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.