Top critical review
38 people found this helpful
Book won't take U.S. synagogue transformation far enough
on September 13, 2000
By Alan. D. Abbey
Virtual Jerusalem Senior News and Business Editor
From the title alone, it is clear that Rabbi Sydney Schwarz is taking on a big topic in his book, "Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews Can Transform the American Synagogue." He offers a perceptive analysis of the current malaise affecting American synagogues (of all denominations, although he focuses on the less stringent ones) and some useful suggestions.
Nonetheless, in the end, he falls
short of offering anything other than programmatic solutions. In part, it's not his fault, because he is not only part of the system that created the problem, but because a true solution to the problem would require a major change in the way most American Jews live.
Schwarz, rabbi of a Reconstructionist synagogue in Bethesda, Md., doesn't shy away from describing the stultifying, boring, uninspiring and essentially unspiritual activities that comprise most Friday evenings and Saturday mornings in American synagogues.
His short history of the development of the American synagogue, from vibrant, crowded, urban, ethnically identified neighborhood "shul" to suburban, palatial, cold, (often) empty and spiritually dead "synagogue center" is right on point and pitiless.
I have sat in many such "Jewish centers," and he is right in his descriptions of them. Except for rare moments - usually self-generated - such places are the last locations one can find an emotional, spiritual charge. There is even one shed of a synagogue I know that people refer to as the "airplane hangar," for its forbidding size, sound problems and empty feeling.
On the bright side (and it isn't all gloomy), Schwarz offers uplifting tales of spiritual renewal in the words of a handful of Baby Boomers who have found homes at synagogues he describes as truly filling the needs of their congregants and community.
Then he offers short histories of each of those places, one each from the four mainstream Jewish denominations in the U.S.: Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Reform. The Orthodox-educated Schwarz conceded he barely penetrated the vast and diverse world of Orthodoxy and consequently found only one extremely liberal synagogue in Riverdale, N.Y., that met his criteria.
Beyond the mainstream movements, Schwarz also has kind words for the distinctly American Jewish Renewal movement, a hodgepodge of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach-style folk festival Judaism, psychoanalysis, Eastern mysticism and New Age trendiness.
While the numbers it has drawn in absolute terms aren't particularly large, Schwarz lauds Jewish Renewal for its energy, creativity and willingness to experiment.
Even Schwarz finds its syncretism and abandonment of most traditional practices as problematic. He is probably right in predicting that some of its less way-out practices will find themselves mainstreamed over time. For example, Jewish-style meditation practices already are finding a home even in traditional congregations.
Schwarz's programmatic suggestions are all worthy, some, however, more than others.
His first idea is the businesslike call for a "mission statement." Surely a product of a technocratic society, a "mission statement" to me sounds ludicrous and bureaucratic.
Second, he calls for bringing more "singable music" to services. That, too, is fine, as far as it goes. But it can lead to the odd practice (one I've heard) of singing important, traditional prayers such as the Kedusha portion of the Amidah (Shmone Esray) to Broadway show tune melodies.
Others are simply no-brainers, such as creating systems for personal support. If a community isn't doing that in the first place, what kind of community is it?
Schwarz also proposes bringing a social justice agenda into synagogues - a distinctly liberal American ideal, although admittedly one that is practiced by some of the right-wing Orthodox synagogues he never got close to. They are probably pursuing political agendas to which Schwarz doesn't subscribe (unrelenting unwillingness to support compromise in the Middle East, school vouchers and anti-abortion positions).
Many of his ideas, however, seem far from what I see as the "mission statement" of a synagogue - providing a warm and comfortable place where Jews can engage in a dialogue with God. Schwarz also fails to address the point that the American synagogues he lauds in his book not only have programming to draw the masses, they also are led by charismatic leaders who are the real draws to the place. Mission statements aren't going to bring people to synagogue, but dynamic leaders will.
Furthermore, it is the architecture itself that works against the American synagogue. Unless you are going for "high church" style services with organs and choirs (If you want that, Catholics do it better, anyway.), giant American synagogue sanctuaries just can't work as places of worship, because they are simply too big (even if - or especially when - no one shows up for services).
Furthermore, in such large synagogues, the badly built, poorly used and rapidly aging structures tend to become the main concern of synagogue leadership, rather than the quality of the time spent in them.
If American Jews spent their davvening time in groups of 30-50 in small, tight quarters that echoed with their voices, instead of the cathedrals they built themselves to emulate the Christians, they would find more authentic, spiritual experiences than they ever can now.
How that could work in the sprawling American suburbs, where each town has one giant "synagogue center" of each denomination, and when rich and successful Jews still want to build monuments to their egos, is the big question Schwarz doesn't answer.
- Virtual Jerusalem News and Business Editor Alan Abbey has davvened everywhere from tiny "shtiebls" in Jerusalem's Old City to airplane-hangar style Jewish centers in American suburbs.