Affiliation rates are down in suburban Jewish communities across the country. Synagogue structures sit half-empty much of the year. Conservative and Orthodox synagogues struggle to find enough interested people to support their daily minyanim. We all know about these and other symptoms of the decline in Jewish communal life, but what are the causes?
As we cycle through several weeks of Torah readings about the construction of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that would serve as the Israelites’ center of worship, I wonder whether one of the causes of today’s Jewish communal decline is that we have over-built our own mishkans, our own loci of worship. As post-World War II suburban synagogues expanded in both size and scope from their pre-war predecessors, as North American Jewry experienced a degree of success and acceptance unprecedented in Jewish Diaspora experience, did we create more demand than supply warranted? Have we grown too big to succeed?
Though it is tempting to attribute today’s affiliation problems to the hubris of prior generations, I think that lets our current generation off the hook too easily. Instead, I think the real problem is not the size of our institutions but the misguided priorities that our “edifice complexes” have engendered. We have built magnificent, resplendent houses of worship, buildings that are evocative of the majestic mishkan of biblical times. When we need funds for aesthetic needs—the ark curtains, the nameplates behind the seats, the stained glass windows—the money often can be raised. But how much time, effort, or resources do we invest in the quality of the religious experience inside these beautiful walls? People today are craving spiritual engagement. As recent studies of religious life in America suggest, a growing number of Americans—including Jews—have opted out of affiliating but continue to believe in God and seek spiritual fulfillment.
The initial command to build the mikdash, in Exodus 25:8, is peculiar. As many commentators note, the commandment should read, “And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell in it,” meaning that if the Israelites build the sanctuary, then God will have a place to live. Instead, the command actually says, “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” God is not coming to live in the mikdash, but among the Israelites themselves. The act of coming together, in which each Israelite contributed what he or she could, built the holy infrastructure that made it possible for God to dwell among them. God told the Israelites what our sociological data confirms today: religious space is a means to the end of spiritual nourishment and social fulfillment; religious space, no matter how magnificent, can never be an end in itself.
Those who are disaffiliating are not necessarily rejecting religion—they are rejecting what we have to offer. They are rejecting stale, spiritually-barren services, hierarchical and unwelcoming lay leadership structures, and a general approach that treats members as commodities or “units.” By contrast, robust religious communities such as Temple Sinai in LA, Bnai Jeshurun in New York, or independent minyanim such as Ikar or Hadar have focused on creating enthusiastic prayer experiences and cultivating grassroots lay participation.
Focusing on religious spaces themselves, whether it is the next building campaign of a local shul or the explosive religious politics of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, mistakes the peripheral for the core. If we want to go about making the type of religious structures in which God would want to dwell, if we want to construct a 21st century mishkan, let’s start focusing less on aesthetics and more on content.