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America's Holy Haunted Houses

Plum Street Temple, Cincinnati.

Halloween is most certainly no Jewish holiday; yet its spooky mood is curiously congruent with the ambience that overcomes American synagogues this time of year. With the termination of the hectic Fall holiday season, the large majority of synagogues across America, so recently overwhelmed with congregants, will once again take on the gloomy appearance of deserted, if not quite haunted, houses. And the sermons of thousands of rabbis will, as they have for well over a century, resound with the old perplexed plaint, "Where have all the Jews gone?"

Relevant Links
Take My Synagogue  Philologos, Forward. In referring to the place where they worship, most Jews prefer to use a name other than “synagogue,” the ancient Greek translation of beit k’nesset.
Pay to Pray?  Jack Wertheimer, Jewish Ideas Daily. Why, some Jews ask, should synagogues maintain a heavy-handed, materialistic bar to participation precisely on the most sacred days of the Jewish calendar?
Toward the Multiplex Shul  Reuven Spolter, Chopping Wood. More and more congregants prefer to pray in more intimate surroundings and for shorter periods of time; herewith, a modest proposal for their (increasingly abandoned) rabbis.
Living Wills for Synagogues  Jane L. Levere, New York Times. A matchmaking effort pairs philanthropists in places that boast thriving Jewish populations with small-town Jewish communities facing demise.
Desperately Seeking S'lihot  Allan Nadler, Jewish Ideas Daily. Even as the penitential service has been transformed into a major event in the liturgical calendars of non-Orthodox congregations, there has been a catastrophic loss of mimetic musical traditions.

As a congregational rabbi, I was myself more than once guilty of rhetorically expressing, from the pulpit, the same faux-distress at this annual, ritualized plummet in attendance.  (During this post-holiday period, we counted a "regular Shabbat" attendance of ten percent of the holiday's numbers to be a fine turnout indeed.)  Even back then, however, my deeper wonder was why the Jewish masses bothered converging even over the holidays.  For all but the genuinely devout, High Holy Day services are a painfully long and alienating yearly ritual—an awful, rather than awe-inspiring, show.

So it is not surprising that American Jews' persistence in attending High Holy Day services is matched by their massive abandonment of synagogues following Yom Kippur. This despite the synagogues' long history of relentless self-reinvention: refurbishing their facilities, endlessly revising the liturgy, and making use of enough ploys and gimmicks to make the cast of Mad Men blush—all in order to attract more warm bodies to their weekly services. Shuls became "synaplexes," Kabbalat Shabbat became "Friday Night Live," and the services themselves took on the feel of cafeteria-style worship, with ever more liturgical choices being offered. All to no avail.

As a breezy new institutional history of American synagogues makes evident, the disconcerting emptiness of its pews has been the synagogue's most persistent problem since the mid-nineteenth century. Assessing synagogue attendance in the early twentieth century, the book's author, Marc Lee Raphael, observes:

About the only thing missing were bodies for Sabbath services . . . A survey of twenty-seven Boston synagogues in 1926 (mostly Reform and Conservative) noted that only 8 to 12 percent of the Jewish population above age thirteen attended the synagogue on an average Sabbath. It was no different in Cleveland, where approximately 10 percent of the total Jewish population attended a synagogue on any given Sabbath. Nearly everywhere, especially in major cities with significant Jewish populations, Jews attended worship services in very small numbers.

Sparse attendance stubbornly continued to plague the many hundreds of sprawling, ritually diverse, and architecturally innovative new suburban synagogues and "Jewish centers" that sprouted like mushrooms across the land during the Jews' massive demographic shift to suburban America in the 1950's and 60's, a phenomenal growth that is artfully chronicled by Raphael. While countless millions were expended on the construction of these impressive new edifices designed by leading architects (most famously Frank Lloyd Wright), one could easily count the few Jews who entered these sparkling synagogues on a regular basis. Raphael, who researched the records of more than 150 American synagogues, has a wonderful ear for the pithy and sardonic observations of their rabbis:

According to rabbis, over and over and everywhere, those who did belong rarely showed up except for the High Holy Days. Rabbi Louis Binstock of Chicago noted, as did dozens of others in the decade of the 1950's, that, "in spite of the boom in construction and enrollment, we are a bust in devout prayer and regular worship. Congregations contain more and more families, but fewer and fewer who are faithful."

More than three decades later, one of America's most famous rabbis extended the lament from Sabbath attendance to the dismally low rates of synagogue membership and even denominational affiliation of Jews in the United States:

Despite all of this synagogue-related activity and creative engagement with tradition, we must again remind ourselves that every survey undertaken in these four decades indicated that "unaffiliated" is the largest (and, frequently, fastest-growing) category among American Jewry . . . Those Jews who identify as Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, or Reform constitute fewer than half the Jewish population in America. The rest are what Rabbi Harold Schulweis of (San Fernando) Valley Beth Shalom in Los Angeles calls "None Jews."

It is for precisely these sad reasons that the most consistent feature of synagogues in the land of the free has been a chronic inchoateness marked by extreme architectural, spiritual, and liturgical malleability, and an almost endless shiftiness. This utter absence of anything remotely resembling religious uniformity is of course dictated by American Jews' freedom to choose not to attend religious services at all—the happy consequence of unprecedented freedom from any form of religious coercion.  Since the Colonial era, the growth of alternative venues for social association, both Jewish and secular, have rendered synagogue membership entirely elective.

Though Raphael's book is finely written and provides an accessible overview of the major historical, demographic, and liturgical changes in the synagogue's long and ever-adapting history, it is marred by numerous surprising omissions and serious errors, mostly related to the laws and traditions of Jewish prayer

Raphael's engaging portrait of the emergence of Jewish congregations during the Colonial and early-Republican periods is the most original part of the book, and will prove the most illuminating to his readers. Even here, however, there are surprising errors of omission. In his discussion of the earliest American versions of the siddur (prayer book) with English translations, for example, he mysteriously fails to so much as mention the seminal publications of Isaac Leeser, whose pioneering translations of the entire Jewish liturgy, as well as the Torah, were used for more than a century in hundreds of North American synagogues. In describing the classical Reform Union Prayer Book's drastic excision from the services of all references to Zion, Jerusalem, and messianic hope, Raphael never once points to the staunch anti-Zionism of the Reform movement.  (This was a position only softened in 1937 by the Columbus Platform—Reform Judaism's first public acknowledgment that the Jews indeed constituted a nation.)

Raphael's gentle treatment of the Reform movement is more than matched by a palpable cynicism, often bordering on contempt, in his assessment of America's Orthodox synagogues. A central contention of the book is that the only distinguishing feature between Orthodox and Conservative synagogues for most of their history—Raphael incorrectly posits that it was not until the 1980's that a clear boundary emerged between the two denominations—was the lack of decorum in the former. While correctly observing that a great number of Orthodox-affiliated congregations, particularly in the Midwest, did not have separate seating for men and women, he fails to note that this was at most a compromise by the Orthodox Union so as not to lose member congregations, and was never sanctioned by the rabbis of these congregations. But most disconcerting is Raphael's often disparaging tone whenever discussing Orthodox shuls and their services. His treatment of America's earliest Orthodox synagogues opens with the observation that "these were frequently just one or two rented rooms, and their sole function was prayer (and talking)." The parenthetic aside here is emblematic of a disdainful view of Orthodoxy which permeates the book.

Raphael's assertion that talking was one of only two reasons people went to Orthodox shuls is "supported," so to speak, by the recollections of one Hyman Goldman, a disenchanted former lay member of an Orthodox shul, whose remarks Raphael dug up in the archives of Adas Israel, Washington, D.C.'s largest conservative synagogue. Goldman recalls that in his former shul, "People did not come to pray. Some brought along their newspapers, or the racing sheet. The women, although they were not as yet sitting with the mensfolk, came there to display their new dresses and spent most of the time on the street outside the synagogue."

Aside from the questionable historical reliability of such personal memoirs, not least in speculating as to others' innermost motivations to attend religious services, what Raphael does not mention is that, to this day, almost the only synagogues that do not struggle with chronic, abysmally low attendance are the Orthodox ones. Nor does he bother contending with the statistical evidence of the ever-rapid growth of both old and new Orthodox congregations at a time when Reform is stagnant, while synagogues affiliated with the Conservative movement are suffering an unprecedented, precipitous decline. As for the chronic problem of lack of decorum in Orthodox synagogues, it would be a fair topic of discussion had Raphael applied a similarly critical eye to the failings of the more "dignified" liberal synagogues, such as the abysmal lack of congregational participation, and low levels of literacy in prayer.  Certainly the raucousness, of both prayer and conversation, in Orthodox shuls is more than matched by the still silence that haunts services at too many "temples."  

Entirely absent from the book is any discussion of the music of the synagogue. Although Raphael mentions the introduction of organs and the shortening of the Torah reading in many Reform temples, he never even touches on the very important role of the great American cantors and liturgical composers in fashioning the services and attracting so many Jews to them. Alas, in the too few instances in which Raphael discusses the content of the liturgy, his lack of knowledge becomes agonizingly evident. For example, in marshalling evidence of the increasing role of women in Modern Orthodox shuls, Raphael observes that "when someone names a sick person for whom the congregation prays, the names of the father and their mother are mentioned . . . when the Patriarchs are mentioned in the prayer for the sick, the names of their wives (the Matriarchs) are also invoked." Raphael further notes that "although women are rarely [sic] counted in the quorum of ten needed for public worship, the minyan, many [Orthodox] congregations have a special custom when a man or a woman is reciting the gomel prayer, a blessing of appreciation for surviving illness, childbirth, or danger recited publicly, women are counted in the minyan." Not only is this nonsense, but Raphael is confusing the occasions for birkat ha-gomel that follow upon the blessings of the Torah with the prayer for the sick (mi-shebeyrakh) recited by the sexton. In the latter, the invocation of only the mother's name of an ill person has always been the tradition, as has been the inclusion of the Matriarchs, and none of this is evidence of any accommodation of feminism within Orthodoxy.  This does not mean that real evidence of feminist inroads within Orthodoxy is not thick on the ground.  Raphael seems oblivious to the growth of women's services, women synagogue officers, and, most recently, Modern Orthodox women rabbis. Nor does he seem cognizant of the large number of egalitarian-Orthodox services sprouting up in both America and Israel. 

But the most questionable hypothesis of Raphael's book is his oddly optimistic assessment of both the centrality and the bright future of American synagogues, a strange sanguinity not only unsupported by any statistical data, but belied by the results of Raphael's own research. The book begins with the essentially correct assertion that while the synagogue was an indispensable institution in early American history, since the mid-19th century, its centrality has been edged out by a proliferation of Jewish organizations and social clubs. It goes on to document the fact that well under half of all American Jews are affiliated with any synagogue, and that the numbers are in steady decline. Despite all this, Raphael devotes the last pages of his book to what sounds like a paid advertisement for the Synagogue Council of America; he shares that wherever he traveled across the land, he found the houses of worship of all three denominations "packed" on a weekly basis and brimming with activity. And while concluding with a laundry list of services provided by synagogues—not only religious services, but Hebrew school, youth groups, adult education, sisterhoods and brotherhoods and so much more—he asserts that it is the sanctuary worship that will continue to "make Judaism (call it spirituality, if you will) a part of the life of countless Jews. There is no reason to think this will not continue." 

Alas, there is every reason to think this will not continue, especially among those like Raphael who so glibly exchange the terms "Judaism" and "spirituality."  Intending to write a celebratory history, Raphael may well find that what he has written is an elegy. 

 Allan Nadler is a professor of religious studies and the director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University. He is currently serving as the Norman and Gerry Sue Arnold Distinguished Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston.

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ned on October 31, 2011 at 1:53 pm (Reply)
As a matter of full disclsoure: In identifying Prof. Nadler at the end of this essay, why was it not noted that he has Orthodox smicha (ordination) and has served as an Orthodox pulpit rabbi? Which fact explains the Orthodox apologiae part of his comments.
David Aharon Lindzon on October 31, 2011 at 6:08 pm (Reply)
This problem needs to understood in several ways.

(a) In Toronto, there are quite a few shuls with large Shabbos Crowds, coming every week, committed to the continuation of traditional Judaism; and this is not because there is a simcha. This minyan gets at least 100 people every Shabbos. Between Bathurst and Eglinton and between Bathurst and Lawrence, we have a very high percentage of commited families that can go to any one of five places for a Shabbos service. There is one place in the ciy where you can find a minyan during the week for Shacharis from 7 am to 11 am. These minyanim are not made up of the so-called "kaddish Jews" who come because they obligate themselves to pay their respects to relatives.

(b) This situation can be found in large cities like New York, Detroit, Los Angeles.

(c) Since those places seem to have more people attending services even during the week, what seems to be causing them to come out? Is it the Rabbi or the baalei batim?

In Shma Yisrael we find the Key. "V'shinantom L'vanecha . . . ." You shall teach them DILIGENTLY to your children. I laugh at the parent who says "mein kinder the doctor," "mein kinder the lawyer," "mein kinder the baker," while leaving out mein kinder the Shomer Shabbos. Look around and ask yourself: Would you like your son to be a Buddhist monk or a frum ehrlicher Yid who not only practices being a doctor but participates in a daf yomi shiur or teaches a class of baalei teshuva about the sedrah of the week.?

As for the writers remarks in the article, we ask the wrong questions. I am no professor nor am I a pulpit rabbi, but I'll tell you one thing : What are we doing to enhance Judaism, for which thousands have given their lives al kiddush Hashem thoughout the 3500 years of Jewish History, by instilling the values we received of matan Torah at Sinai?
Allan Nadler on October 31, 2011 at 6:27 pm (Reply)
Although I prefer not to respond to comments on my articles in Jewish Ideas Daily, and would rather allow readers to opine freely, since there is an implied implication of dishonesty, in the form of a failure of full disclosure about my alleged bias, a truly full disclosure is in order: I do indeed have Orthodox smicha, but neither of the synagogues I have served were fully Orthodox: The Charles River Park Synagogue in Boston had a mixed seating section in the back, and the Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal was, when I joined its religious staff, a member of the Conservative United Synagogues of America. The congregation I currently, proudly serve on the High Holidays, Beth Sholom in Toronto, is a traditional conservative synagogue. Far from being an apologist for the Orthodox, I have been accused of being the very opposite as the result of other publications. I am not affiliated with any Orthodox organization and have no agenda to defend, or malign, any denomination of Judaism. In this article I merely pointed to a blatantly anti-Orthodox bias by the author of the book under review and a failure to credit Orthodox shuls for their growth and vibrancy, which are plain facts. My personal theology has nothing in common with Orthodox Jewish theology and is closest to a synthesis of the thinking of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, z"l, and England's late Sage, Rabbi Louis Jacobs, zts"l.
Abbushuki on October 31, 2011 at 7:50 pm (Reply)
Prof. Nadler and Raphael ignore the most important value in projecting the future: The "none" Jews and liberal Jews are simply not producing Jewish children in enough numbers to come even near zero population growth. Hardly any of those couples aspire to more than two children, and most never even get there: 50% intermarriage and divorce rates, high mobility, and deferred marriage for "careers" all contribute to a combined rate of less than one child per U.S. Jewish mother today. What's more, only one in ten of those children gets a Jewish education of any merit. (Of the 9500 children registered in Los Angeles Jewish schools, only a few thousand are not Orthodox.)

Conversely, the Orthos are having children in large numbers, and they are almost all attending yeshivot. The Orthodoxy he describes might have been true 70 years ago; but thanks to yeshivot, serious shul participation has never been greater.

Because the vast majority of children in Jewish kindergartens and schools today are Orthodox, it is easy to project that in 50 years, the leadership of the American Jewish community will be Orthodox and all the secular and liberal Jews combined will be merely an appendix with little or no communal function or interest. Their participation will be as empty as their edifices.
Miriam Grussgott on October 31, 2011 at 9:35 pm (Reply)
Alan Nadler's orthodox ordination does not mean that his criticisms aren't valid, because they are.
David Aharon Lindzon on November 1, 2011 at 11:09 am (Reply)
As a thinking observant Jew (I hate the labels), I attended an Oneg Shabbos dinner program at the shul, in which the speaker discussed the question of Jewish population. And, yes, the non-affilliated and reform and conservative Jews are reproducing 1.8 children or less per family while both the Orthodox professionals and the Chassidic Orthodox have four or more children per family. There is one more thing: The rate of intermarriage is to be factored in, as well as those who leave Judaism as a result of cults and the lack of serious Jewish education in both the conservative and reform camps.
The traditional Jew today believes that Hashem took us out of Mitzraym and 50 days later gave us the Torah. The average Reform rabbi, in a survey, says he does not believe in a G-d-given Torah, and some deny the existence of G-d. Reform scholars here are grappling with a sort of a return to doing some traditional things; this is indeed a surprising development relative to where they stood 75 years ago.
ellen on November 1, 2011 at 11:17 am (Reply)
Abbushuki is completely correct. Even today in the state of New Jersey his description would be correct. The Reform and Conservative synagogues are dying, and the vast majority of Jews who attend shul are going to Orthodox shuls. They are quite visible on Saturday morning (no need for a phone survey with its high error margins and unrepresentative samples, so beloved of UJA poll-takers). Any person with no vested interests except a desire to know the truth can see that the liberal movements have failed to produce educated and committed Jews. The huge edifices that were built to appeal to the sensibilities of the 1950's-1960's generation of suburban Jews are now increasingly ghastly monuments to irrelevancy.
David Aharon Lindzon on November 1, 2011 at 5:47 pm (Reply)
Forget the labels here, what is sorely lacking is a Torah Jewish education. Consider that the Bar Mitzvah factory is what brings the parking lot of the average synagogue in North America full on a Shabbat. It is a sign to us that this approach is not working. As I recall an ancient Midrash, Hashem asked the Jewish people for a guarantor that they would observe the laws of the Torah. The people first answered, "Our forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaacov." Hashem says they are no longer here. So the people then said, "Our children." This Hashem accepted. So it becomes a primary concern today, especially when Jews are free to practice Torah Judaism with no restrictions on us by North American as well as other goverrnments. The book of Mishle proverbs tells us Chanoch lanaar al pi darcho: Train the young according to his or her ways and even when he is old he will not depart from it.
Jerry Blaz on November 1, 2011 at 7:54 pm (Reply)
What seems apparent in this discussion about synagogues is its disconnectedness with what exists out there in the American Jewish reality. Yes, synagogues are "haunted" by the absence of Jews at services, and, as usual, the "fault" is always placed on the pintele Yid. I remember those sermons castigating the congregation for the Jews who were not there, sermons that made me wish that I, too, were not there. But it never gets to the nitty-gritty of what is wrong. Why do Jews always want to know that they have a synagogue and another place that they would "never step into?" For many years, the Orthodox refused to step into a Reform synagogue, and many still refuse to do so. Even the apparently more "open" or seemingly "broadminded" Chabadniks would not deliver a "drush" from many congregations where women and men sit together and women may read from the torah or serve as rabbinic spiritual leaders. The members of congregations move or just grow older, and the synagogue building and classrooms really become "haunted." I attended three different congregations when I was a young person. The first place where I studied is now a Puerto Rican congregation. The place where I became a bar mitzvah is now a Korean church. A third place, where I was married, is also a Korean church. So much Jewish valuta has disappeared, and the expense of recreating new institutions has also distanced Jews. It is not cheap to be Jewish.

I think that for the situation to change, it is necessary to eliminate the concept of "untouchable" Jews from the vocabulary of those who would be holier than other Jews. Only then can there be rational planning in the Jewish community that can give the Jews more for their money--programs that reach out to more Jews, which the current situation has long failed to accomplish. Sure, there are still some who are aware of the parashah and hafatarah portions of every service and know the rabbinic discussions to some extent. But is that where the alpha and omega (or, better, the aleph and tav) of the Jewish community exists? Numerically, it is a "lo" (no) with an aleph. There is too much prescription and too little description that stands behind Prof./Rabbi Nadler's article. We all want our positions to be universal, even in our Judaism; but Judaism, even within Orthodoxy, is more pluralistic than ever before.
Carol on November 2, 2011 at 7:11 am (Reply)
Awesome review, I love your article.
David Aharon Lindzon on November 2, 2011 at 10:52 am (Reply)
Jerry Blaz wrote: "For many years, the Orthodox refused to step into a Reform synagogue, and many still refuse to do so. Even the apparently more 'open' or seemingly 'broadminded' Chabadniks would not deliver a 'drush' from many congregations where women and men sit together and women may read from the torah or serve as rabbinic spiritual leaders." While I personally follow the prevailing Orthodox opinion and practice, it pains me strongly that there has not been an alternative approach to reaching out. Certainly there is room for dialogue in the area. Instead of a shul , why not try a Friday night dinner with a non-committed Jew to experience the Joys of Shabbos observance and discuss certain themes (on the parshat of the week) in a warm, heimish setting? This is how I grew in Judaism.
Abbushuki on November 2, 2011 at 12:20 pm (Reply)
Hey, folks. You just don't get it. It does not matter if everyone who shows up at Yizkor on Yom Kippur showed up every single week at whatever temple. It would make not the slightest difference for the future. Without progeny, there are no future non-Orthodox Jews. I mean actual heads. How much more simple and obvious can it be? Unless non-Ortho Jewish parents are willing to produce and raise enough Jewish and educated babies to replace themselves, their culture will die with them. They are not, do not, and will not revise their lifestyles to pay for more children. So, most non-Ortho temples will be churches within 50 years. It is ignorant to think that better services or programs will make a demographic difference. It will have as much effect as redecorating the Titanic before its last voyage. Only half of today's youth will even have a Jewish spouse; 95% of children of intermarrieds intermarry. The demise of the temples is the symptom of this decay. This result is as natural a consequence as the fall of the Soviet Union: A house built on an unstable foundation will eventually fall. If you want your family to have a Jewish future, you'll have to get on board the only ship that will make it: Classical Judaism.
Ellen on November 2, 2011 at 8:14 pm (Reply)

Fundamentally you are right. But, to play devil's advocate, consider the statistical possibility of the following analogy. How did the Mormons get to be such a big religion starting from nothing but a few converts 150 years ago? They converted more and more young adults who were non-Mormons (Gentiles, in their parlance), who then married other Mormons and had lots of children, as required by Mormon social norms of those days. Even with 50% of their children today becoming lapsed, they can still hold their own because they convert so many Gentiles every year, making up for the attrition from within.

In principle, the liberal movements of Judaism could do that too. That was the whole premise behind the patrilineal descent ruling of the Reform. Why aren't they, then? Because, first of all, Judaism has no history of being a proseltyzing religion. And, more important, the liberal branches of Judaism are so withered and so lacking in conviction; how could they possibly convert enough people to make up for their own internal attrition? If they were that appealing, they wouldn't be losing their own children.

Chabad and the outreach yeshivas attract people back to Judaism for the same reason they keep most of their own children. Because they believe in what they are doing, they are not imitative movements that have lost cultural authenticity, and they strike a resonant chord in those who experience Jewish life with them. Authenticity isn't everything. Some cultures are authentically horrible. But, the liberal movements of Judaism sold their souls for cultural acceptance and upward social mobility in the 20th century and now find themselves in a procrustean bed of their own making. In the 21st century, most Americans will be downwardly mobile. Upward mobility isn't what it used to be, and cultural authenticity and communal life matter more now than before. That is the way the cookie crumbles.
Jerry Blaz on November 2, 2011 at 9:53 pm (Reply)
In every letter of his comments, Mr. Lindzon tells us that his Judaism is the correct one, and it surely is--for Mr. Lindzon. But the idea that there are other perspectives out there appears to be less than appealing to him. I wrote about the synagogue, known as the Beit Haknesset, or "House of Assembly," and not a Shabbat evening dinner, which is very nice but not always quite the same experience as what transpires in a Beit Haknesset. And when it comes to sitting down for a Shabbat supper, if it isn't in the home of a person whose kosherness is unassailable by Mr. Lindzon's standards, will he still participate in that meal? I doubt it. We have to appreciate the fact that the Jewish people today are what we are--diverse, eclectic, not necessarily text-driven, but Jewish in many respects that are not prescribed by some rabbis. We are no longer willing to have the truth of our torah set by a single standard that may have once been sufficient to affirm one's Jewishness. From egalitarianism on the bimah to patriarchal transfer of Jewishness, there are many differences today in the Jewish community, and while I do not ask anyone to accept my understandings, I do ask that they be respected as Jewish.

When Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan proposed the organic community many decades ago, proof positive of the inability of Jews to get together was iconicized by the burning of his prayerbook by those who opposed his views on Judaism. I would like to see us be able to appreciate our differences.
David Aharon Lindzon on November 3, 2011 at 5:49 pm (Reply)
Mr Blaz writes: "I wrote about the synagogue, known as the Beit Haknesset, or 'House of Assembly,' and not a Shabbat evening dinner, which is very nice but not always quite the same experience as what transpires in a Beit Haknesset. And when it comes to sitting down for a Shabbat supper, if it isn't in the home of a person whose kosherness is unassailable by Mr. Lindzon's standards, will he still participate in that meal? I doubt it."

Many so-called reform and conservative Jews have never experienced a Shabbat meal on a friday night. Forget about Kosher laws for a moment; is Shabbat any different than, say, a Tuesday night for these Jews? In the winter, the sun sets at an earlier hour; how many non-religious Jews ask the boss if they can leave earlier on Friday to get home in time for Shabbat? How important is Shabbat if you just wolf down a regular Big Mac or KFC in front of the TV set or go out to the dance hall?

Let's contrast this with the following scenario: You come home an hour before shabbat. You change into a different set of clothes. Your wife's cleaning lady has helped clean and tidy up. The Shabbat meal is almost ready, and you take the older kids to shul. They all come home, sing Shalom Aleichem, and perform all the other rituals. There is no phone beeping. And this occurs every week.

I am a returnee to traditional Judaism. I literally walked out of my parents' home after we finished supper and went to my friend. The man I went to visit davened at home after he came home on Shabbat. He and his three children made kiddush and sat down in the kitchen a meager Shabbat meal. Afterward they gathered in the living room, and we'd just talk (no TV blasting away) about what was on their minds. Today his children are committed to Jewish values. So my main question to you is, how relevant is your experience of Shabbat if it is the same as a ordinary Tuesday night?
David Aharon Lindzon on November 3, 2011 at 6:22 pm (Reply)
So, Mr. Blaz, if we have a Beit Haknesset, how do we get the people in there? Do you run a weekend--including Shabbat--bazaar? Or maybe Wednesday night BINGO? Or the old ladies mah jongg club? Let's try a monthly Sisterhood meeting with a lecture speaker of interest to the older folks or invite a Jew for J. to speak. But to suggest a weekly class for women on the Parsha of the week? Hey, David Aharon, you're going too far there . . . or am I?

Meanwhile, the devotees of the reform and conservative Judaism have nothing to show except a haunted synagogue building that suddenly gets filled on Rosh Hashonah and Yom kippur to hear an ancient ram's horn blown and pay their respects around yiskor to a deceased relative, or to hear Kol Nidrei from a Cantor--with a choir chiming in, too. So, what is relevant today? Why be Jewish at all?

As the Chabad Rabbi has said, "A Jew must live with the times--meaning the Parsha of the week. This week it's Lech Lecha, the "go go" parshat for those who like a little humour.
Jerry Blaz on November 4, 2011 at 7:06 pm (Reply)
Everything Mr. Lindzon writes is true, but it is only the truth that he has found and doesn't speak to the many hundreds of thousands of Jews who do not care to experience what he experiences from his practices of Judaism. Most of these Jews not only have no positive experiences like the ones Mr. Lindzon describes but have negative experiences that prevent them from what would be, from their perspective, "getting burned again." They are single people, parents of children, the children themselves, and even grandparents, and they are all important. If they do not want anything called "religion" or observances when you meet them, how do you get them to a Jewish framework of any kind, let alone a synagogue or a Friday night dinner? I was thinking of something more resembling a Jewish community center where "secular" activities also are provided. They might be attracted by a book-reading group, or a current events group. Religious groups would also meet there and have services--maybe not all together in the same sanctuary but in parallel sanctuaries, so that someone preferring a Conservative service can attend and another wanting an Orthodox service can attend, etc. It recognizes the pluralistic nature of Judaism today. And there is a certain conservation of Jewish utilities involved in such a setup (it eliminates a proliferation of building funds). Though we are all from the same tribe, we keep suffering from an excess of chiefs and too few Indians.
Abbushuki on November 6, 2011 at 9:00 pm (Reply)
Most non-Orthos refuse to address the facts that they are evaporating and that what they do is as significant as the choice of mah jongg or canasta in the old age home. I'd like to hear recognition of this reality. Haunted temples are the glaring symptom. But I hear only silence on this topic. Ellen, your "devil" had nothing real to advocate. If liberals would at least acknowledge their imminent demise, the community would have a choice about what is the best place for investment in the future of the American jewish experience. Hint: it's not more Tikkuning.
David Aharon Lindzon on November 7, 2011 at 11:00 am (Reply)
Maybe the non-Orthos WANT to evaporate. Sure, they hire a Bar Mitzvah teacher to teach them how to chant the Maftir and Haftorah beautifully--until the next stage, getting married, and the occasional birth celebration. Unless there is a Bar Mitzvah that week, the parking lot has a half-dozen cars for services on Friday night or Shabbos day--and the Sunday morning men's club (Brotherhood).
Jerry on November 7, 2011 at 8:58 pm (Reply)
It all boils down to this: Be Jewish the way you want to be Jewish, but don't impugn the expressions of "non-Orthos," who are of a great variety, because they are--in your judgment--non-Ortho. However, it isn't our "non-Ortho-ness" that is in question but whether we are still of the same people as you. You don't want to associate with us as equals lest you become "contaminated" with a non-Ortho practice like listening to a woman singing or dancing with your wife. Judaism is more than those life passages you note; but, as time goes on, you become more and more separate from us until you find that you've become separated from one another, and it seems justified in your eyes. You begin to identify by what kind of hat you wear, or whether you wear a girtle or not or tuck your pants into your socks, until you separate into tiny groups of the "very torah-true" and very separated from the so-called "non-Orthos." Your life becomes one of fighting not for k'lal yisrael but for your group and your group only.
David Aharon Lindzon on November 10, 2011 at 3:52 am (Reply)
I did not say a word about the practices of the non-Orthodox but only mentioned observable facts: (a) the average number of families coming on a regular basis to the "haunted" buildings on a Shabbat for any kind of service; (b) the differences between the two groups in the numbers of children. A survey of 27 mostly Reform and Conservative Boston synagogues in 1926 noted that only eight to 12 percent of the Jewish population above age 13 attended the synagogue on an average Sabbath. It was no different in Cleveland, where approximately 10 percent of the total Jewish population attended a synagogue on any given Sabbath. Nearly everywhere, especially in major cities with significant Jewish populations, Jews attended worship services in very small numbers. Over the years we've seen many attempts by the non-traditional rabbinate groups to address the problem--using innovations in patrilinear descent, mixed marriages, microphones, mixed seating, services in english, making sunday the sabbath, cars driving to services, short torah readings, and many other changes. Yet the numbers remain as Nadler has discussed. Unlike in 1926, we can't say that the majority of those Jews are not coming because they have to work on Shabbat or get fired. On days when Yiskor is said, the Jews suddenly arrive in any shul for 25 minutes and check out right afterwards. You're there; can't you stay until the end of the musaf service? It's only another half hour on Pesach, Shavuos, and Succos to pay your respects to your parents. So what gives?
Jerry Blaz on November 10, 2011 at 7:40 pm (Reply)
Again, David, you're correct; but if you are, and you are, then there has to be a Xiddush, perhaps a radical one, to bring Jews together. Observance is your answer, but it evidently is not every Jew's answer.
Abbushuki on November 11, 2011 at 2:27 pm (Reply)
What is your suggestion for getting non-Orthos to have three or more children and giving each child a Jewish education through high school (the only solution to the intermarriage/divorce issues)? Otherwise, there is no scenario imaginable that will repopulate the depleted sector made up of those who identify today as American Reform/Conservative/secular. There are some heroic attempts to salvage the limited Birthright alumni's interest in the Jewish community with tikkun projects to help Darfur and other spots. But there is absolutely nothing in the culture of young secular Jews today that would or could motivate them to have more children. Today, more liberal Jews in the United States are dying than are being born. That is why the edifices are empty. Sorry, there is no solution: The evaporation of liberal American Judaism is irreversible and will happen within two generations. If you have doubts, please show any data to prove otherwise.
David Aharon Lindzon on November 12, 2011 at 10:07 pm (Reply)
Again, I only offer my opinion, based on facts. Most traditional shuls do not always have a kiddush after davening. I live in Bathurst-Glencain area of Toronto, and almost every Shabbos there is at least one kiddush in one of the dozen batei midrashim that are nearby. So, sometimes people daven at their shul and go to at least one of the kiddushes after. If you ask why they don't go to the service where the kiddush is, the answer is that there would only be standing room only if they all showed up for davening at the simcha. On top of this we even have a Parsha sheet put out by Bobov of Toronto that lists various simchas and, l'havdil, the people who are sitting shiva.
David Aharon Lindzon on November 12, 2011 at 10:32 pm (Reply)
Observance is not the full and only answer; but perhaps, if I may be bold to suggest, an informal chaburah (group) could spend time together just shmoosing in a private homes on the parsha of the week or some other jewish topi. It could be at the golf club, too, but less formal. What I find disturbing is the Jew who says "I don't have to observe this because I'm Reform" and doesn't want to see the whole picture because he's not interested in hearing anything more. I'm not asking people to agree on anything. But I do ask them to take an honest look at what we are taught and question it and try it. The sad thing is that we have not been exposed to the teachings for various reasons, but our parents proudly announce "my son, the doctor," "my son, the lawyer," "my son, the accountant," etc., as if that were going to ensure the survival of "my son, the Jew."

Jerry Blaz on November 15, 2011 at 8:31 pm (Reply)
I meet many Jews who consider themselves "secular" and do not have multi-generational ties to the geographical community. In many places, 21st-century life does not create the modalities that generate a religious community like Bathurst, Toronto. My solution, where I am located, was to create a community of Xavurot, of which two survive after reaching a peak of seven Xavurot. In some of the Xavurot, too many members had needs that we were not financially able to provide for them, like religious and Hebrew schooling for their young children; so they left to find these services. It appears that many Jews do not need the ShaXarit or Ma'ariv services as much as they need educational services for their children. Prayer has lost its meaning to people--particularly those who consider themselves "modern" or "secular" or glory in their non-affiliation, thereby removing from themselves the need to support a Jewish organization or movement. I see a need for a large community effort, avoiding "trend" restrictions but appealing to the need of Jews to find their Judaism in they way they can accept. That isn't easy, because of the antinomies among the very trends I see as obstacles to this large, post-trend Jewish community.
TomSolomon on October 31, 2012 at 4:52 pm (Reply)
Mr. Raphael's disconerting observations are evidenced by the recently published, expansive demographic study of NYC area Jews. The liberal movements, both Reform and Conservative, have experienced sharp declines in membership and attendence. The trend is to secularism and its resulting intermarriage rates and Orthodoxy. The problem is that liberals, in addition to not practicing as Jews, are having fewer children. I sense and share Mr. Raphael's discouragement, and don't think any current remedies, e.g., welcoming non-Jewish spouses, will increase their lot. I think we need healthy, thriving Traditional and liberal communities, but are apparently only getting the former.
YM on November 1, 2012 at 1:11 pm (Reply)
A few years ago, the Atlanta Scholars Kollel held a Shabbaton at a Conservative synagogue in Alabama (Huntsville, I think), so I know it can be done.

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