— Andrew Getraer (@AndrewGetraer) October 1, 2014
A few years ago my husband learned that the cantor who had supervised his Bar Mitzvah was forced into retirement. More than one member was floored that the now elderly man who survived the comings and goings of countless rabbis would be sent out to pasture because he didn’t fit the board’s “youthful” marketing strategy. Over five years later that same “out with the old” synagogue is struggling for membership. Every once in a while we’ll see signs in yards throughout our area offering an inclusive experience for Jews (“especially intermarrieds!”, often code for desperation) who want to find a “synagogue home.”
For us, the irony of the cantor’s story is one of the many elements that arise during the yearly “should we join a synagogue” discussion. Inevitably, we reach a series of conclusions common among Gen-X/millennial crossovers like ourselves. However, contrary to the popular opinion that money is the bottom line, our reality is that we don’t need to affiliate with a synagogue in order to live Jewish lives. And apparently we aren’t alone.
Letter this morning from synagogue: Happy birthday! (my birthday is next week, but anyway) You owe us £408 for membership and burial rights.
— Nicole (@NicoleBurstein) December 24, 2014
1. Sure, we’d rather not blow thousands of membership dollars a year on a fund for a building that’s been paid for ten times over.
For those unfamiliar with the tradition, synagogue membership is paid through yearly dues charged per family at a rate determined by the synagogue’s board. In our area they add up to a few thousand dollars. Add on top of that another few thousand for the “building fund” — a charge we find highly ironic since the synagogues in our area are far older than their 30-year mortgages. (Exactly how much is that electric bill per month?)
Have kids? Add on yet another thousand at least in Hebrew school costs. For what we’d eventually be putting out when we have kids, my husband and I realized we could take our children on a nice trip to Israel practically every summer for what it’d cost to take them to synagogue for an hour a week to sit there, cry, complain, and eventually play with friends, something they could easily do out back for free.
2. The reality is, we don’t have the time to commit.
If we’re committing those kind of finances, you’d better be sure my husband and I would make it a point of going to shul. The reality however is simple. Like most American workers with a commute, we’d be late to Friday night services and sleep through the ones held Saturday morning. Weekday minyans (prayer groups) would be out of the question. We’d do our best to make it to high holiday services, but it would be hard for my husband, who works a 24/7 on-call job. Forget committees or social groups. The reality is that synagogue membership is still designed for the nifty fifties when women and children were at home and men worked 9 to 5. It’s nice to think that a religious commitment should gear your professional life, but the American reality continues to prove otherwise, especially for Gen-X/millennial couples.
— Synagogue Next (@SynagogueNext) November 20, 2012
3. We despise well-engineered social groups.
From Orthodox to Reform and everything in-between, synagogues are first and foremost social groups geared by the political and religious tastes of their members. Invariably there’s the inner-circle of high donors, ones who pay their dues in full and go above and beyond in the community. They have beautiful families with beautiful children that would look great on the covers of magazines. Then there’s the rest of us who show up, sit in the back, and watch the show.
Guilt isn’t enough to inspire us to join in this lot’s schtick, nor is the incessant fear-mongering that we’ll disappear as a people if we don’t go to synagogue. We both find that concept especially laughable given the number of “we can eat pepperoni pizza in the basement, but not the lounge outside the sanctuary,” or, “in this shul women have to sit behind a curtain so they don’t distract men” rules we lived through growing up.
We also find the concept of peoplehood and synagogue being consistently tied together so incredibly ironic given the “Were you born Jewish? Did you convert and if so, please attach proof” questions on membership applications. Want to feel like an outsider in your new synagogue? Put down in writing that you have a convert in the family. Or, worse yet, that there’s never been an official licensed conversion at all. “You never converted but you want your child to have a bar or bat mitzvah and even an established connection to their Jewish heritage? For shame!”
It sounds good, but how often does it happen?
4. In the end, we won’t be spiritually fulfilled.
A great deal of synagogue ritual is exactly that: ritual. For some, ritual speaks volumes, providing a clearly understood channel through which we are taught God hears and understands us. For most, ritual becomes the worst form of divisive religious politicking known as “tradition.” Synagogues were originally designed to be houses of study where the Word of God was passed along orally and discussed among the congregation. Generations of rabbinic scholars morphed the synagogue into a political system that still haunts us today. We kiss the Torah, we parade it around the synagogue, we even read from it in Hebrew for the 10% or so who can understand it. But in the end we ensconce ourselves in tradition to protect us from contemplating Torah’s contemporary relevance. If we do engage in that dangerous conversation, it is to quote the rabbi, not the Word of God itself. If the patriarchs we praise didn’t need a mediator, why do we?
Far from their original intent, synagogues have become fences in the Jewish world dividing the haves from the have nots, the ins from the outs, the guilty from the redeemed. These coveted statuses are determined based on your yearly income and your ability to fit in and follow trend, not engage with God’s Word alongside your fellow Jews. If the only argument that can be made in favor of synagogue membership is the preservation of our culture, we should be examining what kind of culture we are preserving instead of blindly defending a corrupted system because “we’ve always done it this way.”