Only Go to Shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? Here’s Why

So long as synagogues fail to adapt to changing times - and young Jewish adults' search for spiritual meaning - they will continue to be irrelevant as venues for creating community.

Tomer Appelbaum

This week, Jews worldwide will flock to synagogues they haven't set foot in all year to attend High Holy Day services. Some will do so out of guilt for not having practiced Judaism actively enough all year; others will do so out of an obligation to their families; while others yet will do so because they feel it will facilitate their effort to make a deeper connection to their spirituality during these sacred days.

Some Jewish leaders bemoan this phenomenon, labeling such congregants "three-times-a-year Jews.” I, however, find them rather admirable.

The often-quoted Pew Research Study shows that modern day, young Jewish adults often identify strongly as Jews but have little interest or see little value in institutional or communal Judaism. In fact, one of the study’s most telling statistics is that 32 percent of these young adults are completely unaffiliated with Judaism, but identify as Jewish by ancestry or ethnicity. In reading the details of the entire study it is not difficult to deduce the underlying cynicism, skepticism, discomfort, alienation and distance these young adults feel about institutional Judaism – for while these respondents identify as Jewish in the study’s questions themselves they seek and desire no institutional Jewish affiliation.

Given this reality, it is remarkable and venerable that so many Jews come and sit in the pews for the longest and most theologically challenging services of the entire year. Yet, while I may laud the efforts of those who do attend synagogue, even if only during the High Holy Days, I feel the need to consider why so many Jews find little use in institutional Jewish life at all, for this is becoming an increasingly visible and problematic issue.

The equation is simple: if someone feels Jewish and can practice Judaism in their home without attending a synagogue – membership to which is expensive, the atmosphere at which feels cold, and the spiritual benefits of which feel scarce – why should they become a part of a formal Jewish community? What would the synagogue add to their modern life?

In her article for Tablet magazine, Judy Walters makes the case against needing a synagogue. After years of belonging to a synagogue out of familial obligation and guilt, having mediocre experiences, and gaining few meaningful connections, she decided to leave her synagogue and just maintain her Judaism at home. Walters' article raises a compelling question for Jewish leaders of all stripes: Why should modern (secular) Jews attend synagogue at all?

In her book "Got Religion," Noami Schaefer Riley writes about the shifting landscape of religion and spirituality as millennials take the reins of religious life, spirituality and community. She writes:

“Young adults want community. They want a neighborhood. They want a critical mass of people their age. But they want to see older and younger people in their religious institutions too. They want to serve .they want a message that resonates and helps them tackle practical challenges.”

Nothing could be closer to describing what synagogues were meant to be for people: multi-generational and sustained (aka long-term) communities, where people can connect to others intellectually, socially and religiously, through a shared desire to create meaningful Jewish experiences, deepen their commitment to learning Jewish wisdom, and motivate one another toward serve to repair a broken world.

But our communal institutions have failed to adapt with time to the changing needs and demands of our people. Increasingly challenging economic times, diverse family structures and religious needs, and the proliferation of technology in our everyday lives require dynamism from religious leaders and the communities they lead.

As Schaefer Riley so poignantly argues in her book, people – especially millennials – are seeking meaning in community. They are seeking a deep connection to the wisdom of our tradition and want to do so in a community of people who share the same spiritual journey.

To be the space where Jews can find the community they seek, synagogues must shift to new models that respond to life’s challenges and triumphs, create new systems for outreach and "in-reach," and drastically shift the training and roles of religious leaders.

As we approach these High Holy Days, when our friends and family do come to synagogue and sit together, we should commit to communal teshuvah; to shaping a new age of synagogue life, where shuls are the place to be – places that challenge people to think deeply, sharpen their sense of responsibility in creating a just world, and offer a safe space that Jews of all stripes use as a resource for creating their modern Jewish homes and families.

Rabbi Elianna Yolkut works throughout N.Y.C. and beyond teaching, speaking and writing Torah. You can find her at www.rabbielianna.com