How to Get Jews to Synagogue? Go to Church.
by Rachel Loftspring
My best friend is a devout Christian; I am a secular Jew. She says grace before every meal; I occasionally raise a glass in l’chaim (more often, though, a simple cheers). She goes to church or watches it online nearly every Sunday; I haven’t been to synagogue in ages.
On a recent Sunday, my best friend invited me to church with her. (To be clear, she was in no way attempting to impose her beliefs or convert me. Our mutual respect for one another’s practice is one reason our friendship is so strong.) Her church is a huge, nondenominational affair. When we arrived for 9am Sunday services, the large parking lot was packed full of people – white, black, young, old, those dressed up, and those dressed in cut-offs – all streaming into the building. We joined the throngs and entered a large auditorium. There was another, similarly sized auditorium on site and several others at locations throughout the city, all connected via large video screens. Each location held its own service, broadcast online on a savvy, user-friendly church website.
The service (which was, by the way, exactly one hour from start to finish) focused on helping one another face challenges. Everyone has a past, the charismatic pastor explained in his sermon, using a series of thoughtful and personal anecdotes, and everyone experiences challenges. Rather than sweeping those issues under the rug to fester, we must face them, address them, and, most importantly, use those experiences to help others facing similar problems.
What’s more, the pastor continued, because everyone’s past includes at least some issues that have been swept under the rug, no one should ever judge another “unfit” for church. The church welcomes everyone because everyone has sinned. Church is a place to better oneself, not where only the better amongst us go.
While he spoke, the room was silent.
After the sermon, the band played several more songs. From a technological perspective, its set up rivaled a modern concert venue. Beyond that, the band was impressively talented, energetic, and soulful, connecting the entire auditorium to their music. Following the performance, a church leader thanked us for coming and invited us back next week.
As we walked out of the auditorium, I found myself surprised that attending the service had been such a genuinely enjoyable experience. Moreover, I left impressed by how the church managed to employ technology and music, mixed with a good, old-fashioned sermon, to engage an expansive and diverse group of people. Before, I questioned how my friend sat through a service, particularly online, each Sunday; now I understood. In fact, I had to admit to feeling spiritual and invigorated in a way I had not in quite some time.
It made me wonder: What could Jews learn from this? How could we make synagogue more germane to the average Jewish person’s life, just as this church had done with its congregation?
I have the honor of knowing phenomenal rabbis (and rabbis in training). Rabbis who are brilliant and compassionate, rabbis who somehow make you feel that they, despite demanding schedules, have all the time in the world just to talk to you. Rabbis I have known all my life and who have been there for my family and me in times of great joy and of great sorrow. Yet, as an adult, my engagement has been mostly limited to those times of extreme life events – and the High Holidays. Did my church experience offer insight into how a synagogue could meaningfully engage its broader congregation on a more regular basis?
Without question there must be initiative on the part of the individual. A synagogue can (and should) only realistically reach out so much. But if an individual comes to the metaphorical (for these purposes) synagogue door, what can a synagogue do to convince that person to come in?
First, make synagogue accessible. Walking into that church auditorium on Sunday, likely the only Jew, was not at all scary or intimidating. Church leaders presented opportunities, both religiously and socially, to become more involved, but did so without pressure. Additionally, the one-hour time frame required only a minimal time commitment from congregants (especially those participating in their pajamas online). Those who sought more from the church could find it, while others simply made it to church every Sunday.
Second, make synagogue relevant, both in substance and delivery. I genuinely liked the sermon. While the discussion about Jesus did not particularly impact me, the core message of how to live a better life and positively effect the lives of others did. Of course, our rabbis discuss similar themes (sans Jesus) – but I heard this sermon at a church, not a synagogue, illustrating just how important it is that both the substance be material to today’s world and that it be delivered in a way that will be heard. The church used modern music, live-streaming, and podcasts to bring congregants through the door. It harnessed, rather than shunned, contemporary life and technologies.
The church service reminded me of the last time I enjoyed attending a weekly Jewish service. I was a kid at summer camp, where services were held outside in nature, and we sang beautiful, lively songs accompanied by guitar-toting songleaders. While outdoor services differ from a large auditorium, and acoustic guitars differ from rock bands, both made the delivery relevant.
Third, engage and embrace both current and potential members. To fully engage is to understand the needs of all those who make up (or could make up) the congregational community: different ages, life stages, backgrounds, sexual orientations, socio-economic standing, etc.
Because it is often best to write what you know, I will address my peer group – young, married professionals without children, often a challenging group to engage. We are busy, building careers and lives, often transient, and tend to be deeply committed to non-religious organizations and causes. We rarely linger long after High Holiday services, telling ourselves, as my husband and I have, that we will become more involved with a synagogue once we have children. At best, this is nonsensical; at worst, it borders on hypocrisy.
A free meal or cocktails after services will not bring the unengaged in my peer group through the synagogue door. We’re not so easily enticed. To engage us, the synagogue must provide something beyond what we can already do, on our own, with friends we already have. The synagogue needs to provide substantive programming or unique events and opportunities we cannot access elsewhere. Discussions about interesting, relevant topics with community leaders, meaningful volunteer work, constructive social interactions, and leadership roles within the synagogue are all potential means of convincing this complicated yet crucial group to walk through the door.
In addition, synagogues need to welcome, as the pastor at the church service did, everyone with open arms. Whether a person is deeply religious, tends toward the more spiritual side, does not practice, or is not Jewish, he or she should be enthusiastically invited through those synagogue doors. I have seen too many interfaith couples disillusioned because they did not feel welcomed or, even worse, were actually rejected. I suspect some will consider this the most controversial of all the suggestions. After all, each synagogue must make its own policy decisions. However, synagogues must also appreciate that some policies – refusing to marry an interfaith couple, for example – not only fail to embrace valuable members and potential members of the congregation, but irrevocably pushes them away.
I am a proud member of the Jewish community. I am grateful for our synagogues (and Jewish organizations) that do hard, important work and do it exceptionally well. However, to keep up with our rapidly changing times, synagogues must be willing and able to evolve, as my friend’s church has. And while there are synagogues leading the charge and making great strides, more is needed – and faster – throughout all of North America. Only then will we increase the likelihood that when a person arrives at the synagogue door, he or she will walk through, sit down, and perhaps stay a while.
Rachel Loftspring is an attorney and blogger who lives in Chicago, Illinois.