How To Build Jewish (or Any) Community

As i have written about before, there is a mounting problem in non-orthodox (which for clarity I refer to as reform) judaism, of a dying community.  In many synagogues around the country, the average participant is 50+.  Now, let me make it clear, that if this is your life I’m referring to here, I am not passing judgement in any way, only displaying what I see as the facts of the situation.

In a discussion I was having with a friend, and in my thought process as I was writing another post here, I began to realize that there are a few problems that exacerbate this dilemma:

  • Basic disinterest- The majority of young Jews these days, seem to have inherited a lack of interest or atheism from their parents.  As a bit of perspective, we must remember that for many in their 20’s and 30’s, their parents were the first generation after the shoah (holocaust), in which their parents–if they had a love for any of it to begin with–often completely gave up on G-d.  This is, of course, understandable.  After all, why would one in such a situation not believe that G-d had abandoned him, and therefore conclude that there must not be a G-d or that it was all a waste.  Basically, these young jews lack the 3000 year old fire of the Jewish people, because they never knew it existed.
  • The draw of the goyishe world.  For most young jews, it seems as if the only thing that the jewish world has to offer is old people, dusty books in another language, and gefilte fish; while the goyishe world offers fancy and exotic foods, parties, art, and culture.  Or, in a religious sense, there is the draw of christianity that sways many because there is actually interest in the christian community.
  • In contrast to churches, where the guest of honor at every service is G-d, Jewish congregations often let G-d be entirely relative, or unnecessary.  To make things even more difficult for some people, G-d in judaism has no form whatsoever.  For many people this is confusing at least, maddening at most.  Christianity, on the other hand, has a physicality to their god, which lends tangibility.  Never mind that to the Jewish mind this is absolute heresy, this seems to more easily build understanding and devotion, in much the same way that most modern people, it seems, are more devoted to their boss at work, or fearful of their mother at report card time, than they are of G-d.
  • Churches also have a sense of obligation.  The congregants are obliged to attend, and participate.  Judaism takes exactly the opposite approach in reform circles, and any religious aspect is left up to the individual instead.
  • There is little to no activity at synagogue, or within the Jewish community outside of weekend services.  If you want people to take part in activities, it seems a given that there must be activities to take part in, yet many–if not most–reform synagogues lay idle 90% of the time.

There are, of course, many other problems, but these seem to be the main ones to me.  Now, what could possibly be the solutions?

I think that there are two main factors that must be addressed before anything can get better.  First, there must be a universal understanding as to the existence and nature of G-d.  For some, this may sound very forceful and dictatorial, but what company runs without knowing what its purpose is?  If you want somebody to take part in the works of a religious institution, those who do must be on the same page at least as far as this basic goes.  If people don’t want to be a part of this, thats fine.  That is what the community already exists of, however, and the reason that young people would rather not be involved.  Jewish community has to have something more to offer besides bagels and lox, and guilt from bubbe over not marrying “a nice jewish girl.”  There has to be a reason to do this, and it starts with the supernatural.

The second factor to the solution, as I see it, is obligation.  Everyone must have the obligation to participate.  Every spoke is necessary for a wheel to function properly, and in the same way a community cannot function without the participation of every individual.  We need you to live!  You make us better just by being a part!  Also concerned with obligation, is some sort of halacha (jewish law), even if it is what the community chooses.  Now, I would much prefer that everyone at least work toward full torah observance, but lets get real here; the vast majority of reform jews operate on the supposition that halacha is completely personal, and that its fine to keep none or (almost) all of the classic halacha.  If that is always the framework, community will always struggle.  Parts of a machine cannot decide what they want their job to be because it suits them.  Employees at a  company cannot decide which company policies are relevant to them, and discharge all the rest.  Drivers on the road cannot decide, each for himself, whether or not to stop at stop signs or for pedestrians.  All of these people are a community of sorts, and there is absolutely no logic to the notion that they could decide for themselves what is right or wrong and still remain a functioning engine, corporation, or rush-hour commute.  Why then is it assumed that this would work in jewish community?  Therefore I say, even if it is not full halacha, there must be halacha that is universal, expected, and practiced in the community if the community is to survive.  AND, this is not something that happens overnight, with anybody, so there should be the understanding that although it is expected it must be built up to–but it is not relative.

Third then is opportunity.  There should always be opportunity to learn, to participate, to develop.  There is no reason whatsoever that any synagogue should ever have an incomplete meal on shabbat, but instead, every week there should be cooking classes or groups that prepare for the congregation on shabbat.  There is no reason that anyone in a jewish congregation should not learn hebrew, in fact, this should be one of the obligations and there should be classes available to teach it.  There should be homework groups, movie watching groups, music groups, music classes, even pull in group Krav Maga lessons!  “Mitzvah day” shouldn’t be something that is done only one day a year, but something that is stressed every waking moment.  At every synagogue, the door should be open every day, and there should be something to come in and do.  This is the way things are at the Boys and Girls Club, and at many churches and community centers.  The truth of the matter is, if the door is closed, there is no potential for community.

Open the doors to your synagogues, and start treating them as living organisms, and they will become such.  Keep them closed, and they will continue to wither and die.

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4 thoughts on “How To Build Jewish (or Any) Community

  1. Trevor

    I mostly agree with your subpoints but I don’t think you present a clear enough picture of how to make it succeed–which is the title of the article. If the answer is “become Orthodox” then I think you’re talking about the wrong demographic. That is an answer and frankly probably one of the best ones but I think making it a more frequent one will remain difficult.

    I think the biggest problem is that Jews view Judaism as being a restrictive religion and not worth the time or the effort. I have been told by a few Jews that some of Jew is “normal”, as in not Orthodox. Because to be Orthodox would be crazy and insane. It isn’t but that is an attitude held by a sizeable faction of non-Orthodox Jewry.

    The way to build community is to make Judaism engaging and to have people enjoy learning. Judaism has so much to offer in this regard and as you said, it is mostly untapped outside the Orthodox world. The issue of the existance of G-d is of the upmost importance. We can complain about demographics all we want but if we don’t really believe that G-d matters, then why bother being Jewish anyway. There is plenty out in the goyish world to occupy us. There’s plenty of money to be made out there and if anything being extremely succesdful is considered much more Jewish than studying Torah.

    • The title refers to how to build it, not necessarily make it “succeed,” although that would surly be the desired result I think it would be a natural one if a strong community were built in the first place.

  2. Trevor

    I also wouldn’t offer church as a positive counterexample. In some churches attendance among congregants is expected but it is by no means made an obligation. I do think certain churches (a definite minority by the way) have most synagogues beat but in many ways, a lot of the churches have the same problems non-Orthodox synagogues do. And contrary to your statements, I think most churches are equally dead outside of the main service. It’s true that most churches have something Wednesday evening but often times attendance is very light.

    If we can find ways to get Jews to participate then we will slowly build community. We need to give people the opportunity to wrestle with the important issues of Judaism (mostly notably the existance and obligations G-d requires). If this leads people to a more full observance of halachah, then great. But so long as halachah isn’t valued for the reasons mentioned above, then non-Orthodox synogogues will continue to struggle and some will even close.

    Halachah is important but I don’t believe that full observance is critical to building community because I think it’s too much “sacrifice’ for most Jews (limited return on investment so to speak). Without learning the details of our religious tradition and why we should care then most Jews have every reason to enjoy spending Shabbat and every other day like the rest of the goyim. The challenge is to be engaging and to make Judaism (or at least Shabbat) fun. I have seen that in limited part of some non-Orthodox synagogues, but it is lacking even in those. The rest of the synagogues are in even worse shape. In short I think making learning and Jewish experience fun and meaningful are the keys to building community. But implementing these ideals can prove even more difficult for those of us trying to keep non-Orthodox synagogues from slipping into their natural demographic demise.

    • My referencing churches isn’t to say that a synagogue should be more like a church, it is to respond to the often asked question of why churches have such better attendance than synagogues. Perhaps it has more to do with the nature of being able to go and be religious one day a week and then do whatever for the rest of the week than it does with obligation or opportunity. I think that obligation and expectation are synonymous in regard to churches. You are correct though, that not all churches are thriving these days, but I think that there is much more interest than can be seen in Jewish community. That could be to market saturation as well, considering that Jews make up only .2% of the population. In fact, that is almost surely the case. The point of halacha that I am making is that there needs to be a community standard, and that it can’t be left up to the individual. That holds true for whatever the halacha is that becomes the standard, even if it isn’t full observance. You raise a very good point in that it does need to be a personal experience, but halacha is more a communal drive than it is personal. I wrote in another post about how the mitzvoth are all between G-d and man, as well as all being between man and man. At least, that is the way I’ve come to think of it.

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