There have been many suggestions as to how synagogues can reclaim their role as the centre of Jewish communities, but to my mind most are facile, and perhaps misunderstand the nature of decline. It has, for example, been suggested that synagogue dues are the great impediment to membership. Voluntary payment for service, it has been suggested, would make synagogue membership more attractive. Yet, all a change like this would achieve would be to create unstable organizations which would be even less able to meet the needs of their communities. Indeed, realistic dues (with flexibility to meet financial needs) are not the challenge. Instead, a feeling of worth for the dues (or for the voluntary fees) is the challenge.
Another recent article (Haaretz, May 26, 2016) was somewhat more helpful. It suggested that the term “membership” was the problem. Membership implies a transactional relationship, which was unhealthy in the context of community. The author rightly noted that the pay for service model would merely perpetuate the transactional nature of the synagogue. Rebranding member as “friend” or builder (I would go with friend) the author suggested was the first step in the reinvigoration of the synagogue.
In truth I don’t think that dues or semantic terminology are the true challenge for the relevance of the synagogue for the Jewish community. Instead I contend that synagogues largely misunderstand our mission to create an “am kadosh, a holy community.” This is not done by a myopic focus of that which we call “religion” or in the context of the verse the adjective, holy. Instead it is done when we focus on the noun, community. It is not a coincidence that a very large segment of the mitzvotfocuses on laws between one human and another (ben adam l’havero). Our ancestors realized that without a community none of the rituals and commandments between us and God (ben adam l’makom) would have any meaning. Synagogues, therefore, should be places where a strong sense of community (in the words of the above quoted author, where friendship) is created. Only then can we truly begin to serve God.
Synagogues must see themselves not as a place only, or even most importantly, for ritual, but instead as a place which facilitates and creates human relationships and connections. Our services, of course need a close look, but that is only the beginning. Are our services welcoming and meaningful enough to uplift and connect our members? These should be the central considerations in all our decision making. Length of service is not the true issue (people come and go as they wish). Instead, meaningful participatory services are the true challenge for a holy community. In this respect I would suggest that speed is not a friend to meaning. It is better to my mind to cut out prayers than to rush meaninglessly through the siddur.
However, as the service continues on the bema, something much more fundamental needs to happen in the pews. We must forget forever the concept of makom kavua, the idea that people have their set seats in the synagogue. Nothing can be more disconcerting or off-putting than being told, sometimes over and over again, that empty seats (often for the whole service) are taken. Recently, while in Europe at a non-Orthodox synagogue, the only seat I finally could occupy was in a corner (amid a sea of empty seats) fairly far away from most people present. If I lived there, I would never go back.
How we welcome people to our services is even more important. Many synagogues have ushers who welcome congregants and newcomers. Yet, as soon as the newcomer wanders into the pews he/she is often all alone. They are alone in proximity, and perhaps also in comfort with the service. In a community no one should be alone. Instead of just giving someone a book, why not take them to a seat next to community members who can make them welcome and help them through the service? (I would also suggest that honours for guests, with people wishing them yasher koach, just as they do for their friends in traditional services, sends a powerful message). This would be a true welcome to a community.
Today in many communities the value of the Oneg Shabbat and Kiddush lunch are often discounted. They are seen as merely an adjunct to the service, either to be included, minimized or dispensed with (especially if one doesn’t want to take the time to find sponsors). Yet, it was just for this social time that the synagogue was created. It is not God that needs the community, rather it is us, as we try to create an “am kadosh,” that need it. Sitting in prayer (no matter how beautiful and meaningful the service) is a weak building block of community. Eating, talking and socializing at Kiddush is much stronger. It is at the Kiddush that relationships can be created. I remember my home synagogue where the Oneg went on far longer than the service itself.
Yet here again a newcomer may be lost. Often, I have seen tables filled by regulars, with one or two tables left for the strangers. Don’t allow them to be strangers. Let all who are hungry come, eat and be welcome. Invite the strangers to your tables and get to know them so that they no longer feel alone (and often unwelcome).
Most importantly, beyond everything else, the synagogue must be a place where relationships are facilitated, created and enhanced. Often, this may mean forgetting the building, and even forgetting ritual as we work for something elemental. These can be Shabbat or festival meals, or they can be activities with seemingly no Jewish content at all.
It is not uncommon for a synagogue to designate an evening where community members invite others into their homes to celebrate Shabbat. This is a great beginning, but hospitality and friendship should not be limited to one Shabbat, and hosts should not be limited to those who can “do” Shabbat. Instead, consider that a great building block of community is hospitality. Create a culture, where hospitality is the norm, not the exception, where we encourage people to invite each other to Shabbat dinner, lunch or tea without a worry if they are “experts” at Shabbat. Rather, let them be experts at making friends.
Some synagogue programs must be religious and educational (these also create community for some), but activities which strengthen human relationships and a feeling of community are as Jewish as any religious service or Torah study. They are building blocks in the creation of a holy community. People today are starving for relationships and our synagogues (in the broadest sense of their activities) should be a place to find these. Playing or watching a baseball game, hikes in the mountains, bike rides, and wine tasting (and much more) create connections and friendship between people.
As we consider the synagogue of the future lets jettison or rewrite our mission statements. It’s very easy to say that we are “a welcoming community”, but these are often just words with no action steps. It would be better to say, “we are a place where relationships and true connections are forged. We are a place where you will not be alone.” If we can make these words a truth, then synagogues will regain their relevance and centrality to the Jewish community of the future.