Is Capitalism Hurting Synagogue Life?

“How big is your congregation?”

This is the number one question I am asked as a congregational rabbi in settings of other rabbis or Jews in general. Rabbi valedictories celebrating a successful rabbinate (upon retirement, for example) will always use synagogue growth as a number one sign of success. And any congregational website will feature its size (and, if relevant, its historic growth) as a sign of vitality.

But is this really the best measure? Why are we obsessed with size when we talk about congregations?

The reason perhaps for our interest in synagogue size is our orientation towards capitalism. Not that we as a people consciously subscribe to the tenets of capitalism and seek to apply them to congregational life, but because we subconsciously are influenced by the greater American culture built around a capitalist understanding. And while I am not an economist, I know that a hallmark of a capitalist system is the private ownership of the means of production with the goal of acquiring more capital.

Synagogues are therefore capitalistic in that they are independent, private organizations that try to acquire more capital and wealth (i.e., more members and thus more money) so it can be reinvested in the congregation in the form of more programs and opportunities for its members. Larger congregations are therefore seen as more successful because they attract more members and can do more things with the more resources they have.

But this is not without its challenges.

Just as in the capitalist economic model we run the risk (as we see being played out in our country) of creating increasing inequality of wealth, within synagogue life we also have increasing inequality of wealth. Large congregations with a larger donor base and access to resources are able to do the programs and provide the opportunities that will then attract more members and donors which allows for more programs and more opportunities, which attracts more members and donors, and so on. Smaller congregations do not have a large donor base or access to resources and therefore may not be able to offer the same opportunities as a large congregation. Thus they may shrink, or plateau.

And this leads to something more problematic than income inequality — Jewish inequality. If people attached to larger, richer congregations have more opportunities for Jewish learning and experiences than those attached to smaller, poorer ones, then we run the risk of creating two classes of Jews, one with more access and knowledge and the other limited in varieties of exposure.

In addition to these gaps among congregations, size in and of itself becomes an issue within congregations when we lose the ability to create meaningful connections and relationships among members. With too many bar or bat mitzvah students, for example, we can’t give them the individual attention they deserve. And when our congregations become too big we become more program oriented because organic relationships among people are harder to foster. We then ironically need to create new programs to develop the relationships that are not coming naturally.

So size is a factor, but not in the most conducive way. So let’s think beyond our current structure, and here are two un-capitalistic suggestions to address these challenges:

First, limit the size of congregations. We need to be wary of sacrificing quality for quantity. One need think only of the famous Dunbar’s number, proposed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who posited that individuals have a cognitive limit as to how many social relationships we can maintain at one time. A settled average is about 150. So what if, as a radical suggestion, we limit the size of congregations to 150 (or something similar)? We can put aside the desirability for growth in size and consciously focus on the growth in spirit.

And if we are going to limit the size of congregations, then we are going to need to redistribute wealth. We need to change the situation where congregations with many donors are fortunate and those without are less fortunate. We need to figure out a solution where money raised for synagogue life can be consciously redistributed among all congregations. And this should be not in the form of grants, or loans, or rewards for “innovation” (for what is commonplace for one congregation may be innovative for another) but rather a real redistribution in which richer congregations give money to poorer congregations so that they all have the same opportunities for education, speakers, music, etc. (Movement institutions can help with this process.)

We should strive to create an egalitarian Jewish community — a Jewish community in which the maximum amount of people has the maximum ability to forge meaningful relationships and have access to all that Jewish communal life can offer. Our normative orientation towards capitalism does not always work in this favor. So we need to think differently, to build a Jewish community focused on depth rather than size, on souls rather than numbers.

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