A few days ago, Jeffrey Salkin learned that a synagogue he frequented as a teenager had been destroyed—not by anti-Semites or terrorists but by a professional wrecking crew. The synagogue in question, in the Long Island town of East Meadow, shuttered its doors to merge with Temple B’nai Torah in neighboring Wantagh, itself formed by the union of two synagogues that had once thrived independently. Reflecting on synagogue closures throughout the U.S., Salkin notes that they cannot be chalked up to demographic shifts alone:
Synagogues are shrinking not only because people are moving away or dying. . . . 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 ask 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 . . . Yom Kippur. Whether you are there or not, there are still salaries to pay and bills to pay.
So, what has not worked in keeping synagogues alive? Appeals to ethnic loyalty—“We need you to keep the Jewish community alive!”—don’t move younger generations. [Neither does the question] “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.
To Salkin, the problem is at its heart a religious one. According to surveys, American Jews are less likely than their Gentile compatriots to deem religion important, and less likely to believe in God. Unless something can be done to reverse these trends, he argues, expect more synagogues to close.