Friday, January 6, 2012

Israel and the American Synagogue: Two Crises of Meaning

What should it take to be a member of a synagogue?
    On the face of it, it's a stupid question. If you want to join the synagogue, you fill out a form, you attest to the fact that you are Jewish, you send in a check, and you're a member. That's it. We define membership by payment of membership dues.
       But  I'd like to ask you to do a thought experiment with me.
     Imagine that an unexpected benefactor left your synagogue a bequest of tens of millions of dollars which was to be added to your synagogue's existing endowment. Imagine furthermore that while none of the principle could be spent, all of the interest income could be, but there was a further stipulation that the synagogue could no longer charge membership dues. 
    How would we define membership if dues didn't factor into the equation? Would we simply ask people to fill out a form, which would entitle them to all the benefits of membership? Or would we ask something else? Perhaps attendance at services a certain number of times per year, or participation on a committee, or bringing a certain number of canned food items for the soup kitchen?
    A further question: if we did not charge dues, but required active participation in some other way, would synagogue membership increase? Or would it remain stable, or perhaps even decrease? Maybe it is easier to ask people to give money than to ask them to put "sweat equity" into the congregation.
    It's not likely that the scenario I described is going to come to pass any time soon, but it is worth thinking about as synagogues go about the task of redefining themselves. I raise the point because a congregation is really nothing more than the sum of its members. A congregation is not a building; the building is the place where some of what the congregation does, takes place. A congregation is not the board, or the rabbi. The building, the board, and the rabbi can contribute to the success of the congregation, or to its failure, but ultimately, the congregation is its members.
    I started thinking about this question for a couple of reasons. One, of course, is that I am always thinking about synagogues and how they can become the kind of vibrant congregations I remain convinced that they can be. But it is also because of a provocative recent book by Daniel Gordis called Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End. Danny is a fellow Conservative rabbi; we shared an office suite when we both were on the staff of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. He has lived in Israel for about ten years, and is currently on the staff of the Shalem Center, a moderately right-of-center Israeli think tank.
    I think it is always important -- and sadly, too rare in contemporary society -- to read and discuss books that you might not necessarily agree with. And as I thought I might, I disagree with some, but not all, of what Danny writes. Having said that, I think that he is onto a larger point which is undoubtedly correct.
    You might not realize it if all your knowledge about Israel comes either from the US media or the publications of the various Jewish organizations, but the main threat to Israel today is not external. It is, rather, internal -- a crisis of meaning, if you will. Many Israelis, in particular those from the non-religious majority, are questioning their very commitment to their country.
    The problem is that many Israelis no longer really understand why Israel is necessary. Why should they continue to live in a country where everything is twice as expensive as it is in the U.S., yet salaries are far lower? Why should they continue to send their sons for three years of military service and their daughters for two? Why should they continue to do a month of reserve duty until their 50s? Why should they raise their kids in a Hebrew-language rather than English-language school system, thus placing them at a severe disadvantage in an increasingly global economy? And even though the security situation is much improved over the last few years, why should they continue to live in a place where the risk of death or injury from a terrorist bomb or Kassam rocket remains very real? If the average Israeli has no good answer to these questions, they will leave, or if they remain, they and their kids will evade military service, faking a disability or, in the case of girls, falsely claiming to be Orthodox. And Danny cites statistics which show that evasion, once unthinkable, is now a growing phenomenon. As is the brain drain of educated Israelis moving to the United States, to Europe, the Third World, and other places.
    So Danny's larger point, I think, is that it is not just a question of which military, diplomatic, or economic policies Israel adopts. The larger question is whether Israel can recapture a sense of purpose, define its raison d'etre and once again capture the imagination of its people, and of world Jewry, in a way that makes the necessary sacrifices seem worthwhile.
    Danny's book has helped me to sharpen some of my own thoughts about the challenges contemporary synagogues face. Many synagogues have spent a lot of time and energy trying to figure out what a synagogue should do. But our real question is not what we should do. It is what we should be.
    The entire Conservative movement is in crisis because we no longer know what we should be. Individual congregations here and there are thriving, but most are not.  The majority of Conservative congregations in this country were either founded between 1920 and 1960, or switched to Conservative Judaism from Orthodoxy during that period. Conservative Judaism met a real need for first and second generation American Jews. They wanted a place of worship which was traditional enough to remind them of the Old Country, but they wanted men and women to sit together in the American fashion. They wanted decorum, everyone sitting at the same time and standing at the same time and saying the same prayers at the same time, not the anarchy of the old-fashioned shtiebl. They wanted a rabbi with a high level of secular education who gave his sermons in English.
    The Conservative synagogue of 80 or 90 years ago was designed to help Americanize the children of immigrants while providing a religious education consonant with the realities of life in the new country. Their Jewish commitments, and those of their children, could be taken for granted. What was needed, was a way to make those Jewish commitments fit in with the larger American society.
    The synagogue was also the social hub of the community. Despite the rhetoric of the American "melting pot," society was really a mosaic. Jews lived among other Jews, for the most part, and members of other ethno-religious groups also lived by and large with their "own kind." Jews lived mostly in Jewish neighborhoods, had mostly Jewish friends, and even if they achieved prominence in business or politics, could never quite achieve full acceptance by the dominant WASP power structure.
    Eighty or ninety years later and things are completely different. We don't need the synagogue to help us learn how to become Americans. We don't need the synagogue as the locus of our social lives, because all of us have many non-Jewish friends. As communities age, fewer and fewer people need the synagogue to give their kids a Jewish education and prepare them for Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
    The question is, do we need synagogues at all? I believe the answer is yes, of course, or I wouldn't devote my life and my career to it. You probably believe the answer is yes, as well, or you wouldn't bother to pay your dues -- even if that is, in fact, the only thing you do as a synagogue member. But why do we need a synagogue at all? What does it mean to be a member? The answers to our Diaspora "crisis of meaning" are no less important than the answers of our brothers and sisters in Israel.


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