Reports of the Death of the Synagogue Have Been Highly Exaggerated

September 22, 2023 | Matthew Schultz
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This Yom Kippur, countless American Jews who rarely engage in communal prayer the rest of the year will show up to synagogues. Many of these institutions are thriving, but many face a host of problems stemming from a changing Jewish population, among them that fewer Jews are purchasing memberships. Matthew Schultz set out to understand the decline of American synagogues, but came to realize he was looking at a very different phenomenon:

The empty pews, the merging communities, and the shul closures that we see today are not actually signs of decline. Rather, they are signs that economic and cultural conditions no longer favor financially propping up institutions mainly for the sake of two holidays a year.

[T]he American synagogue is, as Marc Lee Raphael writes in his book, The Synagogue in America: A Short History, “the most significant Jewish institution in the life of” American Jews. . . . This centrality, however, never amounted to universal appeal. “When we discuss Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox congregants in any period, we are discussing a minority of the Jews in America,” writes Raphael. . . . Despite ebbs and flows, it has always been a small but persistent minority of American Jews which shows up regularly to services. . . .

Reversing the trend of declining memberships might be a futile effort. The typical purchaser of a synagogue membership, after all, is a young family with children, a steady income, and a permanent address. Fewer and fewer people fit this description than ever before in American history. People are more mobile than ever. . . . And they are more likely to live alone.

As for drumming up attendance, Jewish professionals can soul-search all they want, but the truth is that for some Jews, synagogue will never be alluring. The most likely reason is the simplest. They aren’t religious. They don’t believe in God and don’t want to spend precious weekend hours praying to Him in a language they don’t understand. Making it more musical or focusing on social justice may help somewhat, but it won’t overcome the essential barrier that prayer, which is a fundamentally religious act, is not all that tantalizing to atheists, a demographic in which Jews are majorly overrepresented.

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