Are Synagogues Compelling Places for Serious Jewish Engagement

Rabbi Sid Schwarz writing in The Forward:

Back to Shul: Innovate To Beat the Synagogue Slum

What is clear is that the Jewish community is in a time of transition, and many synagogues – and the national denominations of which they are part – are behind the curve. The recession has put increased focus on institutions that under-deliver on their promise because funds are scarce. Philanthropists, who are quickly overtaking federations as the arbiters of what programs and institutions will live or die, want to see a return on investment. Synagogues that engage relatively small percentages of their membership on a weekly basis do not recommend themselves for such portfolios, and the trend lines are moving in the wrong direction.

… Perhaps even more significantly, younger Jews who are most committed to pursuing Jewish life and learning are voting with their feet by creating alternatives to the American synagogue. Around the country there is an upsurge of Jewish prayer and study groups that use rented facilities, have few if any professional staff and whose energy comes mostly from the members.

The phenomenon is very similar to the Havurah movement of the 1970s. Heavily influenced by the American counter-culture, young Jews then felt that they could create more authentic expressions of Judaism than those which could be found in American synagogues. Ironically, many of the leaders of the Havurah movement now lead major Jewish communal institutions, including serving as rabbis of synagogues.

But in the short run, synagogues are challenged to prove that they can become compelling spiritual homes for Jews. Most families affiliate with synagogues for 10 to 15 years to see their kids through a cursory Jewish education and their bar or bat mitzvahs.

… The strength of organizations like Hillel, community Jewish day schools, Birthright Israel and the American Jewish World Service prove that Jewish life can be nurtured without denominational labels and that many Jews prefer it that way.