Ron Wolfson of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles recently wrote in his “Synablog” that Jewish houses of worship are frequently failing to attract 20- and 30-somethings, which means their lifeline to the future is starting to fray. But the view from the street is that the growth of independent prayer groups and new spiritual communities is exploding, and is largely fed by the very demographic missing from many synagogues. If the mainstream Jewish community doesn’t get hip to what is driving the new start-ups soon, a whole parallel universe of Jewish communal life might just rise up and make the old structures irrelevant.
Such appeals are not new. A generation ago, “relevance” was the watchword as student rebels sought to turn academia into a platform for radical politics. But while it can be argued that the protests of the 1960s did indeed transform American universities into institutions that were in greater conformity with the politically correct notions of that era, the same cannot be said for the synagogue, which, for the most part, has resisted the winds of change and, according to enthusiasts such as Wolfson, suffered as a result.
I did not attend synagogue for almost forty years from the time I was a freethinking adolescent until my mid-fifties. Then it occurred to me, not for the first time but more urgently in middle age and amidst personal troubles, that I was missing something. Overwhelmed by memories of my late father, for whom locating a synagogue was a priority wherever he found himself, I rediscovered the place that tangibly linked me to him. I see with crystal clarity images of me attending shul with him when I was a child. I remember how proud I felt to be with him. I remember when we lived briefly in Panama how important it was to my father to find a synagogue on Yom Kippur in a foreign city. I remember how, at age nine or ten, I fasted there for the first time, although he never asked me to do so. I knew he took unspoken great pride in the vigil we kept together through a long day of tropical heat and thirst, from early morning to sundown in an old mysterious-looking temple with sand spread on the floor. I miss my father terribly. In this one small way I can be near him again.
I attend services because, whether or not I believe in God, I believe in Judaism. I believe in Judaism with absolute and unshakable conviction, and in the importance of bearing witness to this religion, to its rituals and to the people who kept faith with it. I attend not to be entertained, far less to be distracted or calmed, although all of these and more can and will happen if one attends regularly. A film, a sports event, a work of art would better serve those ends.
It is not reasonable to demand that services offer an instant “meaningful experience,” especially to the casual congregants dropping in because they have a free Friday evening or Saturday morning and think they have nothing better to do. Television might be the anodyne for such times when we want to be passive and unprepared, and to harbor no expectations. But to attend services one should be vigorously active and keenly prepared, and should hold high expectations, not of the rabbi, the liturgy, or a guest speaker, but of oneself.
I attend to observe how my own response to the services has matured over time. The services cannot and should not change to suit my individual needs. The services would not be improved by modification for my purposes alone. Exactly the inverse is true: I attend because I was the one who changed, not the synagogue. I learned to want and try to be a better Jew as a result.
The recursive melodies I heard at services offered me a path back to Judaism after long absence. It wasn’t the liturgy or the ritual. It was the music. No matter how out of tune or time our voices sometimes sound, these are our prayers and they have been our prayers in our music for thousands of years. They will be our prayers for thousands and thousands more, not the smug updates of tradition that pass for attempts at meaning.
Outside shul, I take joy in my scientific inclinations and the medical training that taught me to maintain a skeptical cast of mind. I take pleasure in the play of my thought, and in my capacity to question any and all things that cannot be proven beyond doubt.
But a man like me needs frequent reminding that just because I cannot prove something beyond doubt does not mean that thing is false, needs to learn and learn again that there is more to the world than empirical evidence and rational argument. Shul has taught me to question myself.
From grade school to high school I held a strong but sorely troubled friendship with another boy. We vied with each other for academic honors, for the loyalty of friends, and even once for the same girl. To the chagrin of our families, we were estranged for years. When we settled our differences, we were almost thirty. By then he was an exemplary and extremely knowledgeable Jew. Ever competitive, I tried to catch up with him in this respect also. But it doesn’t matter now. The Judaism we share taught us to cease our rivalry and treasure each other.
I attend services because Jews can be irritating, infuriating, and insufferable. And so can I, every bit as much and for all of the same reasons and more. I need to think about this and see it in action. As an opinionated child I commented on the loudness of a group of Jews in a synagogue my family belonged to in Philadelphia. I recall my late mother’s mild reply at the time: “Say whatever you want about their manners. But remember: These are the only people on earth who will never hate you merely because you are Jewish.” She was right. I attend services because I need to be with other Jews.
When I enter the sanctuary I see the names of the dead on the plaques lovingly displayed by the families of the deceased. I never knew these people. Yet their names must stand as only a tiny, an infinitesimal testament to the numberless Jewish dead of other congregations here and around the world. Or, as our prayer books remind us, in unmarked and unknown graves. These names demand to be looked at, hallowed, and remembered. Those memories command our ever-renewed attention. We ignore them or forget them only at the peril of losing ourselves. Soon my name will be there too. I attend services because I want someone to attend services long after me and see my name, even if they never knew me or knew of me. If we will not do this for our predecessors, will our successors do this for us? I attend because I want someone to remember me.
My week is chaos ranging from high tragedy to low farce. Attending services offers me a fixed point of reference. Whatever has happened earlier, however bad or good I thought I was or what others thought, at the synagogue I am just a Jew among other Jews and nothing else matters. I’m ashamed it took me so long to learn what so many of my fellow Jews knew instinctively: that this small space, part private, part public, where one takes momentary refuge truly is a sanctuary.
I do not go to shul because I expect to be educated and informed. If I bring with me nothing of value, how can I expect to take anything of value away? The very least I can do is to try to read the week’s Torah portion in advance. That passage is posted chapter and verse every week without fail in our congregation’s newsletter.
If I didn’t have my own copy of the Torah at home, I could visit Internet sites offering translations into English on facing Hebrew/English pages. If I want to go four or five clicks further there are innumerable sites offering learned commentary, rebuttal, and counter-rebuttal.
One can read what a sage said hundreds of years ago about the weekly passage, why Maimonides begged to differ with him, and also that some of the faculty at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York recently thought both of those commentaries needed revisiting with respectful correction. Or maybe not so respectful: We are nothing if not disputatious.
After a lifetime of squandering opportunities and showing up late for the party, of seeing the joke only after others stop laughing, of simply not getting the point, I refuse to make the same mistake with respect to Judaism. It is an endless feast. It asks of us only to sit at the table.
I can’t read Hebrew except in the minimal sense of knowing the alphabet to permit me to pronounce Hebrew words. I’d like to learn more and I’m trying to. That task is added to the lengthening list of an aging man’s pastimes, at none of which he will ever become accomplished. But the presence of siddurim with English translations on the facing page for each prayer, or in Hebrew/English alternating sentences on the same leaf, ensures that the meaning of the text chanted or sung need not be a mystery to the non-Hebrew speaker. Most major prayers and hymns are offered with English transliteration nearby. How much more user-friendly could it be? We learn to sing and pray in Hebrew the same way we learn to do anything else—by trial and error and many repetitions. Practice does not make perfect, but it makes better.
At shul, I see the children of our congregation come here to be educated and to prepare for bar and bat mitzvah. I know that the number of Jews around the world is dwindling. We reproduce ourselves inefficiently and many of us marry non-Jews. In fact, my wife is a Gentile and we are childless. These children are Judaism’s future. How can we expect them to cherish Judaism and live vibrantly Jewish lives if they come to believe their parents and the adults in their orbit find no meaning in attending services?
How can we insist that they must learn the Hebrew alphabet, sing the songs, chant the Torah, and all the rest if we show them at the same time these things hold no value for us? I attend because I want the children to see me as an adult attending services. And I want them one day to want their children to see them attending services in turn.
I attend services because if I don’t, who will?