Everyone stop freaking out, our future as a people is safe

When I read articles like “The State of Our Shuls” (cover story, July 26), I want to reach out and give the entire Jewish community a hug. It’s really going to be OK. We’ve been bemoaning the disappearing Jew since the Temple fell in 70 C.E. Judaism is not about to end, synagogues are not fading out; it’s just that disaster sells better than joy.

Let me pick apart some of our favorite fears.

Fear for synagogues. What’s with this word “synagogue”? It gets tossed around all the time. Synagogues need to reinvent themselves; synagogues are outdated; synagogues must change to meet the needs of their members. Synagogues simply are a group of people who have pooled their funds to buy and support a building and to use that building as a place of assembly, prayer and study. Each group of people (synagogue) decides together what they want and how to accomplish it. They are Jews, so it can get raucous, but that’s not a bad thing.

People are not going to stop banding together. They will not stop needing to connect with other people. And they will not stop trying to find or create settings that meet those needs. Some of these people will do this through synagogues.

Fear of programming. A program by any other name should still meet needs. Sandy Rechtschaffen’s “not a program” at Congregation Emanu-El, which is described in the article, is, in fact, a program. It is even arranged by a paid staff person. You can’t get any more program-y than that. But the word “program” has taken on a stuffy flavor, so we’re on to new terminology. Fine.

Traditional vs. transactional Judaism. This really made me laugh. Some people don’t want to pay dues to a synagogue, so they pay fees to a Jewish organization. What’s the difference? I can think of three Bay Area Jewish organizations that started out as not-synagogues but whose adherents quickly demanded all the elements of a shul and ended up turning those institutions into synagogues with rabbis.

Relational Judaism. I love American Jewish University professor Ron Wolfson, but do you actually need a book to tell you that life is about exactly one thing — relationships? OK, you do.

Young adults are leaving us; time to freak out. The one young adult interviewed in this story is 23. Brain experts at UCSF Medical Center say the human brain reaches full maturity sometime between 25 and 30. How can this young man know who he will be in a few years? Raised in New York and Los Angeles, he is hardly an example of Bay Area youth and their level of attachment to their home shuls.

The young adults I have interviewed in the Bay Area have an attachment to synagogues that are “like the one I grew up in.” Not surprisingly, they are looking for places that feel like home. They are consistently not-yet affiliated and go to High Holy Day services with their parents. Some of the ideas expressed by these nonmembers are: a commitment to having a Jewish home of their own someday, keeping some version of kashrut, a comfort with being “different” as Jews and an ease with synagogue life.

As one 20-something told me, “It would be weird to be anywhere but in shul during the High Holy Days; that’s where all the Jews are then.” Does this young lady go to other services? “No, I’m not into services. But I like to go home for Shabbat dinner on Fridays; my mom always makes challah.”

Your interview subject himself says at the end of the article that “long term I would want membership.” So please, everyone, let’s stop the handwringing.

The Jewish startups will replace synagogues. We don’t even know yet if these startups will survive. Fees-for-service at these organizations are not typically sufficient to pay a staff. Several wise Jewish leaders have commented that if you look back on past Jewish innovations, you’ll see their ideas were incorporated into synagogues. In other words, synagogue members liked what they saw out there and integrated it into their shul environments.

Decades ago the havurah movement was projected to replace synagogues, but instead, havurahs became a part of many shuls’ offerings. Like Wilderness Torah? Then you will probably like Torah on the Trails, a worship service at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael.

It isn’t just Amy Asin’s shul that is congregant-driven. Every shul is. The primary issue is to be sure that the majority of members, and not just an elite group, are getting to shape the direction of the synagogue.

What I found conspicuous in its absence in this article was the subject of intermarriage. But I’ll leave that for another day.

Dawn Kepler is the director of Building Jewish Bridges, a program of Lehrhaus Judaica that invites interfaith couples and families to consider Jewish choices.

Dawn Kepler
Dawn Kepler

Dawn Kepler leads Building Jewish Bridges, a program that embraces Bay Area interfaith families. “Mixed & Matched” offers advice for Jews in interfaith relationships and families. Send letters to [email protected].