The Centrality of the Synagogue
by Ismar Schorsch
It is exactly one hundred years ago that Solomon Schechter came from England to America to become the head of the Jewish Theological Seminary. In 1913, just two years before he died, he traveled to Cincinnati to speak at the dedication of the new campus of Hebrew Union College. On that memorable occasion and with his customary wit, he made reference to His Majesty's government and His Majesty's opposition, without completing the analogy. The deeper truth, he stressed, was "that both His Majesty's government as well as His Majesty's opposition form one large community, working for the welfare of the country and the prosperity of the nation." To his great credit, Schechter, in that short address, chose not to focus on the evident differences between Reform and Conservative Judaism but on the less visible but deeper bonds of unity.
As a firm believe in his unifying concept of catholic Israel, I too wish to honor this singular moment by speaking of the cohesion that underlies the religious diversity of American Judaism. Indeed, it is that common ground that Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion seeks to affirm this evening by conferring an honorary doctorate on me and Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, the Chancellor of Bar-Ilan University, a leader of rare courage, whom I love and revere, in the same graduation exercises. I dare say that President David Ellenson, Chancellor Rackman and I are all kindred souls who treasure a common heritage of great antiquity and unbroken continuity.
But I wish to direct my remarks to the future rather than the past. Many of the graduates commencing this evening are headed for positions of religious leadership in the Reform synagogue. I wish to persuade you that the synagogue, generically speaking, is the bedrock institution of the total Jewish community. It alone is the aquifer for the social capital that nourishes and drives the vaunted organizational structure that marks American Jewry. The communal ethos, the spirit of voluntarism, the skills of self-governance and the social networks indispensable to the conduct of organized life in the public sector are all developed within the private sector of the denominational synagogue.
Permit me to give you some empirical evidence to buttress this contention. The recent elections for the world Zionist congress this June, paltry as they were, showed that at least 85% of those American Jews who cared enough to vote were affiliated with a religious movement, most likely through membership in a synagogue. The massive rally for Israel in Washington on April 15 overflowed with synagogue members and youngsters from religious schools. On a national basis it is synagogue members who contribute 80% of the annual campaign of UJA-Federation. In MetroWest, New Jersey, where 56% of the population belongs to synagogues, the figure is 90 percent. And in still another area of communal life, two-thirds of the membership of all JCC's comes from synagogue members as does the membership of an organization like Hadassah.
In other words, the synagogue provides the lion's share of the funding, membership, participation and leadership of the organized Jewish community. Unaffiliated Jews are both inaccessible and unforthcoming, little more than free-floating electrons without a nucleus to keep them in a Jewish orbit. From this perspective, the most worrisome statistic in the population survey of 1990 is the low rate of synagogue affiliation of just 41 percent, a figure, I fear, that will be still lower for the population survey of 2000 which is about to appear. Jewish life in America is an inverted pyramid that rests precariously on a shrinking apex. But one-third sustains the whole community, and it belongs to the synagogue sector.
The reason for that is because the mission of the synagogue is to make Jews. Its ritual, educational programming and social action imbue Jews with a sense of peoplehood and communal responsibility. The need for a minyan bespeaks the centrality of community. We offer our prayers in the plural. At Yizkor, we honor the memory of our loved ones through the giving of charity. And our synagogues face east to affirm our ties to Israel. Judaism turns on acts of loving kindness the cumulative goal of which is to mend the world, tikkun olam. Citizenship in the Jewish polity springs from belonging to a synagogue.
Any synagogue! For mine is an ecumenical argument. All denominational synagogues, with the exception of steiblach, which are escape hatches from Jewish responsibility, are incubators of social values and group skills. Each in its own way promotes a Jewish identity that reaches beyond the egocentric. By all indicators, synagogue members show a higher level of personal practice, more extensive Jewish education and a lower rate of intermarriage than non-members. In short, social capital flows into the Jewish community from the wellsprings of the non-sectarian denominations of American Judaism.
If, then, the synagogue is the central institution in the American Jewish community, it is in the interest of the total community to increase its membership. No post is more important than to be president or rabbi or educations director of a synagogue. To be sure, individual synagogues must be revitalized, better staffed and more welcoming and new synagogues need to be founded where few or none exist to serve a burgeoning population. But the task cannot be done by local synagogues and their national movements alone. To grow the seedbed of the community requires the deep involvement of the Federation world.
I would like Federations to consider mounting a campaign to urge Jews to join the synagogue of their choice, to embrace the notion that synagogue membership is the identity card of Jewish citizenship. Only Federations can create the climate in which affiliating with a synagogue becomes a personal obligation. Our collective survival in the open society rests upon turning Hillel's ancient plea of "al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur, do not withdraw from the community" into the supreme commandment of contemporary Jewish life. Imagine the power of the total community if synagogue membership doubled to 82 percent. All ships in harbor would be lifted by that rising tide. And toward that end, the nascent Federation-synagogue partnership must move from episodic to systemic.
Beyond a sustained advertising campaign, I would propose the adoption of a rhetoric that pays homage to the critical role of synagogue leadership. Currently, Federations tend to relate to synagogues as minor league franchises whose primary function is to groom players for the majors. Nothing is put back. A large scale national fellowship program sponsored by the United Jewish Communities for young people ready to prepare themselves in an accredited school for the rabbinate, cantorate, Jewish education or communal service would go a long way to burnishing the reputation of the synagogue, not to speak of addressing the pervasive crisis in personnel. In making these recommendations, I do not wish to slight the laudatory initiatives undertaken in recent years by such pacesetter Federations as Boston, Detroit and New York. The urgency of the hour simply calls for much more.
In this regard, it is noteworthy that Schechter culminated his communal career in 1913 by founding an organization of Conservative synagogues, which he deemed would be his "great bequest... to American Israel." By then he had realized that his Seminary, for all its revitalization and expansion, hung by a thread. Without a solid base of vibrant synagogues, neither Conservative Judaism nor its academic and religious center would survive the forces of erosion at work in America. Schechter, like his spiritual mentor, Leopold Zunz, had long spoken of the synagogue historically as the national heartbeat of the Jewish people. Now he set himself the task to insure that it would remain so in radically different circumstances. He needed the synagogue for students and funding, for employment of his graduates and for the dissemination of historical Judaism. But on a grander scale, Schechter knew from his inimitable scholarship that the synagogue was an oasis in a wilderness of exile, a place where weary travelers could find meaning and companionship. While its ritual is a bridge to the divine, it is also a force for cohesion and the language of social values. Those ensconced in its matrix sanctify God's name by translating the ideals of Torah into a model community. And to serve that institution, as you graduates soon will, is still a calling of ultimate significance.
Dr. Ismar Schorsch is the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. This was his address at a ceremony at the Hebrew Union College.
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