"Why Synagogue?"

February 01, 2014
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove

Parashat Terumah

The most thought provoking, most depressing – and for this room, most relevant – data to emerge from the recent studies of New York and American Jewry concerns the decline of synagogue life. According to the Pew Study, 31 percent of Jewish respondents claimed to belong to a synagogue. Ten years ago the percentage of Jewish households reporting synagogue membership was 46 percent. For those of us in the synagogue business, that is a precipitous and alarming drop. Most of us are well aware of the narrative taking place around the country: synagogues are contracting, often times merging, and in many cases, collapsing. Here at Park Avenue our membership rolls are stable and growing, and in New York as a whole the numbers are above the national average: 44 percent of New York Jews claim to belong to a synagogue or congregation. But on the island of Manhattan, that number drops to a mere 32 percent. To put it another way: take away Borough Park, Williamsburg, the Five Towns and Great Neck, and the pride of joy of North American Jewry should think twice before declaring itself ahead of the curve on at least one metric of Jewish vitality. Play with the numbers all you want, but the facts are the facts. Locally, regionally, nationally – synagogue life has taken a hit, and is set back on its heels struggling desperately to regain its footing.

This morning, I want to think out loud with you on the following question: “Why synagogue?” There are more strategic plans, books, and blue ribbon studies out there than I can count. The commission called Synagogue 2000 was quickly replaced by another one called Synagogue 3000. People are asking all the right questions: How should dues be structured? What role can the national movements play in revitalizing local congregations? How should clergy be trained to lead congregations effectively? These are all good questions that need to be asked and – more importantly – answered and acted upon. But today I want to go to the very core of the matter: “Why synagogue?” Why, in a world of shifting Jewish demographics, limited philanthropic resources, and hyper-individualism, should synagogues exist at all? What precisely is the differentiated “value added” of a synagogue to American Jewish life? If we can’t answer this fundamental question, then all the studies and strategic plans are but a rearranging of deck chairs on a sinking ship. We exist in a marketplace of ideas and unbridled choice. If adult education is what you want – you can take a class at Skirball. If social justice is your thing – AJWS and JDC do it better than we do. If you want to advocate for Israel – join AIPAC. If you want to hear a famous speaker – our budget cannot compete with that of the New York Historical Society. Want a personal relationship with a rabbi? By Monday lunch, I can get someone from Chabad to study with you. Beautiful music? Go to the opera or philharmonic. Need a social circle? There are golf clubs in Westchester dying for your membership. Tot services? Go to the 92nd St Y for Shababa. And you know and I know that in this neighborhood, in this day and age, wanting your child to have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is not reason enough for a synagogue to exist. Rooms and rabbis can be rented easily enough. Gone are the days that you need to join a shul to celebrate Bnei Mitzvah. Synagogues are so big and clunky and cumbersome. Ours is an era of disintermediation. Whether we are shopping for groceries, books or spirituality, if we can cut out the middle man, why wouldn’t we? Why should the fate of synagogues be any different than that of Borders Books and Blockbuster Video? If we can’t answer the question “Why synagogue?” then the honorable thing to do is to call it a day, pack up our things and move on to the next big thing.

In order to give you an answer, or at least my answer, I need to take you a few steps back, actually a few thousand, specifically, to this week’s Torah portion. Because it is here, during Israel’s wilderness wanderings, that the very first Jewish communal structure was built. The mishkan, the mobile desert tabernacle, housed the ark of the covenant, the presence of God and the locus of Israel’s ritual life. “Let them make for me a sanctuary,” instructs God, “that I may dwell amongst them.” (Exodus 25:8) Israel’s efforts and contributions are both individual and collective, and so too, the return on that investment. God’s presence is felt among all the people and within each person, at each and every stage of the wilderness wanderings.

As we know from the haftorah reading usually associated with our parashah, as the Israelites gained a foothold in the land, as the Kingdom of Israel was established, King Solomon built his Temple. Modeled after the desert tabernacle, this shrine was also meant to house God’s presence, to be an axis, if you will, connecting the heavens and the earth. No longer did the structure move with Israel, rather, the Israelites moved or made festive pilgrimages to the Temple. Pesah, Shavuot and Sukkot. Offerings of thanksgiving, of guilt, of gratitude – the First and Second Temples addressed the full range of religious and communal experience. Note that the Hallel service which we say today in observance of Rosh Hodesh is the oldest of all our prayer services, dating back to the time of the Temple. A selection of biblical Psalms recited and sung with instrumentation – exaltations of God’s bounty, petitions in times of peril, prayers of affirmation and thanksgiving. Compared to its initial setting – with thousands of pilgrims flocking to the Temple – today’s Hallel is but a shadow of the Super Bowl half-time show that it must have been back then.

We know the Temple would be destroyed and the Israelites once again on the move, but – as today’s actual Haftorah from Isaiah makes clear – the desire to make God’s presence manifest, to do so in the context of community, would remain. What the structure that accomplished that looked like and the manner in which it functioned would inevitably and necessarily reflect the context in which Jews lived. The more transient and mobile the community perceived itself to be, the more modest the structure – look at the classic prayer shtiebel of medieval kehillot. When a community of Jews established the first Reform Temple in Hamburg in 1817, it was a statement not only of their claim to build a structure spiritually analogous to the Jerusalem Temple, but of their level of comfort in the German context. Just last month, members of our own community were in Newport, Rhode Island to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Touro Synagogue, a powerful statement about the liberated and stable condition of Jews on American soil. As my colleague Dr. David Starr explains in his essay on the subject, the aesthetics of Jewish houses of worship (this one included) may be read psychologically – an “edifice complex,” a window into the admixture of pride and anxiety Jews have wherever they may be.

This historical prologue would not be complete without at least mention of the most local and influential shaper of the conversation: Mordecai Kaplan. Next time you are on the West Side, take a look at the Jewish Center on 86th between Amsterdam and Columbus. In creating a ten-story structure whose mission extended well beyond a mere house of prayer – to include “a shul with a pool and a school” – Kaplan well understood the need for a synagogue to provide a sense of group identity, all the while enabling an acculturating American Jewry to be seamlessly integrated into civic life.

It is precisely this observation about Kaplan’s vision that brings us back to the question with which we began. In this day and age, just shy of one hundred years since the founding of the Jewish Center, I no longer turn to the Synagogue for my pool or gym – I turn to my own gym. If I want a social outlet – what some sociologists call a “third place” away from home or work – I go to Starbucks. Kaplan’s vision for a synagogue as a communal meeting place worked in a time when Jews couldn’t afford, had no access to, or weren’t interested in what secular society offered – conditions that do not exist today. In fact, if Kaplan were alive today, he would demand that we once again reconstruct the central structure of Jewish life to fit the needs of American Jewry as it finds itself now, not a hundred years ago.

All of which means that the time has come to articulate with great clarity exactly what it is that a synagogue can provide that no other institution in the American Jewish landscape can. And the answer, the function of this synagogue – or any synagogue worthy of your attention – is not all that different from that which was stated in this week’s parasha thousands of years ago: “That I may dwell amongst them.” Only here, only in a synagogue, is the unique and infinite divinity of every human being brought into full relief in a communal context. One can go to the Grand Canyon to feel God’s presence; one can, according to Jewish law, pray pretty much wherever one pleases. But only here, only in a synagogue, can you be part of a community whose operating assumption is that everyone – young and old, rich and poor, single and married, people you like and don’t like – all of us exist equally, collectively and covenantally in God’s image and presence. With each birth, a new world begins that never existed before. With each death, we lose a life that can never be replaced. In sin, we arrive here knowing that despite our shortcomings, we may still seek spiritual rehabilitation and repair; our flaws do not preclude us from standing before God or our fellow humanity. Just the opposite, in this place we are reminded that God’s presence dwells within sinner and saint alike. In our joy we come here to express our thanksgiving to God, singing Hallel today just as they did in the Temple of old. And in our sorrow, we come here to ponder the burdensome mystery of a world in which inexplicable pain exists. If God’s presence is elusive, then a synagogue bears the promise that another person may brighten our darkness by way of the light of their divine spark, and together we may mend a broken world together. And yes, here in this synagogue we read, commemorate and ritualize the ongoing presence of God in the eternal narrative of our people – in the Torah, at the Exodus, at Mount Sinai, with the Jews of Shushan and in the modern state of Israel. Every Shabbat, every new moon, every minyan, morning and night. The means are different and in constant need of reconstruction, but our mission – our unique mission – is remarkably akin to what it was from the beginning. To be a place where God’s presence may be experienced, within each of us and among all of us, together as a community.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not add one last dimension to the conversation. The differentiated mission of a synagogue is not just the presence of God, or to feel that presence in the context of a communal setting. The promise of a synagogue is that it is the only institution I can think of that seeks to sustain its mission over the course of a lifetime. High schools, colleges and art museums are all important, but only a synagogue is there literally from cradle to grave. Think about the range of life in this building today, from newborns to senior citizens and everything in between. Here we see each other – ourselves and our children and grandchildren – go through life together. As a member of the clergy, this is without a doubt the most rewarding part of my job. Sanctity compounded over time – to be present at birth and bat mitzvah, wedding and birth again; in joy and in loss, in sacred relationship over time and, please God, a lifetime.

Religion was once defined for me as the project of building a world in which God would want to dwell. This Shabbat, let’s hold off on the world, and focus on this place – our synagogue – demanding of ourselves and modeling for others what it takes to create such a place. The means will be different than in generations past. How could it be otherwise? The model has always evolved. But we have the brand, we have the mission, and it is as ongoing, unchanging and compelling as when it was first articulated: “Build for me a sanctuary that I may dwell amongst them.” We just need to be true to it, practice it and let the divine light of this building radiate beyond our walls for others to follow.