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Should subsidized memberships be available for younger members, or for members in not-particularly-well-paid jobs? Yes. Should “membership scholarships” be available to members of the community who are willing to commit to a certain number of hours of synagogue-related volunteer work? Yes. Basically, I believe that anything can and should be tried to make sure that synagogue membership numbers grow rather than diminish.
Why do I feel that being a member of a synagogue is so fundamentally necessary? It’s not just because I have plenty of rabbi friends that I don’t want to see out of work. It’s really because I see an inevitable snowball effect: If you decide you can “do something yourself,” why not? Why bother with the institutions? And Judaism is actually an institutionally centered religion and culture.
The fact is, contrary to our modern ethos, Judaism isn’t supposed to be a do-it-yourself religion. Yes, its portability and durability stem from its adaptability and intellectual inquiry, the roots of rabbinic Judaism. But it isn’t supposed to be something you can do alone.
Everything, from the mikveh to keeping kosher to burying the dead, requires the presence of other Jews. Even prayer requires a minyan. Each one of these structures is in place so as to ensure that we don’t try to “go it alone,” and that we build communities of support and strength.
As fewer and fewer Jews go to the mikveh, though, or keep kosher, or care particularly about the chevra kadisha existing, much less about being part of one, synagogue membership starts to look outdated — only a necessity for setting the stage for the lavish bar or bat mitzvah. And even that rite of passage is being outsourced by many, with freelance clergy offering families the opportunity to stage a self-designed bar or bat mitzvah in the location of their choice — perhaps even the party venue itself so guests only need park once.
While you could argue that you’d rather keep searching than settle on a synagogue that doesn’t meet your needs, I’m a big proponent of changing institutions from within. I’d like to see synagogues partner immediately with young members, independent members and family members and build chevruta — smaller, welcoming groups that would facilitate relationships and discussions.
There is no Jewish continuity without Jewish community. And it’s incumbent on those of us who care to make it so, and to make it grow.
Jordana Horn is the former New York bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post and a contributing editor to the parenting website Kveller.com.