The Arty Semite

Author Blog: Is the Synagogue a Relic?

By Shmuly Yanklowitz

  • Print
  • Share Share

Earlier this week, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz wrote about prayer and activism and prioritizing the vulnerable in justice. His blog posts have been featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


Many Jews today claim that they are “spiritual not religious,” that organized religion is not relevant, or that they would rather spend their free time alone than with others. Those who attend synagogue weekly often reserve the service, especially the sermon, for a special naptime. Others prefer a 20–person basement setting for a quick prayer service rather than a formal, large gathering at shul. Around two-thirds of Americans claim to be members of a house of worship, which is more than 25% higher than Jewish synagogue membership. Is the synagogue becoming extinct? If so, should we seek to prevent extinction?

At its worst, synagogue is rife with factionalism and small-mindedness, a place to mumble irrelevant words and snooze during an out of touch sermon, and later nosh on stale chips at kiddush while discussing the stock market and the latest gossip. Synagogues spend their limited funds on plaques, high-end scotch and a new social hall rather than on adequately paying staff and investing in learning programs. Congregants drive $50,000 cars but request assistance on the membership dues. The experience is predictable, tedious and boring. It resembles a business transaction, where one has paid membership dues for the right to services, more than a sacred obligation. The staff and board do not lead with Jewish values but act as management as if the congregation was just another business venture. The ritual is empty and the action is either inadequate or nonexistent.

Leading such a congregation is virtually impossible. The rabbi is required to perform four full-time jobs, take 3 am phone calls, act as the scapegoat for all failures, and also please each congregant while handling critiques with a smile. Congregants are forthcoming with complaints, but few volunteer when they can watch the football game on television. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel observed: “The modern temple suffers from a severe cold. The services are prim, the voice is dry, the temple is clean and tidy… no one will cry, the words are stillborn.”

Some see patterns of dysfunction. Professor James Kugel identified three kinds of harmful synagogues: the 1) “Ceremonial Hall Synagogue,” 2) “Nostalgia Center,” and 3) “Davening Club.” In the Ceremonial Hall, the congregants neither care to participate nor learn about what is really going on; they just wish to be an entertained audience. Mimicking a Broadway show, shul becomes entertainment, and the rabbi and cantor get a score for their performance. At the Nostalgia Center, the rabbi is often the youngest one present, and Judaism is about sitting where one’s grandfather sat, saying kaddish, and telling old Yiddish jokes. Everything is wrong but nothing should be changed. The congregation’s traditions and customs trump shared values, meaning, connection, and opportunities for growth. At the Davening Club, there is a false semblance of prayer intensity, but it more closely resembles a mumble-festival, without any real spiritual uplift.

On the other hand, at its best, shul can be a transformative spiritual experience. Eager congregants roll up their sleeves to build the community, providing an open, relevant experience for all. Prayer centers can be welcoming, participatory, and collaborative. Most importantly, a strong synagogue is driven by shared values and a sense of mission and purpose. Congregants look inside the walls of the prayer community for intimate connection and reciprocal comfort, and look outside for opportunities to reach out and give back. Peter Steinke, author of “Healthy Congregations,” explains that congregations need to move from being clergy-focused to mission-focused. Rather than relying upon clergy to inspire and entertain the congregation, everyone is involved in a system of involvement, encouragement and teaching.

A healthy congregation takes effort to build. A diverse population attends shul for very different reasons: children, singles, empty nesters, intermarried families, etc. Each population must be honored and be given a seat at the table. Too often, the elderly members of the congregation complain that there are not enough young people at the congregation to “keep the tradition alive”; to improve, they must be willing to adapt the experience to invite a new audience.

For the synagogue to survive and be relevant in the 21st century, congregants must seek authentic prayer experiences, enrichment through learning, and a contribution to community building. One does not just show up when convenient, but to support others consistently. Do not sit back and blame a poor prayer experience on the rabbi. If you find yourself unable to achieve meaningful prayer, learning, and volunteer experiences, consider changing shuls (and search within yourself). The heart must actually be open if one wishes to be inspired. But do not quit the synagogue enterprise — it has survived thousands of years for a reason.


Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek. His book, “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century,” is now available.


The Jewish Book Council is a not-for-profit organization devoted to the reading, writing and publishing of Jewish literature. For more Jewish literary blog posts, reviews of Jewish books and book club resources, and to learn about awards and conferences, please visit www.jewishbookcouncil.org.

MyJewishLearning.com is the leading transdenominational website of Jewish information and education. Visit My Jewish Learning for thousands of articles on Judaism, Jewish holidays, Jewish history and more.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Uri L'Tzedek, Books, Shmuly Yanklowitz, Author Blog Series

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.