Take a look in the pews during religious services at any local non-Orthodox congregation, and the message is clear: Jews are not showing up, or at least not in the numbers that they used to.
A panel of Jewish spiritual leaders was assembled last week at Rodef Shalom Congregation to discuss the relevancy of synagogues in the 21st century, and to examine how to reshape Jewish communal life in the years to come.
While there was no agreement among the speakers as to how to increase affiliation or how to reinvigorate congregational life, they all concurred there was a serious problem that must be addressed.
Moderated by Rabbi Danny Schiff, Foundation Scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, the one-hour forum was convened on June 5 following the congregation’s annual meeting. About 60 people were in attendance to hear the discussion among panel members Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom Congregation; Rabbi Seth Adelson of Congregation Beth Shalom; Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha; and Cantor Julie Newman of Tiferet, a Jewish spirituality project.
Greater Pittsburgh’s 2017 Jewish Community Study, conducted by Brandeis University, showed that the local Jewish population has grown 17 percent since the last community study in 2002. But while 53 percent of respondents to the 2002 study reported household synagogue membership, only 35 percent of Jewish households in 2017 are affiliated with a synagogue or another type of Jewish worship community.
“We have had synagogues in Jewish life for 2000 years and we have had rabbis and cantors and leaders of those synagogues for about that time frame,” Schiff said to the panel. “The synagogue has been the cornerstone of Jewish life. What is going wrong? What is the current malaise that we see in synagogue life caused by? Why are we in the predicament that we are in?”
Declining membership could be a function of declining need. The original purpose of synagogues — to help Jewish immigrants successfully integrate into American society while retaining their Jewish identity — is no longer essential, according to Bisno.
“I don’t think anything went wrong,” he said. “I think we were wildly successful.”
“American synagogues are a 100-year-old institution or so, premised on a set of assumptions that we have moved beyond,” Bisno explained. “We don’t have those concerns anymore. We no longer need the things that the Jewish community required or expected 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago.”
The synagogue, he said, “has to re-understand what it is as an organization.”
It is imperative to re-envision synagogues, Adelson said. “The question is how should we do that? What I have tried to focus on — I’ve been at Beth Shalom now for four years — is trying to regain the traditional sense of synagogue as serving two essential purposes: a beit tefillah, a house of prayer, but also a beit midrash, a place of study. And I think somewhere along the way, synagogues lost the beit midrash. We as Jews don’t know enough of our tradition … the key to understanding everything in Jewish life is Hebrew, and how many of us speak Hebrew?”
Adelson stressed that Jews must focus on Hebrew in order to “understand the richness of the sources on the Jewish bookshelf from which we have become very distant.”
Learning from Jewish sources is the key, he said. “I think that there is tremendous value, particularly in this world in which people are looking for something, they don’t know what it is. They know they don’t like prayer because prayer is boring, and it is hard to understand. But I think that when you open the books of the Talmud, when you open Midrash and study halachic tracts, we find that these lessons still speak to us across the ages.”
While Newman said she appreciated the doors that Hebrew can open for Jews, she advocates “meeting people where they are.”
“I think people know there is a feeling of lack in their lives and we try to fill that in a lot of ways: family, friends, communities that we connect with. Synagogues need to exist. But Tiferet is a Jewish spirituality project. Tiferet lives between the space between the synagogue and the wilderness. I think synagogues will need to change and not every synagogue will look the same. In fact, they will look very different based on where they are and who belongs.”
Newman envisions a “Jewish ecosystem” with “many on-ramps for people.”
Spiritual practices, she said, are “really compelling for people in this time and place,” and can include “singing, group singing, meditation, yoga and other sorts of embodied practice.”
Myers, whose congregation has been housed in Rodef Shalom since the massacre of Oct. 27 and is now in discussions about what to do with its synagogue building, noted that the challenges Tree of Life*Or Simcha faced prior to the massacre will still exist when the building reopens.
“‘What should the Tree of Life be?’ are conversations that we are having,” Myers said.
For Jews in America, he said, a contemporary congregation “is like a cafeteria. We pick and choose what we do to identify and be self-identifying as Jews.”
Since Oct. 27, Myers has been speaking to his flock more about God and faith, and “it makes people uncomfortable,” he said. “If Jews can’t talk about God, what are we supposed to talk about? We are in the God business up here. So to me, it has to start with putting God back into the equation.”
Community cooperation could provide a way to enrich Jewish congregational life, Bisno posited.
“I think the trick is to get out of our own way as congregations, to be no longer concerned with who gets the credit for something, and aware that we can’t do everything,” he said.
He suggested that a way forward could have each congregation focus on just one aspect of Jewish life, and do that really well.
“It seems to me that the challenge we have is to figure out to operate in such a way that we are client-focused, Jew-focused, family-focused, rather than congregationally focused,” Bisno said. “As long as we don’t care who gets the credit, we can accomplish great things if we are willing to reorganize the entire system.”
But what if, Schiff queried, regardless of creative solutions, synagogues disappear? Can Jewish life be sustained without synagogues?
“Clearly people are living Jewish lives absent the synagogue,” Bisno responded. “Our challenge is to figure out what role the synagogue has going forward and how we can best meet that task.”
While no definitive answers emerged from the conversation, David Kalson, senior vice president of Rodef Shalom, saw the willingness to talk about the issue as a promising first step in tackling it.
“It was confirming to me that these are challenges every congregation faces — of expensive real estate and dwindling congregations and trying to find a path forward that provides meaning,” Kalson said.
“Rodef Shalom has for over 100 years been a sacred space, but what has really made it sacred in this last eight months has been having Tree of Life and Dor Hadash embraced by our congregation in this building,” he continued. “It changes the way I look at this sacred space, and it changes the way I look at a building and to recognize we do need these spaces, but how we populate these spaces and what we do within these spaces has to be different. This evening really drove that home, and I hope this is just the beginning of a sustained conversation on this critically important topic.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at