The Synagogue Today | The state of our shuls: 10 things to know about Bay Area synagogue life

The tables are round, clothed in crisp white linen. With their coffee cups full, attendees of Emanu-El Café are ready to mix and mingle.

They gather in the chapel of Congregation Emanu-El, the San Francisco synagogue to which they belong. These congregants — many of them strangers to each other when the night began — have come together for something increasingly rare in the Facebook era: face-to-face socializing.

The brainchild of Sandy Rechtschaffen, the synagogue’s director of community engagement, Emanu-El Café offers members a chance to discuss meaningful topics and bond with one another. Rechtschaffen hopes they will also come to view temple membership as an indispensable part of their lives.

“If you look at old synagogue models, it’s programming, programming, programming,” she says. “That’s what we’re trying to pull away from.”

Her new not-a-program, she says, is about “creating a space where congregants can reflect on what they want their synagogue to mean at whatever stage they are in life.”

The word “synagogue” comes from the Greek for “a place to gather together.” Indeed, the synagogue traditionally has been the center of Jewish life, the place where Jews not only prayed, but shmoozed.

At a time where many synagogues face crises of both membership and finances, some are looking to return to or reinforce that earlier model to meet the needs of a new generation.

“Synagogues are vital for the future of the community,” says Rabbi Marvin Goodman, executive director of the Northern California Board of Rabbis, “but they need to reimagine themselves if they’re going to thrive. They will survive, but it’s a question of what kind of survival.”

It would mean competing with freelancers and websites.

Nowadays, anyone interested in Jewish learning can find most everything on the Internet. A couple can hire an independent trainer to prepare their son for his bar mitzvah. In Los Angeles, there’s an outfit called Shiva Sisters, a one-stop shop for the bereaved, offering everything from rounding up a shiva minyan to catering a funeral reception.

The buzzword for this is “transactional Judaism,” meaning fee-for-service exchanges. In that environment, the old dues-based financial model that sustained synagogues for years may no longer work. Many today offer fee-for-service to some degree.

“If people are not joining like they used to, is the membership model that currently exists sustainable?” Goodman wonders. “My sense is [synagogues] are holding their own, but the long-term trajectory is questionable as it seems younger people are not connecting.”

Beth Cousens

Goodman hopes synagogues will move away from transactional Judaism toward “relational Judaism,” a term coined by Ron Wolfson, a professor of education at the American Jewish University who studies synagogue life.

The term refers to a Jewish life based on community connections on a deeper interpersonal level.

One of Wolfson’s admirers is Beth Cousens, a San Francisco consultant to Jewish organizations. She says to move in the direction of relational Judaism, synagogues must develop individual visions of what “vibrant Jewish life looks like in the 21st century, and communicate that vision continually and beautifully.”

If synagogues were central to Jewish life in the 20th century, when newly arrived Jewish immigrants sought fellowship in a new country, things are different today. Jews have found their place in an America that is increasingly decentralized.

Cousens acknowledges the shift, saying, “Fundamen-tally, Jewish life was not meant to be lived in institutions — [it was meant to be lived] 24/7, and that includes our homes and our streets. The next phase for synagogues is to help people figure out how to be producers of their own Jewish meaning, owners of their own Jewish lives.”

For young adults in particular, that may not include synagogue membership. Cousens thinks young Jews resist joining in part because “the concept of Jewish otherness is no longer powerful. They don’t run to synagogues to differentiate themselves from their peers.”

Jessica Zimmerman Graf, a young San Francisco rabbi, worries about this. She serves as director of congregational engagement for Synagogue 3000, a national organization working to strengthen synagogues.

“There’s been a radical shift in the way people look at interconnectedness,” she says. “As a result, we have lost a lot of profound connection that was possible through synagogues.”

That’s why she supports relational Judaism, and thinks synagogues must move in that direction. She admits it won’t be easy.

“People are moving around more and partnering much later,” Graf notes, “especially in the Bay Area. All the things a synagogue normally provides, people look for in other places. They don’t see the synagogue necessarily as the central address for Jewish life.”

Alex Shahery, 23, fits that description. Brought up in New York and Los Angeles in a temple-going family, the S.F.-based business consultant says expressing his Jewish identity is important to him. He just doesn’t need a synagogue to do that.

“In college it’s unnecessary,” he says of membership. “After college, it’s unnecessary, and in San Francisco the past two years, it’s been unnecessary. In a lot of ways it reflects the young adult community in the world today. We’re a highly mobile, non-committal generation. There’s so much at our fingertips, literally, with our phones.”

Though interested in Jewish life, Shahery prefers what he calls “specific events rather than specific communities.” He exemplifies the trend observers like Graf and Cousens have noticed, one of paying for individual services or events, whether a mixer of young adult Jews or Torah study.

That general preference may help explain the

plethora of innovative Jewish startups in the region. The Bay Area offers Jews options unlike anywhere else, with homegrown organizations like Urban Adamah and Wilderness Torah tempting curious, often secular, younger Jews.

Sandy Rechtschaffen

Shahery is part of a study group organized by Kevah, a Berkeley-based adult Jewish learning nonprofit. Twice a month, he meets in San Francisco with a group of 30 for study, something that he says obviates the need for a synagogue Torah study group.

“I see Jewish learning as an essential component of my overall interest in personal growth,” Shaherey notes, “but I find most [Jewish] young adults have no interest in any type of Torah or religious learning. People feel uncomfortable with it.”

Graf greatly admires the Kevahs and Wilderness Torahs out there, but worries they may supplant synagogues, serving as final destinations rather than as gateways into Jewish life.

“In innovation there is always the danger that the establishment will be replaced,” Graf says, “but I believe the synagogue offers something these other things don’t. I was in New York City on 9/11. There were enormous crowds at synagogues afterward because people wanted to be with community. They went back to this home.”

Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills has been Amy Asin’s spiritual home for decades. Though one of the region’s largest congregations with 1,600 member households, Beth Am has fostered a “bottom-up” culture in which, according to Asin, congregants create for themselves meaningful Jewish lives.

She cites as examples congregant-created programs such as the temple family camping trip and re-envisioned havurahs (groups for friendship, study or prayer). “Beth Am gets it,” she says. “There’s very little ‘We don’t do it that way here.’ If you can find nine other people, you can do it.”

Asin is not only a congregant and former synagogue president. She is also a professional consultant to synagogues, helping them grow and engage members.

An optimist, Asin rejects the conventional wisdom that synagogues are in decline. She does concede that Jews may opt to pursue Jewish life without joining a synagogue. There’s no law against studying Torah at the kitchen table. However, despite the pressures, she says “there are incredible things happening at synagogues right now.”

Moreover, she adds, congregations do not need to be the size of Beth Am or Emanu-El to make meaningful changes.

One smaller congregation working to foster relational Judaism is Or Shalom Jewish Community in San Francisco. In the six years Rabbi Katie Mizrahi has been there, membership has grown from 100 to 175 households, which she attributes to a collective desire for “authentic supportive community,” something synagogues were meant to provide.

“When people go to a synagogue, they’re looking for lifelong connections with other people,” Mizrahi says. “When I think of what people look for in synagogue life, there are two dimensions: the vertical connection to God and spirituality, which can happen in a cave or mountaintop. Then there’s the horizontal connection: friendships and community. Those are just as important, and if you don’t have those you’re not going to stay in the community.”

To keep people engaged, Or Shalom offers congregant-designed programs such as the News Minyan, a group of about 20 that meets monthly to discuss current events (and tie them to Jewish texts). Also available is the Considering God Salon, for congregants who are struggling with the God concept.

“We have something unique to offer,” Mizrahi says, “but it’s a countercultural idea to create these kinds of communities in 21st-century America. In some ways it’s uncharted territory for people.”

At Emanu-El, in addition to Emanu-El Café, Rechtschaffen has instituted a network of neighborhood liaisons, temple members assigned by ZIP code to keep tabs on fellow members nearby. The liaisons do everything from organize get-togethers, such as Shabbat dinners, to sending out mazel tov cards when a neighboring congregant has a baby.

Rabbi Marvin Goodman

Aliza Nogradi, 29, lives in the Russian Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, and volunteered in February to serve as her area’s liaison. Since then, she and her husband, David, have made new friends through the program.

“It’s really important for Emanu-El to have this community infrastructure, especially because there’s such a wide range of ages in the membership,” she says.

Even at a large synagogue like Emanu-El, with more than 2,000 member households, she found that  “everyone in their own way is looking for more community.”

That’s the sort of thing that gives hope to synagogue watchers like Asin.

“The best way to build that Jewish future is to build a Jewish present,” she says. “In terms of Jewish engagement that’s what [synagogues] are doing: building a dynamic Jewish present for children and their families. If they do that, their kids will demand an engaging Jewish present.”

Even a confirmed non-joiner like Shahery won’t rule out synagogue membership for good.

“Long term,” he says, “I think I would want [membership] as my life becomes more stable by getting married, having kids and being in one place for more than two weeks at a time.”


By the numbers

1. How many?

106, more or less.

2. Where are they?

The East Bay leads the pack with 34, followed by the Peninsula with 28, San Francisco with 25 and the North Bay with 19.

Rabbi Katie Mizrahi

3. Who was first?

It’s a tie. Congregation Emanu-El and Congregation Sherith Israel, both of San Francisco, were founded simultaneously in 1851, as the Polish and German Jews couldn’t agree on which customs to follow. Emanu-El was predominantly German, while Sherith Israel’s congregants were primarily Polish.

4. Biggest & Smallest

San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El weighs in at 2,100 member families. At the other end is Temple Beth Sholom of San Jose, with seven dues-paying members.

5. How we roll

In San Francisco, Sonoma, Marin and the Peninsula, 38% of Jews consider themselves Reform, 17% Conservative, 3% Orthodox, 2% Reconstructionist and 1% Renewal. In the East Bay, the breakdown is  33% Reform, 15% Conservative, 4% Reconstructionist,  3% Orthodox and 2% Renewal.

6. And the rest?

In San Francisco, Sonoma, Marin and the Peninsula, 33% of Jews consider themselves secular or “no denomination,” as do 18% in the East Bay (including those who call themselves atheists, agnostics, cultural and “nothing”).

7. Who pays dues?

A big 36% of Jewish households in the South Peninsula area are dues-paying members of a synagogue, followed by 21% of East Bay Jews, 20% of Jews in Marin, 19% in the North Peninsula area, 15%  in San Francisco and 12% in Sonoma.

Aliza Nogradi

8. But do they go?

Among East Bay Jews, 9% say they attend services at least once a week; the 2004 study commissioned by the S.F.-based federation didn’t ask this question.

9. Who needs it?

That 2004 San Francisco study found less than 7% of Jewish singles under 40 belong to synagogues; but 60% of those unaffiliated younger Jews celebrate Shabbat or Jewish holidays.

10. Be true to your school

In the S.F.-based federation’s service area, 55% of children between 6 and 17 received some kind of formal Jewish education as of 2004. In the East Bay in 2011, about 40% of children that age were receiving a Jewish education.

The above figures come from the 2004 Jewish Community Study of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties; the East Bay Jewish Community Study 2011; and Resource 2013: a guide to Jewish life in the Bay Area.

J. intern Arno Rosenfeld contributed to this report.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.