Why be a member at a synagogue? The answer to this question is not at all as simple as it was a generation ago. Once upon a time, belonging to a synagogue was a given in American Jewish life. There were a host of unspoken bonds that linked us Jews to one another—ethnic bonds, Yiddish language and culture, first and second-generation immigrant values and aspirations—and synagogues were our gathering place. We may not have necessarily believed in God. We may have been secular in every other aspect of our lives. We may have attended synagogue only on High Holy Days. But synagogue membership was sacrosanct. By and large, we didn’t belong to country clubs, to the uppermost echelons of professional societies, and we didn’t attend the old-boy elite universities. Shul was where we gathered and affirmed that we belonged to something important, timeless and meaningful. Shul was where we accessed our time-honored traditions, where we felt special, where we could marshal our resources to look out for each other, and for Jews around the world.
Times have changed. We Jews have made it in America. There is hardly an elite institution or cultural achievement in this society where there is not a Jewish presence and influence. Yiddish language, culture, and ethnic identity—however beloved and cherished—has fallen into the background of our lived experience. Of course, there are still many Jewish people who still proudly support synagogues because of strong family traditions, strong ethnic sensibilities, and identification with Jewish particularism in the world. But for all the Jews who belong for the time-honored reasons, there are many more Jews today who do not feel that they need a synagogue to play its traditional role for them anymore. Jews today can belong to so many movements, so many institutions, so many means of finding and expressing meaning beyond the Jewish world. Ever-increasing numbers of 21st-century Jews no longer seek meaning through ethnic identification. We’re global citizens now. Many Jews today see just as much in common with other races and religious groups as we do with our ancestral religious and ethnic group. Our prevailing societal outlook is postmodern: we can and do invent ourselves. We still love being Jewish. We’re proud of it, in fact. But in our postmodern world, Judaism is a religion that we seek to customize to our identity. We want so much to fit Judaism in with our complex values-system. New kinds of minyanim abound, each with their own particular approach and “flavor” of Jewish expression. New kinds of places are springing up where people can customize their own bnai mitzvah, hire their own rabbis, and cut-and-paste their own prayer services to match their expectations.
With all of these new opportunities, new forms of Jewish identity, new expectations and values, why indeed be a member at a synagogue? The answer is that for all the wonders and blessings of this postmodern age, for all the access we have to power and meaning in today’s world, for all the new and deeper forms of personal meaning-making and identity that are available to us at the click of a button, synagogue membership still makes a claim on our soul that nothing else in this postmodern world can. It’s just that we have to talk about the meaning of membership in deeper and more engaging ways than we used to.
To become a member of a synagogue in today’s world is an extraordinary act. It’s something we can easily choose not to do. To do so, then, is not just about giving money to receive services. It is, first and foremost, an act of faith that this institution called a synagogue stands for something important in our lives, and in the world. Synagogue membership runs against the grain of postmodern expectation. In most settings nowadays, you give your money, you click that button, and you receive instant and personalized gratification. Not so in synagogues. Synagogue membership is about something deeper. You give your money so that you and your family benefit, yes, but also because other individuals and families will benefit from the very same services that you value. Those other individuals and families may be your friends, but they also may be people whom you don’t know at all. At times, they may even be people you don’t like! To be a synagogue member is to rise above all of that, and to acknowledge: “I may not know you at all, but I am responsible to you for no other reason than the fact that you and I share a common heritage that matters in the world. I am responsible to you because--just maybe--you and I share a common destiny to improve this world as Jews.” In other words, synagogue membership is an act of faith in the power of community to transform the world.
For all its wonders, our postmodern reality today hasn’t found a way to express this spirituality of community. Yes, we can find all kinds of sub-communities—communities of like-minded individuals whose outlooks, values, interests, and talents, match ours exactly! That’s exciting. That has lots of possibilities. But it’s not community in the Jewish sense of a Kehilah Kedoshah: a sacred community united by values that transcend individual preferences. To be a member of a synagogue means that you are expressing faith that the community will not only mirror your personal expectations and preferences, but it will also challenge you to question those very preferences and expectations by force of Torah and wisdom when circumstances demand that we be challenged. To be a member at a synagogue nowadays is an expression of faith that the synagogue just may inspire us to live in new and more meaningful ways. It’s an affirmation that we just may discover insight from an ancient heritage with thousands of years of collective wisdom. It’s an act of courage that we just may encounter individuals from among our people whom we may not know or understand well, but who may be the very teachers or motivators we need to live better as Jews in the world.
On the deepest level, synagogue membership is not just an act of faith. It’s an act of Chesed, of lovingkindness. The money we give as members is as much a symbolic act of giving as it is a literal one. The money symbolizes our presence for what the shul stands for. It symbolizes that we care about what it does, that its mission succeeds. It’s an act of Chesed because it it’s not about instant gratification! It’s an act of Chesed because we know that it’s going to make a difference not just for me now, but for generations after me. We give for our membership because we know that our funds will keep the lights and heat on, even if we’re not there. It will pay the salaries of the teachers of Torah who can enrich the soul of someone else’s child, if not my own child.
Our ancient sages teach that Chesed shel Emet, True Lovingkindness, is giving with no expectation of reward. This is the essence of synagogue membership in the 21st century. We belong not because we’re in it just to get something out of it. We belong because the very act of belonging is an act of kindness and giving, of being there for others beyond our personal self-interest. Nothing else that has come along in the past 25 years can hold a candle to the power of this kind of belonging. This is a message that we must get out to the world today, and we start by being the living examples of the power of membership. To belong to a synagogue confirms that we really can transform our lives—together. And together, from generation to generation, is the only way we can transform the world.