Much of the Eastern and Midwestern U.S. is ensconced in a ferocious cold spell today and tomorrow. Known as the “polar vortex,” a blast of air from the arctic is producing temperatures colder than the South Pole in some parts of the country. This got me thinking: 120 years ago, where would poor, marginalized Jews (i.e. most Jews) go to escape the cold? To Jewish relief organizations such as Jewish hospitals, Jewish soup kitchens. In the era before FDR, before a government social safety net, Jewish communities across the country were responsible for talking care of one another. Mutual aid societies and landsmanschaften (hometown societies) provided this critical source of support, ensuring not only the well-being of poor Jewish immigrants but also creating community connections.
70 years ago, where would Jews go to escape the cold? To synagogue-centers and JCCs. Emerging into the middle-class, “second generation” Jews were eager to flee their urban areas of settlement for the expansiveness of the suburbs. They frequently found, however, that secular American society still harbored a good deal of anti-Semitism, so Jews created new hubs for social interaction. The notion of the “shul with a pool” was born, with traditional synagogues expanded to include social, educational, and even athletic programming.
Today, where do we go to escape the “polar vortex?” Starbucks. The public library. The local gym. Or we just stay at home and tweet about how cold we are. The rise of the welfare state (I mean that as a descriptive, not a perjorative, term), combined with the rapid erosion of institutional anti-Semitism in America, has rendered obsolete much of the social architecture of American Jewry. Jewish Family Services, perhaps the closest vestige to the traditional Jewish welfare organizations throughout the country, often serve more non-Jews than Jews! The same is true with Jewish hospitals and even JCCs. While we are truly blessed to live in a society as open to Jews as 21st century America, that blessing comes with a cost: no longer having a need to come together, our Jewish connective tissue is atrophying. As the recent Pew Study illustrates, only 28 percent of those polled believe that being part of a Jewish community is essential to Jewish identity. Continue reading
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.