A Year without a Synagogue

By Rabbi Stephanie Kramer and Rabbi Lisa Kingston

In 2004, a controversial “mockumentary” style film was released in California. A Day Without a Mexican directed by Sergio Arau, offered its take on immigration issues facing the United States by imagining a state without its crucial Latinx workforce. Crops are left unharvested, restaurants are left unstaffed, and households are left unmanaged. In this dystopia, the viewer can’t help but notice how every aspect of Californians’ day-to-day lives are touched by the absence of Latinxs, be it on a personal or economic level.

As Reform Rabbis, we have recently heard from colleagues around the country that some families are considering a temporary break from synagogue life. Families aren’t quite sure where synagogue in general, and Jewish Education in particular, fit into their lives as we all try to prepare for a year of unprecedented realities. 2020 has become the year of unknowns; distance learning in secular schools, hybrid models, canceled sports, virtual extracurriculars. With these concerns as a baseline for families, it is simply too difficult to also imagine virtual high holy days, reimagined Jewish education, and a Jewish community that doesn’t gather together in person. 

Many rabbis are terrified that we will hear in our own synagogues, “I think we’ll just have to take this year off…” “Can we wait and see what happens in January?…” “I’m not sure we can manage anything “extra” right now…” These are sentiments expressed by families who are clearly struggling, stressed, and holding so much disappointment. Before anyone in our community considers this response, we hope they will consider a broader picture: 

Quite simply, if everyone were to have “a year without a synagogue,” would there be synagogues when people are ready to return? This is a serious concern. As nonprofit organizations that rely on the support of our members, all synagogues, big and small, are concerned about sustainability. Your congregation remains a place of gathering – virtually or in person. We are a community.; We hold sacred space. Supporting a synagogue is completely different from utilizing a fee-for-service institution. We are not providing after school care or tap lessons or physical fitness. Our value cannot be measured only by programs. It is precisely at this moment that members need to support the most important things in their lives. This is the moment to show up in larger numbers than ever before.

Synagogues are extensions of our homes where Jewish life is marked and celebrated. Synagogues are the people who show up at your door with a meal, the phone calls when you have lost someone you loved, the rabbi who is there to listen. For our children, synagogues are the place where they are nurtured and loved without the pressures of secular school. Synagogues are where we grapple with big ideas. They are a place for identity experimentation and self-expression. A place where ethics are upheld, and love and kindness prevail. Through our synagogues the world is healed. Synagogues bring families together to honor sacred time. During hard times, they are where we learn to handle challenges and where resilience is built. 

And yes, we cannot hide the fact that synagogues cost money to run. Like many small businesses and nonprofits, during Covid-19 our doors have been closed, but our operations are running. Mortgages, staff, and infrastructure all cost money and all are necessary to support Jewish life. Without membership dues, tuition from religious schools, and donations we simply would not exist. The attitude of “taking a year off” implies a diffusion of responsibility. It says it is someone else’s job to support the ongoing expenses of synagogues while washing one’s own hands of the obligation. When Rabbi Hillel taught, “Do not separate yourself from the community” (Pirke Avot 2:5), he reminded us that each is responsible for our community. 

Jewish synagogue life is not here to add additional work or stress to one’s life. It is here to be a place that holds emotion, whether joyful or disappointing. Yes, it takes commitment. Those commitments come in the form of time, money, energy, and emotional investment. Ideally, what one gets out of belonging to a synagogue can’t be measured by any standard metric. It can only be measured in feelings of love, community, and connection to each other and to the Divine (or to something greater than ourselves).

Some families may still consider pausing and taking  “a year without a synagogue.” But we hope this is not the case. If families do pause,we can hope that when they are ready to return, our synagogues will be here, having weathered the harsh realities of the pandemic. In the meantime, synagogues will persevere by teaching, praying, grieving, celebrating, and hoping. We will continue to be places of thriving Jewish life. 

Rabbi Stephanie Kramer is the Senior Associate Rabbi at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, CA. 
Rabbi Lisa Kingston is the Associate Rabbi/Educator at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, CA.