There is something in the air. Perhaps it’s the warm soft wind that is signaling the beginning of the spring season — or perhaps it’s something else. With the recent turning back of our clocks we begin to enjoy the extended daylight that seemingly stretches out our evenings. Beautiful white snow can in one moment blanket our front lawns, while sixty-degree temperatures can instantly erase its remnants; leaving us with the uncertainty as to whether snow fell at all. The pleasure of being with family during the Passover Seder, the promise that comes with Baseball’s Opening Day, and the site of flowers beginning to cover our landscape, are all concrete evidence that spring has arrived. But like the warm spring breeze that gently brushes up against our faces, some changes are felt and sensed, even if we have nothing tangible to grab onto.
So when I contemplate the challenges that face Beth El and other conservative synagogues, I can’t help but fondly reminisce about the bustling synagogues of my youth and wonder what has changed. Certainly, Beth El is an oasis among synagogues. We boast of large Shabbat attendances, an engaged core of volunteers, and more than just anecdotal stories of incredible community support that inherently exemplifies the nature of this community. However, something has changed that has transformed these once thriving centers of Jewish life into institutions that are currently resigned to contending with financial pressures and the trend of shrinking synagogue membership. But perhaps more importantly than what has changed, we, as a synagogue, as Jews, need to be asking ourselves what can we do about the change and reverse its direction?
A puff of smoke last month signaled the election by the Roman Catholic Church of the first ever Latin American and Jesuit Pope. As a graduate from the masters program at St. Peter’s University, a Jesuit University, I felt somewhat of a connection with the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires. I fondly remember my first semester ethics class, which was taught by a Jesuit priest; the professor was extremely insightful and brought a very interesting and open-minded perspective to the subject matter. Broadmindedness is a characteristic I found indicative of many of the Jesuits that I encountered during my schooling. So with Pope Francis’ appointment, many feel that there has been a fundamental shift in the Church’s traditional makeup. The new Pontiff is seen as a very humble and authentic man and one who will change the tone of the papacy with a focus towards the poor and sick.
But the new Pope will also face many challenges as the Catholic Church continues to find their beliefs in direct contrast with many of the 1.2 million Catholics on such controversial issues as contraception, same-sex marriage, abortion, and bioethics. So it would seem that we as Conservative Jews might have more in common with Catholics then just having leaders who wear Kippot. Similarly, many see an expansive and large chasm between the beliefs of many Jews and the stance of the rabbinate on such important questions as: should Conservative Rabbis marry same-sex couples, how do we appeal to young Jews who reject the traditional structure and service of Conservative synagogues, and how should we welcome and embrace interfaith families in our communities.
In many congregations, including our own, we have seen a positive shift over the past decades on how we have responded to these and other questions. Being part of the Conservative movement has afforded us the opportunity to be flexible in the implementation of our rituals while conserving, as our name implies, our core Jewish values and traditions. Many synagogues in our movement over the past ten years have shifted to a mostly egalitarian service. We have also seen the recognition of non-Jewish spouses as part of the b’nai mitzvah service and as critical partners in the education of their Jewish children. The proliferation of alternate minyanim has also signaled flexibility on how we approach our traditional prayer service.
But clearly more needs to be done if we are to reverse the trend of shrinking membership. The once tested and proven methods of attracting members need to be reconsidered in the context of our modern society. High Holiday services and B’nai Mitzvahs are no longer the sole purview of our traditional synagogues and are not the deciding factor they once were in compelling Jews to becoming members of a synagogue. Jews can have many of their cultural and religious needs met by other outreach and non-traditional organizations. Furthermore, the plain and simple sad fact is that more and more Jews today no longer feel a strong sense of needing to belong to a synagogue.
But the opportunity does exist for us to strengthen our synagogues. Belief in God is on the rise. Our society has increasingly become more superficial as demonstrated by the explosion of reality TV, our fixation on the lives of our celebrities, and the tremendous value we place on immaterial things such as personal appearance, money, and fame. Our jobs have become more about financial security than a means to find fulfillment in the work of our daily lives. All of these factors together, have left people searching for meaning and spirituality in their lives.
Seemingly, the younger generation has distance themselves from each other and have shied away from intimacy as tweeting, texting, and email have replaced phone calls and face to face conversations. But the reality is that they have simply chosen an alternative medium to communicate. I believe that they, like all of us, still have an innate desire to connect and be part of community as can be seen by the exponential increase in the use of electronic social media — modernity’s way of building communities.
But it will take some drastic changes to reinvent our synagogues in a way that will attract younger families and unaffiliated Jews. For example, we need to transform our services from three-hour long recitation where the knowledgeable thrive and the unaccustomed flounder, to something engaging and more spiritual. We can no longer sit back and wait for Jews to flock to our doors asking to be a part of our community. We need to reach out to people individually and listen carefully and understand their needs. We need to be flexible and open-minded as to what will make them feel engaged and connected with our community and to their Jewish faith.
For many, letting go of the tight grip we have on some of our traditions can be scary and uncomfortable as it can feel as if the religion we’ve always known is slipping away. But instead of seeing such transformation as frightening we can recognize that these necessary changes can not only revitalize our communities but can make our tradition more beautiful and meaningful while preserving the spiritualness that lies at the core of our faith.
Recently, Rob Portman, Republican U.S. Senator from Ohio, offered a mea culpa on his stance on same-sex marriage after his son shared with him that he was gay. Portman was forced to reconsider this issue from a more personal perspective and explained his reversal as follows, “Ultimately, it came down to the Bible’s overarching themes of love and compassion and my belief that we are all children of God.” Certainly, the cynic in all of us may view this about-face as a sort of necessary shift to allow him to justify and accept his own son’s way of life. Some may argue that sometimes justifications such as this are used as tools to allow us to avoid difficult decisions and give us space to satisfy our own personal needs. But I think the senator makes an excellent point and something that we as Jews can learn from.
Often times we focus so much of our energy on the exact words of the Torah that we miss out on the silent spaces that exists between the words. It is in these sacred spaces that we find the true treasure of the torah. It is there that the theme of love for God and each other is expressed and should be used as our ultimate tool in making the changes necessary to propel us into the future.