A significant number of well-funded projects — such as Synagogue 2000, the Bay Area’s current Synagogue-Federation Partnership and a multitude of studies undertaken by Jewish federations across North America — have been analyzing the question of synagogue involvement for at least the past 25 years.
What they have learned is that people today don’t join synagogues for the same reasons they did not do so in the past.
Of course, some people do join — to a certain extent we are all creatures of habit — but when circumstances change, so do people’s behaviors and choices. And the reasons for affiliating with a synagogue have indeed changed.
First and foremost, most people today don’t come to shul to meet up with God. And most people who join synagogues don’t do so because of their commitment to prayers and rituals. Nor do they join synagogues for lifecycle events.
The old automatic membership “so our children can go to Hebrew school and have a bar or bat mitzvah” is also a concept that has passed its prime.
So why do people today join synagogues — or any “house of worship” for that matter?
Studies all conclude that people who join most often do so because they value being a part of a specific community. We want to be with people with whom we can identify, people whose company we like to keep, people with whom we share values and with whom we have a common vocabulary.
As one sociologist concluded, “The successful synagogue of the future realizes that it is more about people than about programs.”
We live in a world where most of us mean very little to those outside our immediate families, and certainly to acquaintances or strangers. Modern mobility works against lasting connections. So does going everywhere in our cars. Or living in highrises where we see neighbors only in garages and elevators.
While Facebook has millions of so-called “friends” and Twitter beckons our young people to join the infinitely long entourage of those who “follow” presidents, movie stars and revolutions, we individuals are barely a number on the planet. We are increasingly sensing our own insignificance.
But in a congregation, we find that we can count. We are not members assigned numbers on a computer. We are real, we are significant, we are known, we have an identity.
It is true that we can get a sense of belonging elsewhere, as well. We can get it from being a part of a group of volunteers at a hospital, or from playing in a basketball league, or serving meals to the homeless every week. And some make that choice, yet they may also choose religious affiliation. Why?
Because when we become part of a congregation — Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or otherwise — we can get a sense of belonging, of being known and counting for something.
And because we Jews are all part of the same ancient-yet-modern Jewish civilization, the community we choose to be a part of must resonate with Jewish values and ideals. We want to be among those who celebrate lifecycle events in ways that connect the present to our past, and to be with people who need no explanation about why we care so much about Israel or Jewish continuity.
We want to be among people who know the taste of our foods and our humor and our history.
We expect those in our circle to know what makes us proud and what embarrasses us, what we find insulting and what we find complimentary. Community means being with people who have the same ancient heroes, the same memories and are part of the same destiny.
That is why we Jews feel somewhat alone when we are without each other.
Contemporary Jews may not all talk to God directly or celebrate every important occasion with a Kiddush, but our synagogues must provide community. They must be places where we know who is ill in each other’s family, where we learn about the ones who are saying Kaddish or observing a yahrzeit.
Shuls must become where we eat cake at each other’s birthdays and watch couples kiss at their weddings. Synagogues must be the venue where we study together and eat together and shmooze together. We are family, we are community. And this, all the studies show, is why people join synagogues in the 21st century.
Yes, people select synagogues that give them a sense of awe, an appreciation of the miracle of life and a sense of wonder. But the congregation most often chosen for those experiences is the one where we are likely to feel a sense of belonging.
So for these sacred Days of Awe, find a place where you feel a connection to others, where you are joining the mishpocha (family). That is where you belong.
Rabbi Moshe Levin of Congregation Ner Tamid in San Francisco is retiring after the High Holy Days, following a 48-year career in the Conservative rabbinate.