Where have all the Jews gone? I went to three Shuls in Toronto over the holiday period and saw fewer Jews in pews this year than ever before. There was a good number, to be sure, but not the overflowing crowds that I have seen in the past. The demographic bulge was over 65 years old.
I have been thinking about this since the holy days. I have been asking friends who attend other Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Shuls if they noticed the same thing. Some of the reasons proposed to me included:
- It’s too expensive to belong to a Shul and to buy a house and send the kids to all those lessons.
- It’s too expensive to belong to a Shul, send the kids to Jewish Day-school and Jewish camps.
- I am too tired to get involved in Shul with kids, and work and look after my parents.
- My husband’s family isn’t Jewish and he does not feel comfortable at Shul.
- My kids don’t enjoy going to Shul and would rather play with friends in their free time.
- My adult kids aren’t interested, so why bother? I do make a nice meal for the whole family.
- Even my parents were cultural Jews so I don’t go to Shul.
- I can’t follow the service and it’s too long anyway.
You could ask me why I am troubled by what I see and hear. You could suggest that this is not my problem, just a further evolution of our community. When I was a kid, I loved dressing up as someone else – in the fall for Halloween and in the spring for Purim. We got to choose our own identities for a short time. We can also choose our identities within the Jewish community. The purpose of a Shul has always been three-fold: a place to pray, a place to socialize and a place to study. I would add another: a safe place to relax and be yourself.
I want our community to grow not shrink, to satisfy not alienate, its Jews, to hear the concerns of the un-affiliated and address them. Shuls could be large extended families to each other – communities that take us in no matter what else is going on in our lives, like job loss, illness, feeling left out. Should our local Shuls look for ways to address these issues? While I don’t think that the full measure of a Shul is in the number of people it attracts to services, I do think Shuls need to address the perceived barriers to a true sense of belonging. We need to build our community for today and tomorrow.