Last One to Leave, Turn Out the Lights: A Synagogue Story
I’m never impressed by outside experts, be they corporate, legal, etc.
Our synagogue recently retained the services of two people: a rabbi who specializes in reinvigorating congregations, and an academic who studies our kind of congregation and I gather offers some sense of direction. It’s one of those things I think the current board thinks is a good idea, to help prevent a “Last One to Leave, Turn Out the Lights” scenario. After meeting with one of them, I was excited about the nature of her questions, and I do think ultimately this can be a good thing. And I think we have a number of heavyweights who have a capacity to surprise with a progressive vision for keeping our shul alive.
I’m not emotionally attached to “movement” Judaism of any kind. We keep a largely observant household, one in which Judaism is central to our lives. It’s the driving force in our identity. There’s no getting around that. The situation we are in with our shul, however, is very common to Modern Orthodox and Conservative congregations.
How do you keep Jews coming in the door? I realize Leah and I are an anomaly. For both of us, marrying Jewishly was extremely important. She is a Jewish educator, has been for as long as I have known her. She went to Gratz College and Alexander Muss Israel trips. I’m a recovering <Chassidic group name redacted> ba’al t’shuvah and BT yeshivah drop out. I finished daf yomi. I’ve already been a vice-commander of a Jewish War Veterans post. I’ve been a Jewish outreach director for a presidential campaign. I’ve served on synagogue boards and executive boards. I’ve been an endorsed lay leader for Chabad’s military and prison outreach for 11 years. We vote in World Zionist Congress elections, send our kids to Habonim Dror camps, and back Meretz USA (or Partners for Progressive Israel) I’m touting our Jewish bona fides precisely because we are odd.
Both of our generations (we occupy different ones with our age difference) are notoriously bad about synagogue membership, continuing the downward baby boomer trend of living up to this joke:
Two rabbis are talking about squirrel infestations in their synagogues. One rabbi says, “I’m going to call an exterminator.” The other one says, “I’m going to give the squirrels a bar mitzvah.”
In the town we moved from, Leah and I met and married at the Conservative congregation. We had a falling out with the congregation over my military service and my status as a teacher in the religious school, and the treatment of my older, then non-Jewish child. We joined the Reform synagogue, where their patrilineal descent acceptance gave my daughter a place. The community was wonderful, weaving a tapestry of participation from Jewish and non-Jewish parents. I served on several committees, the board, and finally the executive board as a vice president. Leah taught there for years, a profound resource due to her high degree of Jewish domain knowledge, her Hebrew skills, and her background in Jewish education. I chafed, however, at what I consider to be Reform’s wholly insufficient liturgy, and so I split the difference with the Orthodox synagogue that my family helped found for services.
What was amazing to me was that both of these congregations enjoyed and are enjoying growth, while the Conservative synagogue flails and fails to find relevance.
The Reform synagogue grows via a combination of a great rabbi, an engaged board and proactive committees, an open dues model, and an aggressive stance on new members. Elements I was critical of were the willingness to indulge what I would call profoundly lackluster conversions of non-Jewish spouses, and the willingness to accept anything short of belief in a risen savior as Jewishly valid. But at every board meeting, the membership chair had solid reports.
The Orthodox synagogue already enjoyed an influx of summer and seasonal dues from our area being a frum travel destination. Over the winter months, we’d be lucky to make minyan for Shabbos. Over the summer months, we’d have two separate block of morning minyan. The sanctuary was large, but it still couldn’t accommodate the tourists. It was inevitable that Jews in Lakewood or NYC would start eyeballing the lower cost of living, the lower property taxes, and start thinking of our area as being a possible new community. Sure enough, a yeshivah is starting up this year, which brings with it students, and possibly even more growth for the Orthodox community. Sandwiched between Philly, Baltimore and New York City, this area, with a little bit of work, already was incredibly hospitable to observant Jews. This only gets better the more that move there.
But these are options the Conservative movement and many MO shuls don’t have. Conservative congregations can’t rest on decades-old choices to go egalitarian. Congregations that are concerned with halachah in whatever degree can simply not find a reasonable accommodation for intermarried families without someone being treated like a lesser than, or at best, leaving them out of important synagogue functions. How do you demonstrate a value add, especially in far-flung communities like ours, to people for whom half their household is automatically disqualified from full participation? We sit in an odd place on the Jewish continuum, with that delightful, non-threatening, lesser-than version of what the polarized ends of the spectrum have in spades. We’re sort-of egalitarian! We’re sort-of traditional!
We’re the lukewarm porridge of Judaism!
That sounds good to absolutely no one.
We need to sell a value to being a part of our community beyond our Shabbos itinerary. I’ve heard people say, “we need to change up the services, make them more modern.” Okay. Do that, now and then. It’s not as constructively disruptive as you think, though. You add a guitar (shudder) and camp music, and what you get is your regulars awkwardly riffing through something, which in turn makes it awkward for those new people who might attend. They may find it inauthentic or off-putting, then look for a place where the modernity is far less affected and less obviously a source of discomfort for the oldheads. Done as a “me, too” effort, its lack of authenticity will actually have a deterrent effect. Changes to a service that still doesn’t use page 115b (with the Matriarchs) in Siddur Sim Shalom are not going to be organic, and it will smell to the newcomer.
Our rabbi does a great job of putting together weekday programming. The problem for working-age people in small, geographically dispersed communities, where we’re not concentrated in one area, is that we can’t commit to even a trickle of attendance to these things during work hours. And we desperately need to attract working-age people! Our rabbi pulls together beer events in the evenings, or we have a little jam band we put together on Purim or Sukkos. These are great things! Sell them! We have the most cerebral rabbi in the state (if you ask me). His sermons are the best. Hugely. Bigly. Sell that!
Add a kiddush club to the Shabbos itinerary. A lot of people have negative feelings about them. I used to love my Slivovitz engagements with the older yids at my old shul. It was far better than davening musaf, that’s for sure.
The only way we’re going to get people to come is to start honing program that a) doesn’t tickle the fancy of seniors (though that’s important, too) and b) doesn’t involve always being thematically Jewish and c) runs the risk of a disapproving “tsk.”
We need an adult from our congregation to take up a strong leadership role with our local university Hillel. We need youngish adults to start forming chavurah groups. We recently convened with a number of other Midcoast Jewish families at a home where we all had children Nezzie’s age, in the 3-6 year age range. It was a wonderful time. We need to think outside of the synagogue, and start thinking of building, together with our other Maine synagogues, a “Maine Jewish” narrative. I have been to many Jewish communities, from the Frozen Chosen (not the name of the lady from Vinalhaven’s blog) in Fairbanks, Alaska, to the Jews of Sarajevo, and Maine ranks up there with the most amazing amount of unique micro-culture features. Our shul even has a Jewish lobsterman. I see things like the “Center for Small Town Jewish Life” in Maine, and wonder if we’re not squandering our opportunity to truly push our distinctive Jewish presence, in hopes that we might reach Mainers with Jewish heritage who might be looking for any means to connect with that.
We need to educate and bring in younger people to the chevra kadisha. It should be part of every b’nai mitzvah curriculum, how to perform tahara. Stop focusing just on the joys, but also the chessed shel emet of taking care of our beloved dead. Build the sense of cradle to grave connection we have to our community. There is a continuity to our congregation we build and sustain performing our bris or naming, to the day they’re putting us in the pine box for burial.
I think we need to up our social justice and advocacy game, too. We have significant problems in the wider Bangor community with child poverty, homelessness, and opioid addiction. I hate using the term “tikkun olam” in this context, but it is appealing to younger generations. We have to stop being careful. An interesting part of Bangor history is that our congregation helped fund the rebuilding of All Souls Church after the Great Fire, cementing a century old relationship. We need to be that kind of Bangor citizen community now more than ever.
Leah and I aren’t native to this community, but our children, especially Nezzie, are at this point. Amelia had her bat mitzvah here. Leah is helping to shape the Jewish future of numerous Bangor Jewish children. This is going to be our story, too, when we go to the grave, and we want it to be enduring. If we can find a reason to move here, and we did, we can start making sure people know that in spite of Maine’s tax status, there’s a good chance you’ll make out like a bandit if you’re living in Westchester or Long Island and the property taxes are getting to you. In spite of higher taxes generally, we pay less thanks to almost halving our property taxes when we moved here.
I’ll do your snow removal for the first two years, even.
Most of all, I want our aging congregants to be confident that when they are gone, what they have built will span generations. They deserve to know that. Shame on my generation and younger for dishonoring them so.
I’m excited to be nominated to serve on the synagogue board. I’ve been on two committees thus far, and I’ve listened and learned more than I’ve pushed. Now that we’ve been in this for a while, I think it’s time we start asserting our leadership. Leah has done that with the merger of our religious school with another congregation, and she is doing that with outreach to other congregations for events in the state. I hope soon we can build a viable, Maine-wide USY with programming of value to our youth. The Center for Small Town Jewish Life, and really, I credit Rabbi Asch (who helped convert Amelia), has been filling that role. The programs Amelia and other teens from our shul have participated in have been fun, but they’ve also made great connections with Jews from Waterville, Colby College, Augusta, and more. I want our shul to participate in growing that and contributing to its offerings.
Because that’s what it is about at this point – finding the value we can bring to the lives of Jews.
As a hobby-level, amateur historian, I’ve photographed all the synagogues still standing, now often as community centers or churches, in Central Pennsylvania, from Lewistown to Danville, where many of my ancestors are buried. Rural Jewish life is in full-retreat. We’re not all going to survive.
I want our community to be around for my great-grandchildren. Is it a pipe dream? Perhaps. But it’s not inevitable that we’re the generation left to turn off the lights.