Why Synagogue? A reply to a reply (a provocation)

What to do about shul? And about prayer? And about God?
The Jewish people are in crisis. The synagogue is in crisis. And, of course, Pew. One need not even remember the whole name of this latest diagnosis of the demise of our people. It suffices to just hint at it to strike terror in the heart of the terror-stricken.
Amichai Lau-Lavie has the latest salvo. He has put together something called Lab/Shul which is apparently the evolving answer to the problem. What however is the problem? It seems that the problem is shrinking synagogue membership or affiliation or some such. Why is this a problem? Because Pew said it was. Well, actually, Pew just said it was happening. Actually Pew (currently the reified voice of Jewish demise) said that just like the rest of America, Jews were affiliating religiously, or actually that they were identifying themselves as having a religion, at a lower rate than before. So this might just be a problem like rising tides is a problem. It is a phenomenon, but its only a problem if your house is close to the ocean at low tide. The solution then is not to try to stop the tide from rising. The solution probably has something to do with moving your house.
According to Lau-Lavie the problem is that there are too many bars to entry. The synagogue is a wonderful place, potentially, but the rabbis just prattle on and on, and people mention God. A lot. Lau-Lavie’s friends don’t like that. At all. The answer is a place where other terms are used instead of “God,” and maybe there is more music, and the translations are tweaked so that even if God is in the Hebrew, “source” or “creator” is in the English translation. So that, perhaps, a famous Israeli pop-musician will sing a beautiful unplugged version of Kol Nidrei—despite the fact that he is singing a bit of legalese that blessedly few people understand—and the emotion will suffice for the shul which wants “authenticity”.
Now, in truth, I have no problem with Lab/Shul, or with any of Lau-Lavie’s previous kiruv projects—Rebbetzin Haddasah, or StorahTelling. They are all to be applauded. I do have a problem with thinking that there is one answer, or even one problem. Or that the problem is the same everywhere.
To begin with, why is it a problem for Lau-Lavie’s friends not to be in shul? The missionary, or kiruv professional, starts with the assumption that they have the perfect product, and then ask why isn’t anybody buying. When I go to minyan during the week, I go to my local Conservative shul’s daily minyan. Its a no-frills affair which takes 30-35 minutes on days when there is no Torah reading, 45 minutes when the Torah is read. Longer if Hallel is said. This kind of minyan would probably fit Lau-Lavie’s exact definition of the problem (except that most of the new and experimental minyanim don’t meet daily). There is almost no singing, no conversations, and there’s a lot of God language. Yet, there is a regular attendance at this minyan, which is a very welcoming community of people—mostly people who need to say kaddish, but not exclusively (I am thankfully of the latter). When, for example, one of the minyan members underwent surgery the minyan organized a Psalms vigil at the hospital for her. There is a real warmth and caring amongst the minyan members. (Bagels and lox on special celebrations.)
But, you might say, what about the hundreds of people who don’t come to the daily minyan? Where are they? Well, I will answer you in the same credulous tone, they are not there—and perhaps do not need to be. The minyan should perhaps be looked at as a function of a community. That is, a community needs a minyan. Just as a community needs a Torah and a Torah reading. Each individual is not obligated in Torah reading—the community is. Perhaps we should think of a minyan in the same way—especially daily minyan. The community has to have a daily minyan, but not every Jew in the community needs to be at the minyan. In truth, most every community I have ever been a part of that has had a daily minyan (which means basically Orthodox or Conservative) has had a small percentage of their community in attendance. The announcement “please help out at the daily minyan” in one form or another, was a staple of the rabbi’s shabbat announcement. I’m pretty sure that this is a feature and not a bug. The community sustained a minyan. Just as the community sustained a megillah reading or bagel breakfasts with the rabbi.
Shabbes is a destination davening though. It is supposed to be transformative. Meaningful always and everywhere. But why? There are many reasons that people come to pray in community. One of them is to pray. One of them might be to be transformed. However, I would bet that most people don’t go to shul to be transformed. Moved, maybe. I’m not even sure of that. There are, of course, those who want to be moved and transformed. There are those who don’t understand why other Jews would go to shul if they weren’t going to be moved or transformed. However, I remind myself, when I was twenty I didn’t understand how anybody could be so superficial as to pray the silent amidah prayer in less than fifteen or twenty amazingly intense minutes. Yet, people did. And I do now. Proudly. As a feature not a bug. Because prayer is a part of my life and not my life. Not even a large part of my Jewish life.
So, as we engage in this ongoing discussion of the crisis of the Jewish people, I would ask for a larger dose of humility from everybody involved. Not only in regards to the answer. More importantly perhaps, in regards to whether or not there is a question.

5 thoughts on “Why Synagogue? A reply to a reply (a provocation)

  1. The author writes,
    ‘The announcement “please help out at the daily minyan” in one form or another, was a staple of the rabbi’s shabbat announcement.’
    Yes it is. And when that happens, you can be sure that the “community need” is close to not being met — or, more likely, is already not being met for some of its members. The rabbi doesn’t make that announcement until someone who needed to say Kaddish couldn’t. If you’ve never been in that situation, suffice to say it doesn’t feel good.
    If we expect the community structures to be there for us when we need them — and we all do need them eventually — then it’s worth giving some thought to how we can support them now so they still exist when we need them. Not everyone needs to support them in the same way. But neither can we take them for granted as “the obligation of the community”, as though the community isn’t made up of people like us.

  2. This is a comment that a friend who wishes to remain anonymous posted in a discussion on this article elsewhere; s/he allowed me to post the comment here:
    “If you think that every community needs a minyan, a Sefer Torah, and/ or any kind of physical home, even if every Jew need not take part of every minyan, then shrinking shuls are a problem for you. I hate to be shallow and materialistic, but the smaller numbers may not be able to sustain these things (a space, heat, a rabbi or other professional, insurance, etc.)–which cost money, at least in the Diaspora. There is no “assume a minyan,” now either attend or don’t, as you wish. I don’t care about Pew, but dealing with reality matters as you describe communal challenges, and part if reality is outside my own personal comfort zone, not a question of what feels right to me today. From a pragmatic perspective, smaller shuls may mean fewer shuls or no shuls in some places. I find the attitude of ‘whatever works for me personally at this moment is all I or anybody else should worry about. Don’t expect and don’t judge’ very familiar, and somewhat troubling: it means we are not, after all, communities with norms or a sense of areivut. And it certainly explains why so many of my peers, who do make use of the Destination Davening in my Shul, are not bothering to pay dues at all. Doesn’t work for them …”

  3. J. writes: “And when that happens, you can be sure that the “community need” is close to not being met — or, more likely, is already not being met for some of its members.”
    That is not my experience, though my experience is mostly is large urban centers. In my experience, the people who make the daily minyan are always a very small percentage of the overall shul population. My argument was that that is a feature and not a bug. If everybody who came to shul on the yamim noraim (which means they all paid for tickets) came every shabbes, there would not be room for everybody.
    Anonymous: There are a lot of Jews who don’t need a shul. That is part of my point also. Why don’t we leave them alone. They don’t need a shul today (neither a big suburban shul or a funky, edgy shul), nor will they necessarily want one tomorrow. Why should we be spending time and resources trying to get them into shul, rather than working with (i.e. teaching, davening, etc.) the folks who are already in shul? Adult Jews who are not in shul have made a choice, and I am suggesting that we respect that choice.

    1. Aryeh Cohen writes:
      In my experience, the people who make the daily minyan are always a very small percentage of the overall shul population.
      I don’t think you and J. are disagreeing on this; the difference is whether “a very small percentage” is 15 people or 8 people.

  4. We need to consider that some of those “other choices” are directly or indirectly, financially and otherwise, aided by the traditional shul structure. If you don’t want to come to minyan, we should respect that; but if you want to be part of some sort of a Jewish community, Anonymous is correct that some sort of financial dues will be necessary (and you’ll probably need to commit some of your energy as well). To that point, I do care about Pew, because I think that was the venue that could have made explicit these kind of ramifications, and the absence of that discussion continues in much of the commentary I’ve seen.
    The communities I’ve been a part of (which are either as rural as you can get while still maintaining a Shabbat minyan, or in a large city but geographically isolated from the bulk of the Jewish action) have all made a point of being supportive and open and welcoming to a variety of Jewish communal experiences–and they’re very aware of the volunteer energy and money involved. I wouldn’t want to live in a community that made any other choice, but I know it was much easier to make that choice when the cultural norm was to belong to a shul, even if you rarely set foot in the building.
    We absolutely need to respect the choices adults make about community participation, but we also need to be willing to talk about the long-term consequences of those choice.

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