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Jewish Journal

The other annual migration of North American Jews: to shul

by Roger Price

August 29, 2013 | 12:42 pm

Beth Emet, Evanston, IL
Credit: R. Price

   The first of the two annual migrations of North American Jews began a couple of weeks ago, with thousands and thousands of young Jews heading to colleges across the continent. (See The annual migration of North American Jews to college.) The second seasonal migration of North American Jews is quite different. The population is generally older, sometimes much older, than the college bound migrants. Often, but not always, these relatively older adults are accompanied by young children.

   This second migration, which begins soon, amounts to a pilgrimage. The distances travelled are generally shorter than the trips to college, sometimes much shorter. The older adults, whether singly, in pairs or in family groups, will go to some synagogue or temple, maybe even a hotel, a movie theatre or a church, but in any event to some location where other Jews are gathering to participate in High Holy Days services. For many, this will be the only time or two in the year in which they will engage in any religious or Jewish communal activity.

   The 2012 Jewish Values Survey of the Public Religion Research Institute found that “slightly more than one-third (35%) of American Jews report being a member of a local synagogue . . . .” Self-identifying Conservative Jews appear to do so about twenty-five percent (25%) more often than self-identified Reform Jews. Among those who are “just Jewish,” only one in twenty is a member of a congregation.

   Whether affiliated or not, only about a fifth (21%) of American Jews attend religious services once or twice a month. Just over a quarter (26%) never attend. That leaves slightly more than half of the adult Jewish population (52%) who say they attend “seldom” or “a few times a year.” (See  http://publicreligion.org/research/2012/04/jewish-values-survey/.  (At 27.))  If they are going to participate at all in Jewish communal activity, High Holidays are the likely time.                                                  

   What will they see and what will they hear? When they arrive at their destination, they may see family or old friends, or not. But there will be crowds, dense crowds, generally dressed well, as if attending an important business meeting. For some, that will be joyous. For others, it will accentuate feelings of anomy or alienation from the community.

   Relatively few will understand whatever is said in the ancient tongue that dominates the occasion. For most, the service will be inaccessible, even opaque. That will be a cause of restlessness for some, and a source of white noise for others.   

   The service style may be dominated by what appears to be mumbling or by choirs with flowing robes and operatic soloists, depending on the custom of the congregation. The participants may stand or sit, more or less on cue, but a good number will not be able to penetrate through the mysterious activities to figure out whether there is any substance there.

   Switching from the old language to the current one may not help the annual migrants. Indeed, discomfort for them often sets in when some message is communicated in English. Not comfortable with God-talk to begin with, here they are confronted with God-talk on steroids. This is not the relatively soft creation and rest theology of the Sabbath. Nor is this the time for some namby-pamby, sugar-coated, feel-good spirituality. These holy days are the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, beginning with one day at once joyous as it is Hayom Harat Olam, the birthday of the world, and solemn, for it is also Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment. It is time for seriousness about how we behave -- a purely confrontational experience with the God as King, as Judge, and, most significantly, as Decreer not only of life and death, but if one is to die, how that person shall die, whether by fire or by water, whether by sword or by beast, whether by hunger or by thirst.

   Most of the words are of ancient origin, quotations from ancient texts, collected over time and arranged in a particular order. Many of the passages are poetic. All are metaphors, depicting the God of the ancient ones in terms to which those in communities far, far away in space and time could relate.

   By training and experience, some will understand the references and the symbolism. They will transvalue the words and phrases into messages that work for them. However, most of those annual migrants in attendance will not relate well to the old language. They will hear about God as Malkenu, Our King, but they are citizens of a democratic republic and do not, even cannot, conceive of themselves as the subject of any King (even if corrected politically to Sovereign or Ruler). If history is any guide, they will likely not return for another year.

   They will hear about God as Avinu, Our Father, but they know too much about DNA and evolution and, in any event, are too independent to warm to this kind of paternalism. They do not, even cannot, conceive of themselves as the children of this distant and invisible Father (again, even if gender neutered to Parent or Ancestor). They will likely not return for another year.

   They will hear about God as Roeh, the Shepherd, but they are now urban, or maybe suburban, certainly not rural. They do not, even cannot, conceive of themselves as members of a flock to be herded even protected. They will likely not return for another year.

   Of course, some in attendance will be like the father who while at services in a recent year with his pre-teen child and was asked, “Do you believe in God?” The father replied softly that he did not, prompting the next question: “Then why are we here?” Responded the father, even more softly, “I’ve been wrong before.”

   When not inundated with metaphors or other mythic poetry to which they cannot relate, or simply hedging their theological bets, some will hear descriptions of ritual practices in two temples destroyed thousands and more years ago. Most of those annual migrants in attendance will not relate to these words either. They are not familiar with a theocratic world, with animal sacrifices and special words only invoked by a priest in a special room at a special time. They have no desire to rebuild the long gone temples, and, if possible, less desire to hear about them.  They will likely not return for another year.

   Some will hear a seeming internal inconsistency in the holiday message. First they will hear that their fate is written and soon to be sealed. Then they will hear that the severe decree can be averted by teshuvah, tzedakah and t’filah, i.e., by repentance, charity and prayer. Well, they might ask, “Is my fate sealed or isn’t it?” As the service progresses, they will not have much time, even if they have the inclination, to resolve the apparent conflict or contemplate how much needs to be done and by when.

   Unless something is done to change the pattern, once they have satisfied whatever urge or obligation they felt which drew them to congregate, most of the annual migrants will not return to a pilgrimage site for another year. Not understanding much of what has just occurred, many will feel  (perhaps paradoxically) smugly satisfied that they have done their duty and yet are so much superior to the regulars who were singing their hearts out, beating the chests at the mention of community foibles and, on that last day, cranky with hunger.

   Most rabbis who conduct High Holy Day services are not stupid. They know that a good number of annual migrants will not come back for another year. And they even know that berating them for their lack of attendance throughout the year will be counter-productive. Nevertheless, many of these rabbis will still be tempted to win over the migrants with a clever sermon or some cute gambit they think might hold appeal. The wise ones will resist that temptation, and remember that these holidays are not about them, nor even about God. The holidays are about the people who come to celebrate them, many of whom do so despite their distaste for theology and ritual, trying to balance a desire to approach with a desire to avoid.

   The wise rabbis will, therefore, reduce and maybe eliminate their sermons. Here less can truly be more. Some wise rabbis will use the time saved to insert teaching moments throughout the service. For instance, when the time comes for a communal confession which is traditionally accompanied by breast beating, rather than just read and beat, they will take the time to explain the practice, and even provide alternatives like heart stroking. Encouraging physical movement will at minimum serve as a useful break from the sitting and standing routine. Properly done, changes of tone and pace will be memorable.

   Rather than reading the English portions of the prayer book rapidly and in a “responsive” manner, some wise rabbis will also inject moments of silence and refer congregants to the commentaries that now line mahzorim such as Lev Shalem and Kol Haneshamah. If the books presently used do not contain such lessons, the wise rabbis will provide them. The annual migrants think that they are smart. The wise rabbis will give them times to think. On occasion, the way to the heart travels through the head. The wise rabbis will provide the occasions.

   Of course, the notion that these services are problematic for many is not a novel insight.  And others have also offered hope that wise rabbis will actually try to engage their congregants as active participants. See, for instance, the challenge of writer Abigail Pogrebin.  But the lack of novelty does not mean that the problem should not be addressed. Rather, it speaks to its pervasive and persistent nature. The inconvenient truth is that many of the annual migrants think that the services they attend are repetitious and boring. The wise rabbis will try to prove them wrong, not with lectures, but with leadership. And that leadership cannot come too soon.

        * * * * *

   The annual migration of the North American Jews to shul is approaching. It is a time for reflection and growth. For a portion of the minority of North American Jews who still affiliate with a synagogue or temple, the ancient words may yet resonate.  Maybe these individuals take these words literally and believe the statements to be true. Maybe they are able to understand the textual references and the symbolism and accept the lesson taught. Maybe the words are unimportant, but they are moved by the music either because of its inherent worthiness or because of its ability to evoke fond memories. Regardless, their continued attendance and engagement must be respected. But the data suggests that they are a minority and a diminishing one at that.

   Here’s the thing. The Jewish population in North America is shrinking. Synagogue membership is shrinking. Attendance of those who are members is shrinking. And every year, we lose Jews who had ties directly or through close relationships to an older world, maybe based in a distant land. And every year, we gain, or at least have the potential to gain, highly educated Jews who see the world differently than did their ancestors.  As a result of all these trends, the remaining population of Jews, not entirely for sure, but increasingly, does not accept that which is being offered. More crassly, they are not buying what is being sold.

   If we were merchants or goods or services and we saw our customer base change, if we saw that the new customer base was not coming into the store as much, not buying as much when it came in, what would we do? For starters, we might take a hard look at whether the problem is the merchandise or the packaging. We might try to figure out what our customers want and whether we can provide it. Especially difficult will be the question about how to attract new customers without alienating the remaining ones who are quite content with the familiar product.

   To be clear, Judaism is not a good or service to be sold and bought in the marketplace.  And the inventory should not be changed to meet any and all demands. But two things are for sure. First, as the old adage has it, if we keep going the way we are going, we are going to get where we are headed. The returning herds in each annual High Holy Day migration will be thinner and thinner, the annual meeting grounds will be fewer and less inviting, and at some tipping point there will be an absence of critical mass. Second, this path is not immutable and that destination is not inevitable.

   Averting the severe decline will, however, require more than teshuvah, tzedakah and t’filah. It will require some tachlis, too, that is, some frank, reality based substantive talk. It will require that seminaries and rabbis start talking sense to, and talking sensibly with, the American Jewish community. It will require recognition that saying the same things that have been said before at the migration celebrations, only louder or more slowly or with bigger typeface and more transliterations, will not cause anyone to hear or understand them better.

   All God-talk is metaphorical, but some metaphors may be better than others. It is well past time to find the better ones and use them.  Now we must turn a worrisome trend into an opportunity, as with the other annual migration of North American Jews, to build a vibrant, positive Judaism for the adults of Israel.


   A version of this article was previously published at www.judaismandscience.com.

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