exceptions since membership in most synagogues is way down. Those few synagogues must be doing something right and you should figure out what they are doing and try to get your synagogues to do the same. Advocate for change – not only via the Rabbi but also turn to the Board of your synagogue as sometimes it is the Rabbi that is loath to changes even when the synagogue is clearly stagnating.

    #3 Singles. More than half of non-Orthodox Jews between the ages of 29 and 40 are single so the Conservative movement must find a way to enfranchise Jewish singles into their ranks. Conservative synagogues are not attracting singles for many reasons. Every Conservative synagogue should create or try to reach out to an Independent Minyan in their area. They should try to get the Independent Minyan to occasionally meet in the synagogue for free- a great time for this would be to offer a room in the synagogue during the high holidays that wouldn’t be used otherwise.
    They should not feel threatened by Independent Minyanim/Chavurahs but should try to see them as stepping stones for singles who eventually marry and eventually join synagogues. They should do this by establishing bridges to independent minyanim such as joint social action projects. Synagogues should in general get more involved in running programming for Jewish singles (and for divorced parents) in general. The best was to do this is to have events run by the synagogue but that meet outside the synagogue, have singles get to know the staff of the synagogue and then eventually coax them to join the synagogues. One popular program at one synagogue was a monthly or bi-weekly program of Jewish learning (text oriented) followed by a pot luck dinner, that the members each brought a dish toward.

    If these ideas sound good to you and you belong to a Conservative (or Reform) Synagogue, then please take initiative and try to start any one of them in your shul. Don’t try just telling your Rabbi or President that these projects should be done as they might say “great idea” or the like but then nothing will happen. Unfortunately my experience has shown me that all too often the Rabbis from these synagogues are resistant to change and are (sadly) part of the problem not the solution.
    Don’t forget it was the Conservative Rabbis who had the generation of the baby boomers of American Jewish youth in the 50s, 60s, 70, and 80s in Hebrew Schools in their buildings under their noses and they failed to get involved in trying to get their youth engaged in Jewish after their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. In many synagogues these Rabbis had the title of “Spiritual Leader” of their community, but they had the youth in the palms of their hands and but they didn’t promote to the post B’nai mitzvah not USY, not Ramah nor USY Pilgrimage to Israel but let their own youth slip and fall between their fingers. So if you want to revitalize your synagogues, better to think to take on one of these three projects yourself and don’t have any illusions that the Rabbi of your synagogue will help you, not at least in most cases.

  2. says

    Gil, Thank you for this important piece. Here at UJA-Federation of NY we are strong believers in the critical role of synagogues and through the SYNERGY department we continue to support synagogues on their ongoing journeys to becoming thriving congregations. We applaud the efforts of sister Federations, movements, and indiviual consultants in the field and urge foundations and philanthropists to bolster our efforts in supporting synagogues as they adapt to the changing langscape.