Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Why is it that synagogue and church attendance drops in the summer? For years, churches and synagogues have noticed what has come to be called a “summer slump.” Attendance might drop by as much as 20 percent. It’s unlikely that 20% of attendees are away on vacation. Americans certainly don’t get enough vacation for that to be the case. USA Today reports that “the United States is the only developed country in the world without a single legally required paid vacation day or holiday. By law, every country in the European Union has at least four work weeks of paid vacation.”
So what could be the reason? Schools are out, so kids’ schedules are different, but most of their parents’ work schedules are unchanged in summer, so why the slump in attendance at religious services? Next year the major Jewish festival of Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the giving of the 10 Commandments, takes place after schools begin summer vacation. I’m sure many synagogues will find a year-to-year drop in attendance, even then, simply because the sun is out and the day is longer.
According to the Pew Research center, church attendance drops when the weather is “just right.” Some religious institutions change to a summer schedule to accommodate. Some move the time of services earlier or later, hoping to get a few more people through the doors. Still, attendance drops. It can happen that when the numbers get too low, services can feel lackluster. Some people don’t mind this, while other communities try to counteract the feeling of empty seats by finding innovative ways to fill them. For the past 44 summers, in the city of Avon, Connecticut, two churches have managed the summer slump differently by combining their services.
Though doctors, lawyers, and analysts might take the bulk of their vacation during the summer, surely God does not take time off. For synagogue rabbis, and I imagine for many pastors and ministers, the drop in attendance seems like something to fix. I’m not sure it is. For those who find solace in the communal nature of religious community, in good weather, the community they seek may very well be someplace other in a sanctuary. Their community might be at the beach, might be at a barbecue, or the park, or the backyard. For those who attend services for more theological reasons, for a profound connection to God, it seems likely that they are finding God where God was first encountered — out in the natural world.
The seasons change, our moods change, our wardrobe changes, and it is appropriate that the way we worship God changes also. I would encourage my rabbinic colleagues to embrace the “summer slump.” Instead of bemoaning low attendance, they might empower their communities to take advantage of their “just right” weather, and teach them to see it as a holy moment equal to a service. John Muir wrote, “Everybody needs beauty… places to play and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.” There are blessings to be said when we directly encounter the natural world. Seeing the ocean or a flowing river, hearing birds chirp or crickets sing, feeling a breeze that does not chill the bones, or watching a great sunset provides a physical manifestation to the awe, wonder, and grandeur that religious folks crave.
Blessing: Praised be the Holy Blessing One, whose majesty fills the universe.
For the past 10 years my religious community has been a Jewish high school. Many of my students go to summer camp, and by no surprise, they find greater spiritual fulfillment there than in their home synagogues. I am glad they have a direct connection with each other, and with nature. This combination uplifts the soul, which is the central intention of most services. When I was a pulpit rabbi, I would tell my congregants that if they weren’t attending Friday evening services because they were having a wonderful Shabbat meal with family or friends, I would be nothing but happy for them. If religious service attendance is down during the summer because people are enjoying each other’s company and appreciating their natural surroundings, I do not begrudge their choices. I am happy they found God where the divine has been found for millennia — outside.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.