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What is killing the American synagogue?

A synagogue on Long Island is now in ruins. It wasn't the antisemites. It was something even sadder.

Temple Emanu-El in East Meadow, N.Y., in the process of demolition. Courtesy photo

(RNS) — It is not as if I have not seen synagogues in ruins before.

I have — in photographs of Kristallnacht.

This, however, is something entirely different.

This week, I learned that Temple Emanu-El in East Meadow, N.Y., has been demolished, and that it has merged with Temple B’Nai Torah in Wantagh — which is itself a merger of Suburban Temple and Temple Judea in nearby Massapequa.

There are many reasons for the demolition of Emanu-El’s building, some of which have to do with structural issues.

But even still: To see a synagogue in ruins is ghastly.

I am a product of Long Island Judaism. I spent my childhood at Temple Beth Elohim in Old Bethpage, alav ha-shalom. It closed several years ago.

I spent my teen years at Suburban Temple in Wantagh. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was a booming, thriving synagogue of about 800 families. We had 100 kids in the youth group. We were at the synagogue three nights a week.

So, too, Temple Emanu-El in neighboring East Meadow. It, too, had throngs of teenagers. I attended my first youth group dances there.

Then, in the late 1980s, I came home to become a rabbi at a synagogue on the South Shore of Long Island.

During those years, I confronted the two B’s of the apocalypse:

  • Boca and Boynton. People were moving to Florida.
  • Beth Moses. People were dying, and “moving” to that cemetery in Farmingdale.

Over the past 30 years, there have been several mergers of Reform synagogues on Long Island. Others simply disappeared. In other cases, synagogues withered to half and then one-third of their 1960s and 1970s sizes. More mergers are coming.

It is not only on Long Island. It is happening, to some extent, in New Jersey, and in other places as well.

Particularly poignant: the closing of B’nai Sholom, in Quincy, Ill., which had been founded in the late 1860s. There, the issue was purely demographics, which is a trend in smaller cities across the country. Young people grow up there, they move away, they don’t come back.

Sometimes, synagogues close too soon. Take Manhattan, for example.

Forty years ago, there was a functioning Reform synagogue on West 79th Street.

Fifty years ago, there was a Reform synagogue on Riverside Drive in the low 90s.

A sad irony: Those synagogues folded some years before the Upper West Side would become the new Vilna. The god of real estate is a capricious god. If they could have only held on for a few more years, today they would be booming, thriving places.

But, let us be clear.

The problem is not only demography.

It is sociology.

Synagogues are shrinking not only because people are moving away or dying.

Let’s go back to Long Island. Many Jews who used to belong to those synagogues haven’t gone anywhere — except out of the synagogues. When the last child graduates from high school, when the nest is truly empty, many Jews say to themselves: “Who needs this anymore?”

We did it to ourselves.

We made synagogues so child-focused, and so bar/bat mitzvah-centric, that many Jews simply could not imagine a reality that would go beyond that.

When it comes to the High Holy Days, they say to themselves, they can always buy a ticket.

Except, synagogues do not pop up on Rosh Hashanah and then close after Neilah on Yom Kippur. Whether you are there or not, there are still salaries to pay and bills to pay and …

So, what has not worked in keeping synagogues alive?

  • Appeals to ethnic loyalty. “We need you to keep the Jewish community alive!” Not to this generation.
  • Probable future need. “Who is going to do your funeral if you don’t have a rabbi?” Answer: a pick-up rabbi from the funeral home. Or, a friend or close relative. Or, increasingly: no funerals at all.

This is a religious issue.

We have been fighting a religious war on three fronts.

First: the war for our faith.

From the Pew study of American Jews:

  • “Jews exhibit lower levels of religious commitment than the U.S. general public, among whom 56% say religion is very important in their lives and an additional 23% say it is somewhat important.” The comparative figures for Jews are 26 percent (very important) and 29 percent (somewhat important).
  • “Belief in God is much more common among the general public than among Jews. Even among Jews by religion, belief in God is less common than among members of other major U.S. religious groups.”
  • “Jews report attending religious services at much lower rates than do other religious groups. Six-in-ten Christians (62 percent) say they attend religious services at least once or twice a month (compared with 29 percent of Jews by religion).”

Second: the war against consumerism, which is the real religion of America.

  • I can buy whatever I want and whatever I need – whenever I want it. What I cannot buy, I can rent.
  • I only measure something by how good it makes me feel – at the moment.

Third: the war against individualism.

Rabbi Sharon Brous asks the questions that haunt me:

  • How does a culture of narcissism, over-entitlement and personalization become Jewish communal engagement?
  • How can the iPhone generation find rigorous exploration of Talmud and Jewish literature to be compelling and life-sustaining?
  • How do we cultivate a sense of obligation, enchantment, spiritual hunger in a generation that can log off or sign out in every other aspect of life?

I have other questions:

  • What should Jews “get” from synagogue membership?
  • Should synagogues rethink what it means to have a building? My former synagogue, Central Synagogue of Nassau County, and Beth Emeth, a Reconstructionist synagogue, share their living quarters. Others will share space with Jewish Community Centers.
  • Is the very idea of “dues” and “membership” dysfunctional?

After the destruction of the second Temple, the sages gathered at Yavneh and reinvented Judaism.

We need to create new Yavnehs. We will probably reinvent Judaism once again.

Jewish hope compels me to say that we can do it.

Jewish necessity compels me to say that we must do so.