The archaeological discovery gave credence to that old mantra about Jewish history: they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!
From the first moments of our existence, the future of the Jewish People has been called into question. Think about Abraham and Sarah, the first Jewish family. Would they somehow manage to conceive a child in their old age? Otherwise, the Jewish People would die off.
Two thousand years ago, the first generations of rabbis feared a similar fate. Would we manage to re-invent Judaism to survive in a post-Temple post-sacrifice world? Or would the Jewish People die off?
And our parents and grandparents asked the same question several decades ago, as they mourned the loss of six million - one third of the Jewish People - during the Holocaust. Would this be the turning point in history in which the Jewish People would end?
The noted Jewish historian, Simon Ravidowicz, once published an essay that famously described Israel as the “ever-dying people!” It was his way of saying that in every generation, the survival of the Jewish People has been called into question.
We, too, confront such questions in our own day. We turn to the east…concerned about the long-term safety and security of a State of Israel that remains haunted by the specter of an Iranian bomb. And we lose sleep as Israel is surrounded by several Arab populations that still fail to recognize her legitimacy after all of these decades. Cantor Becker and I look forward to reflecting with you tomorrow morning about Israel, as we seek to make sense of the difficult summer that has just ended.
This evening, we turn inward, as we give thought to our own American Jewish community.
Shortly after we gathered together last Yom Kippur, the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project published its comprehensive snapshot of American Jewish life, known as a “Portrait of Jewish Americans.”
Like any study, this one has been critiqued – because some would take issue with its methodology, and because others are scared by the report’s conclusions. Nonetheless, it would be a significant mistake to ignore the data buried inside of it.
The most important insight of the report is the existence of an emerging generational divide between those who understand their Jewish identity in primarily religious terms and those who identify Jewishly in primarily ethnic or cultural terms.
For example: of those surveyed who belong to the “greatest generation” – those who grew up during the Depression, and came of age during WWII – 93% identify primarily with Judaism as a religion. Only 7% of that demographic described themselves as “Jews of No Religion.”
Compare the Greatest Generation with Millennials – my peers, and those who are younger. A whopping 32% of millennials describe themselves “as having no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture [alone].”
These results raise big questions about what the future of Judaism will look like. The fast-growing “Jews of no religion” demographic is statistically less inclined toward things like participation in worship, and a strong sense of connection to, and support of, Israel. Some would see these trends as signs of American Judaism’s impending doom.
And yet: a vast majority of all American Jews strongly assert that remembrance of the Holocaust is a core Jewish value. And an equal amount insist that the ethical tenets of our tradition are alive and well, going so far as to affirm that, in the words of the survey: “living a moral life is essential.” Even more important: strong Jewish pride remains vibrant in all facets of our community.
What does all of this mean for synagogues across the country, including our community here at home?
Let’s begin with the Pew statistic which notes that approximately 39% of American Jewish families are affiliated with a synagogue. That number is consistent with the other large-scale demographic studies that were conducted in 1990 and 2000 respectively. The good news for American synagogues is that affiliation rates seem to be remaining constant, even as so much else in the world has been shifting.
The new concern that this year’s Pew study has revealed is that “Jews of No Religion” are far less inclined to formally join synagogues today. And the fear is that synagogue affiliation will decline nationally as the “Jews of No Religion” demographic grows in the coming years, as all of the data suggests that it will.
To say this a slightly different way: the Pew data indicates that younger American Jews will affiliate with synagogues-as-we-know-them-today at a far less frequent rate than their parents or grandparents.
There is a great deal behind my generation’s affiliation patterns. We don’t presume that affiliation with a synagogue is a necessary prerequisite to expressing our Jewishness. We can pray with other Jews virtually. We can use meetup.com to meet new like-minded friends. And we can give our kids a semblance of a Jewish education because Jewish learning has become open-sourced – meaning that so many wonderful resources are available online, just like everything else. And we can do all of this for a fraction of what conventional temple membership has historically cost.
Beginning tonight: we as a synagogue community have an important choice to make. Should we see all of these data indicators as a once-and-for-all-final declaration that organized American Jewish life is dying? And that synagogues everywhere will be inscribed on whatever today’s equivalent of Merneptah’s Stele is?
Or: will we see these indicators as an incredible opportunity and invitation to change and adapt ourselves so that we are better equipped to meet younger Jews where they’re at?
For more than five decades, our temple successfully met the needs of Reform Jewish families in Southern Westchester. Our synagogue flourished during a period when baby boomer families were moving to the area in search of a typical suburban synagogue center where their children could receive a quality supplementary Jewish education.
Jewish families are looking for different things today. And they’d really prefer not to be obligated to pay for it, thank you very much.
So…it’s time for us to think about leaning in towards our future. What should a synagogue be at its core? What do you want and need from your synagogue? And equally important: how should we pay for it?
As some of you may know, SSTTE was invited to work with UJA of NY and five other metro NY synagogues over the last year in an initiative called Connected Congregations. Connected Congregations has been a guided learning opportunity for some of the members of our leadership team to be introduced to the dramatically changing landscape that synagogues will be facing in the coming decade. It will, God-willing, be the catalyst of change that our temple needs to forge ahead.
There are no easy answers to the questions I raise before you tonight. Our working group, to its credit, has created a safe space where we are able to respectfully disagree, even as we seek out consensus in our own internal deliberations.
But here are two things that we all agree on:
1) Though we are split on exactly what changes need to be initiated, we all affirm that SSTTE needs to make some kind of change….We all agree that if we continue to passively maintain the status quo, our synagogue will not be well-positioned to thrive in the emerging 21st century environment.
2) We all agree that we need your help – your voices to do this sacred work. Clarifying the essence of what it means to be a member of SSTTE, and figuring out how to responsibly pay for our synagogue of the future – those questions are too big and too important to be decided by our Executive Committee and Board of Trustees. While those bodies will no doubt make recommendations to the congregation in the future, those recommendations will come – we hope – from you. We want, and need, to hear from you.
Our team is eager to understand how you conceive of your membership experience here at the temple. What are its defining elements – the elements that continue to draw you and your family here year after year?
We look forward to hearing your reflections in small-group community conversations later this year. And in those conversations, we will try to discern, with you, how the synagogue should frame its mission as well as the related question of the ongoing financial obligations of temple members.
Sharing is a two way street. There is more sharing that we as institutional leadership need to be doing with you, so that you have a better sense of temple finances. Some of you may not realize that our current membership dues only cover a portion of SSTTE’s annual expenses. That only naturally causes us to ask: What should the size of our financial footprint be? And how do we fund it?
Again, I would say: the answers to these questions need to come from you. Our leadership team invites you to join in the conversation so that - as a community – we can begin to figure out what a 21st century SSTTE might look like.
As a first step, even before the small-group community conversations take place later in the school year, I want to invite you to join us on either Sunday December 7 in the morning or Wednesday December 10 in the evening, for a community forum. Our team looks forward to meeting with you on those days to share some of what we’ve learned from UJA and our peer congregations on our journey thus far, and to get your feedback on it. The presentation will touch on regional and national trends relating to Jewish community-building, the synagogue membership experience, and alternative financial obligation models that are being tested around the country as we speak.
It is especially fitting that we have the chance to begin this conversation tonight – on the eve of Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is a moment in our year when we are uniquely position to step back and re-examine the state of the Jewish People, and the nature of the covenant that exists between us and God.
Tomorrow morning, our Torah reading will open with the words atem nitzavim from Deuteronomy 29: “You stand, this day, […] so that you may come to enter the Covenant of the Lord your God…”
Interestingly, we would expect to find the Hebrew word la’vo here to indicate “come to enter.” But instead we find la’avor, which might be better translated as “so that you may cross over to enter the covenant…” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, of 19th century Germany, teaches us that the word choice is intentional, and that from it we learn: “If you wish to enter into a covenant with God, you must cross over from the standpoint you held until now. […] For once you have entered into the covenant of God, your standpoint is fundamentally different from the one you held before.”
This is our season of covenant affirmation. But in order to re-affirm our commitment to God and one another, and our commitment to ensuring the vibrant future of this synagogue, it is going to require for us to question some of our presumptions, and boldly cross over to a new worldview…a new way of thinking about what it means to be a member of our community in the 21st century, and what it means to financially support such an undertaking.
Similarly: our Torah reading tells us that that is the work of this day. Our midrash asks: why does the Torah speak of Moses and the Israelites re-affirming the convenant on this day, when the text would have made more sense if it read “that day”?
Ma’or VaShemesh of 18th century Poland notes that the text reads this day to teach us that the words of Torah should be new in your eyes every single day.
In what ways are we prepared to make Torah new in the 21st century? In what ways are we prepared to revise the covenant that exists – not just between us and God – but the one that exists between us, the one that is holding this synagogue together? Are we going to be courageous enough to imagine a new way to organize and fund our community in the decades ahead in order to meet the next generation where it’s at?
An Italian writer once wrote: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” His observation easily applies to the future of the American synagogue. If we believe in the ongoing vitality of our Jewish tradition…if we believe in the necessity of the survival of our values and our stories…if we believe that we are not meant to be the last link in the chain…and if we believe, as I do, that synagogues are the institutions best able to transmit Judaism from one generation to the next, then something will have to change.
Now is the time for us to proactively begin a conversation. Now is the time for us to experiment and dream big dreams. Now is the time for us to build for the future. So that others will be here to inherit what was handed down to us.
We might be an ever-dying people. But let us die another day. Not now. Not on our watch.
Keyn Yhi Ratzon – May this be God’s will.
 See “Bitter Lives: Israel In and Out of Egypt” by Carol A. Redmount, appearing in The Oxford History of the Biblical World (ed. Coogan), p. 72.
 See, for example, http://forward.com/articles/185461/pew-survey-about-jewish-america-got-it-all-wrong/?p=all.
 See http://www.jewishfederations.org/local_includes/downloads/4606.pdf. The 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey found that 46% of American Jewish households belongs to a synagogue. See also http://www.jewishdatabank.org/studies/downloadFile.cfm?FileID=3129, where the 1990 Jewish Population Survey found that 41% of households belonged to synagogues.
Of the 39% of American Jewish families that affiliate today, only 4% of them are “Jews of no religion.”
 Giuseppe di Lampedusa