This is a great story and one to which I can relate. My grandfather “built” a synagogue that became part of my childhood. While it was in another city, it had special status because of him. The social hall was even named for him. Then in the mid 2000’s the congregation moved to the suburbs and the building became a Pentecostal church.
At first I was crushed, but my feelings have reversed. Judaism does not hold synagogues (the buildings) as sacred – that’s a Christian concept we’ve adopted. It’s just a building. The sacred things are the people and the Torah. Yet we hang on with every fiber of our being to sustain buildings and not communities.
The author comments, “After driving up that familiar steep hill, I was struck by the overtly welcoming vibe. Parking lot spaces were reserved for first-timers, and a team of greeters stood outside the building with welcome signs. In the lobby, the words “Welcome Home” were posted above the sanctuary’s wooden doors, now painted grey, above where the Torah rescued from the Holocaust had been. A newcomer table offered a free book…” I don’t know this synagogue but his surprise at the welcoming vibe is likely one of the reasons the community is no longer viable!
Paradigm is an overused word but in this case I think it fits. The fact that we talk about “ordaining” rabbis speak to the paradigmatic change in the rabbinate. Jewish tradition says nothing about rabbis being ordained. Quite the contrary, our tradition holds that rabbis have no more religious authority than any other Jew. But that we adopted this very Christian term, replacing s’micha… (literally laying of hands) speaks to a need for change.
Protestant seminaries abound. The Association for Theological Schools (ATS), the accrediting body for American seminaries, has nearly 300 member schools. Very few are denomination-specific and even those that are accept students of many flavors other than their own. Once a student finishes their studies (usually with an M.Div.) they are then ordained by their respective denomination. So why not rabbis?
We should worry about this! Not because it’s a New York phenomenon but because while many Jews identify themselves as “cultural” Jews, I posit that food and other cultural identities are actually ethnic identifications.
According to Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, ethicity is “…a nostalgic yearning for Jewish folkways that once sustained us as a people apart, but can no longer do so – not, at least, without anti-Semitism to drive it. Ethnicity in this sense is doing what we think Jews have always done, whether they are really what Jews have always done or not, and whether or not they are even authentically Jewish; and doing them by social habit, just because we have grown up with them and feel good doing them. Jewish ethnicity is ‘doing what comes naturally,’ but with no transcendent purpose.”
To distinguish ethnicity from culture, Hoffman writes, “By Jewish culture, I mean the totality of wisdom, practices, folkways and so forth that constitute what we choose to remember of Jewish experience. That experience is simply too massive for anyone to remember it all, so every generation selects part of it (reinterpreting it as necessary), and leaves the rest behind. Leaving behind does not mean losing it forever, however. The parts of Jewish culture that do not get selected in any given generation remain in the cultural reservoir, as it were, to be recovered some day by others.”
And importantly, he contends that culture remains viable and important to Judaism because of, “ … the remarkable fact that Judaism demands study, and not just study of what is relevant, but study of everything Jewish.” I want to emphasize this – Judaism demands study… of everything Jewish.
I don’t think ethnicity or culture can sustain American Judaism in part because most Jews now have no identification with “the old country,” i.e. Eastern Europe. Ask most young Jews and they have no idea that bagels and rye bread are anything more than interesting foods. Add to that the lessening interest in Judaism as a distinct culture (again, Ashkenazik/Eastern European) and what’s left to tie Jews together?
And if synagogues haven’t awakened from their head-in-the-sand slumber this might be what finally does it. Not only are Jewish teens diverging from their slightly older YJA (young Jewish adult) contemporaries, the teen cohort is one that synagogues have had some (perceived) success, though I’ve argued that their success is for those teens who are already engaged.
The other troubling thing is Jewish identity is so tied to ethnic and cultural factors that are largely gone from… American life. How will a Jewish teenager from Kansas connect with a culture she’s never known?
“For most Jewish teens, these classic measurements of Jewish identity are so far from their reality that they’re not really measuring anything of value,” he said. “Teens want to know how will this program help me flourish and become a more successful human being, not will I go to Rosh HaShanah services afterwards.”