My family belongs to two synagogues. In two years, when our two smallest children start going to synagogue nursery school, we’re probably going to join the nursery school’s synagogue, too. Have I mentioned that we are also being actively recruited as members of a fourth synagogue?
Up front, let me be clear: Not everyone should join four synagogues. But I worry very much about a future Jewish community in which people join not even one. Synagogue membership can be expensive, sure. Trust me: I know. But I don’t see how Jewish communal continuity can possibly be achieved without them — nor do I think it should.
Our personal synagogue spread-thin-ness comes from a few factors. We belong to B’nai Jeshurun in the city as our spiritual home base; however, we’re New Jersey residents (to my husband’s chagrin), and therefore, we belong to a second synagogue, where our children go to Hebrew school and where my extended family belongs.
We will be sending our daughters to a third synagogue, geographically closer and therefore easier for my work-at-home schedule and for nursery school. And when we have two kids there, it will probably make more economic sense to join and get the tuition discount for members. And the fourth? Well, we just went there at a friend’s invitation one Sabbath, and started getting courting e-mails from the membership committee.
All this adds up to a lot of Sukkot dinner invitations. And a lot of Purim baskets.
Don’t think that I’m “just a girl who can’t say no.” The checking account is, after all, finite. But the dues to join a true community are worth the price of admission. A synagogue is an essential “home base” of Judaism. Without that community home base, we are at risk of becoming, quite literally, nothing.
On my “home” website, Kveller.com, a blog post published almost a year ago still haunts me. In the piece, the writer — an engaged, smart Jewish woman — talked about visiting numerous synagogues and not finding any of them palatable, in terms of either the service or the social environment.
Then, the writer connected with people who were looking to establish an “alternative Hebrew school”: that is, a Hebrew school not affiliated with a synagogue. Part of the lure of such a venue, as she described it, would be not having to pay thousands of dollars in membership fees.
In this group, she found the Jewish engagement she sought — and I fear that the synagogues in her area lost a potentially involved Jewish family. “I think it’s great that you are taking an active role in your children’s Jewish education,” I wrote in the comments to the piece. “I also think/know synagogues have what to worry about, as more and more families either a) don’t care enough to join or b) care enough to know that the synagogue is wrong for them. There’s got to be a big reboot on synagogue life in America in order to make it more appealing to people like you.”