Sunday, October 10, 2010

Saturday Morning Conservative and Reform Shabbat Services

Our Conservative synagogue has one critical problem with its Saturday morning shabbat services. I know other people, synagogues, and minyanim have the same problem, and I was wondering how others have addressed this.

The services themselves are fine. We have a regular service that is fairly well-attended. The rabbis are good, the cantor, choir, and music are good. The sermons involve some audience discussion, which is interesting and works out well. We also have a more traditional library minyan that meets twice a month, and that service is also fine. It is well-run by competent lay leaders.

So what's the problem? Younger people do not attend services. Families are virtually absent, and people under 50 are virtually absent. The people who do attend tend to be older, and often much older. Virtually everyone who attends the regular service and library minyan is over 50, and the median age is considerably higher than that.

I am certainly not objecting to older people attending services; to the contrary, I celebrate that. But I am concerned about younger people not attending. The religious school has been running a "family shabbat service" for families with younger kids, and—despite the size of the religious school and the day school—virtually no one attends.

The result is problematic for several obvious reasons. We lack a community; the families do not regularly see each other at synagogue. We are not teaching our kids by example that services are important. We are not teaching our kids the basic skills necessary to be a competent Jewish adult. And we are missing out on shabbat services.

The problem is not the synagogue itself. To the contrary: if any synagogue could be expected to have services where younger people show up, it is ours. We have extremely intelligent, articulate, and well-liked rabbis. The synagogue is doing fine financially; we could afford anything reasonable that would help solve the problem. The synagogue is large, and we have both a day school and a religious school. But neither the parents there nor the kids show up at services.

The problem was even more serious several years ago at my father's (then) Reform synagogue. The synagogue did not have a Saturday morning service if there was not a bar- or bat-mitzvah. My dad showed up on Saturday morning all the doors were locked. (He has since switched synagogues.)

I see several causes of the problem, and several potential solutions.

1. Adults Do Not Think The Service Is Meaningful Or Interesting. This is the most basic problem. I think most adults in their 30s and 40s at suburban Conservative and Reform synagogues have a negative view of prayer itself. Bluntly put, they view it as all about sucking up to a supernatural Being that they do not believe in. Given that, it is silly and meaningless, and they just do not want to go.

The solution to this problem is to help parents reformulate their understanding of prayer and the Saturday morning Shabbat service. There's much to be said about the details of this, including whether it is even possible. And it obviously takes a time commitment. But this is basically an intellectual or educational problem. If adults learn about prayer and the Shabbat service and think differently about them, they might be more inclined to show up. (Or at least not to not show up because they think it is not meaningful or interesting.)

This was actually my primary problem for years. I did not attend services. I had belonged to our synagogue for several years, and someone asked me something about the shabbat service. I had no idea of the answer; I had never attended. But in the last year or two, I have been attending sporadically, but more regularly.

BTW, there is a new book called "Making Prayer Real" by Rabbi Mike Comins. I'm about halfway through it, and he (and about 50 other rabbis and educators) address some of these issues. I intend to blog about it at some point.

2. Adults Do Not Know The Details Of The Service. It is quite frustrating to most adults not to be able to follow the service and read the Hebrew. It is even more frustrating to get lost and not even know what page everyone else is on. This is especially true for people who competent or even excellent in all the activities in the rest of their lives. A Shabbat service can be a long experience of incompetence and frustration.

The solution here is to teach adults the service. There are lots of ways to do this: a teaching service, a class, podcasts. But again, it takes a time commitment and willingness or interest in doing this.

By the way, this problem was absent for people who grew up in a more traditional background and then wanted a traditional but non-Orthodox shul. The Conservative movement rode this demographic wave up in the 1940s - 1970s. During that time, Conservative synagogues could assume that most members were knowledgeable and competent with regard to practices like a Shabbat service. But most Conservative and Reform synagogues today have to assume the opposite, at least with regard to most younger members. And them means today's Conservative synagogues must be educating synagogues.

3. Kids Sports. They are on Saturday. Not much can be said here. But it is worth noting that there are some Saturdays when the kids don't play, or play later or earlier than the service.

4. Younger Kids and Child Care. Younger kids have a hard time sitting through a long service, especially one with lots of Hebrew. Most synagogues where parents with younger kids regularly attend services offer some sort of child care. (I blogged about this problem before.) I spoke to my rabbi about this several years ago, and he told me that the synagogue used to offer child care but no one showed up. He told me that if I let him know ahead of time that I was coming to services, he could arrange child care. But the problem is not that I personally need a babysitter. It is a collective action problem. I would like lots of people to want to come to services, and if child care helps everyone (not just me) then it should be worth doing.

This is actually a serious problem. I went to the library minyan at our synagogue yesterday, and last might my wife asked if I planned to regularly leave the rest of the family on Shabbat and go to services. She has a good point. It does seem odd that a shabbat service should be the thing that divides a family on shabbat.

* * *

Some hopeful signs.

There are st least four hopeful signs that I have seen for this problem.

First, there are the independent minyanim. In short, these minyamin are mostly in urban areas and mostly attract younger single people (20s and 30s). They are vibrant and dynamic, and full of Jews who take prayer seriously and are knowledgeable and competent. (Ben Z. over at Mah Rabu is one of the leaders of this movement; his latest post is here.) These members often get married, get older, and move to the suburbs. Established suburban congregations should welcome them and their energy; they could help revitalize the synagogue service for younger people.

Second, Camp Ramah. Some appreciable number of (mostly) Conservative kids to go Camp Ramah and come back liking shabbat services. This proves that the problem is not intractable. If some of Camp Ramah's energy and enthusiasm could work its way into the regular shabbat service, it would also help.

Third, Modern Orthodox synagogues. An appreciable number of Conservative Jews who want a active shabbat-observant community find it lacking in Conservative synagogues and end up at Modern Orthodox synagogues. They are not Orthodox in their beliefs. They are often egalitarian, accepting of gays and lesbians, and not completely shomer-mitzvot. But they are willing to tolerate joining an Orthodox synagogue so that they can have the benefits of shabbat. But if Conservative synagogues would offer this, they would feel more at home there.

Fourth, churches. Many churches have families who regularly attend on Sundays. If they can do it, we can too.

* * *

In short, I think this is a huge collective action problem. Adults in their 30s and 40s with young kids do not attend services for lots of reasons, including the fact that other adults in their 30s and 40s with young kids do not attend. If lots of people would start attending at the same time, they might just find that they would like to attend because lots of other people are attending. The question is how to jumpstart this.

Comments and suggestions are obviously welcome, and I would be especially interested in hearing from people who do not attend shabbat services about why they do not attend.

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