January 18, 2019

Why join a synagogue?

Why join a temple? When a b’nai mitzvah or a funeral comes along, why not just “rent a rabbi”? After all, you save the dues and you “pay only for what you need.” The problem, of course, is that in this complex world, troubling news and a search to find meaning, “what we need” is a whole lot more than a once- or twice-a-year relationship can provide. 

In 2000, Robert Putnam lamented in “Bowling Alone” that Americans were becoming increasingly isolated in a society that no longer valued community. The data clearly show that we are moving away from community and increasingly into our own self-created bubbles. And in these bubbles we read and digest opinions that mostly agree with our own, without meaningful interchange and debate. Putnam’s metaphor for the devolution of communal participation was the plethora of bowling leagues in America in the 1950s and how they had disappeared over time, replaced by people bowling alone.

In 2013, the Pew Research Center reported that only 31 percent of people who identify as Jews are affiliated with a synagogue. And for those of us in positions of synagogue leadership, I can tell you that these numbers are not static. They are moving — the wrong way! Fewer and fewer people are maintaining memberships in synagogues nationwide.

One reason for abandoning the communal experience is that familiar institutions, be they bowling leagues or synagogues, were unable to keep up with the times and no longer offered meaningful experiences. We became trapped in institutions that were in an endless loop of repetition. Lost were creativity, flexibility and collective joy. 

In the 1990s, I delivered a High Holy Days sermon each year to a makeshift congregation composed of unaffiliated young Jews looking for a meaningful experience outside of the formal congregational structure. This group had concluded early on something that many of us would later discover — that the traditional model of a synagogue did not offer sufficient meaning and purpose to maintain its relevance and attractiveness to people striving for more.

Eventually, however, it became clear that to raise a family with Jewish values and a sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves required commitment to a congregation. My wife and I found such a place in Stephen Wise Temple, with a rich menu of social justice activities, learning and celebration. Now I am president of that congregation, and I find myself explaining that it’s not about how much you use a temple, but how well you use what it offers and, importantly, how critical it is that we support the institution for the benefit of all those we serve.

I love Stephen Wise Temple, our spiritual home, but there is no shortage of other temple options in Los Angeles. To that congregation of the unaffiliated and others who have eschewed temple membership in the past, I urge you to “come home” to an ongoing, continuous relationship with your people. It is time to return to the greater Jewish community and acknowledge that to live a Jewish communal life is not an episodic experience. To learn and live Jewish values every day is to enhance one’s life.

Another disturbing extension of this “bowling alone” challenge to a vibrant and meaningful Jewish community is the “rent a rabbi” movement. Why not be tutored at home, learn a passable minimum and consummate the event with a big party? Parents are choosing b’nai mitzvah experiences devoid of interaction with other families engaged on the same journey; it’s all about me and not about us.

Don’t get me wrong — better to do something, anything, than not provide your child the singular experience of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah. But the “do-it-yourself” model takes a sacred rite of passage and turns it into “Jewish performance art.” It is devoid of context and community. My message to these young families is the same. Come home.

I can attest to the quality of the old, makeshift High Holy Days congregation, its warmth and sense of belonging. But like the carnival pulling into town each year, it picks up stakes, not to reveal itself again until the following autumn. I also have little doubt that the rabbis for hire produce an excellent “product.” But here’s the secret:  Synagogue life is changing. People are reading our ancient texts in ways that are life affirming and relevant to a world drowned in a cacophony of voices that increasingly are turning up the volume. People are working on meaningful social action projects that engage us with changing the city of L.A. and the world around us. One can find meaning and change the world in exciting ways through the strength of numbers.

It is not by accident that our people organized their communities into congregations. Through a congregation, one’s Jewish life experience is enhanced and expanded from an episodic relationship to a partnership with a community that is lasting and offers a rich menu of experiences throughout the year — experiences in personal development, education and in changing the world. But it is also enhanced by having clergy and a congregation to help when one is challenged by the vicissitudes of life. I had one of these moments when my father died, when my community was there to celebrate his life, just as it was there to celebrate happier events.

Within the context of a congregation, one can follow up on High Holy Days celebrations with adult education, Torah study, book clubs, visiting scholars and a variety of other activities. But one also benefits from celebrations throughout the year — dining together in a sukkah, dancing with the Torah on Simchat Torah, studying into the evening on Shavuot, experiencing Havdalah by candlelight. 

Temples have evolved to be so much more than simply being there to mark the passage of the seasons and holidays. Valley Beth Shalom gave birth to Jewish World Watch, fighting genocide in Africa. Stephen Wise Temple gave birth to a network of three summer “Freedom Schools,” teaching literacy and providing enrichment for inner-city children, while providing meaningful volunteer experiences for more than 100 Jewish teens each summer. (Full disclosure: My wife is the executive director of this independent nonprofit.) And as our community struggles with the appropriate response to the Iran agreement, it is in synagogues — and not on Facebook or in endless email blasts — where a multitude of voices are heard and where contrary views are shared and debated, all with the sensitivity and shared compassion only face-to-face interactions can provide.

Perhaps it is time for the “nonjoiners” to rethink whether there might be greater meaning and greater support through a congregational experience. I understand there is a cost to membership, but most temples accommodate people at whatever level they can afford.

Perhaps now is a time when the idea of a more permanent relationship with our people might be a powerful addition to your life. Our temple stands for two principles that describe the mission of most temples, namely, making meaning and changing the world. We must resist the temptation to disconnect from others. The loss to the individual is profound. The emptiness of a rent-a-clergy experience, of a “go-it-alone” Jewish existence creates a disconnection from what has been for thousands of years the core Jewish experience, namely, community.

The holidays approach. The time to join with your people in new and exciting ways awaits. Don’t go through life alone, in a bubble, disconnected. Sure it can be fun to bowl alone, but how much more stimulating and exciting to bowl with friends, in community. So come home to a temple near you. Find meaning. Change the world. We have been here waiting for you. 

Glenn Sonnenberg, an attorney, is president of Latitude Real Estate Investors and president of Stephen Wise Temple. He sits on the boards of Bet Tzedek, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Para Los Ninos, USC Gould School of Law and Wise Freedom School Partners. He is passionate about creating an inviting Jewish communal life for our children and grandchildren.