Judaism without Synagogues

[Cross-posted on True Ancestor]

A new generation of Jews, educated in day schools and more Jewishly literate than the generation that gave birth to it, is starting a new trend that’s as old as the hills: Do-it-yourself Judaism.

Tired of the creaky, bureaucratic and spiritless feeling of most synagogues, they’re getting together and leading their own worship services, according to this story in the New York Times.

A Judaism without synagogues may also be a Judaism without (as many) rabbis. The Rabbinic tradition, which codified and preserved Judaism through centuries of Diaspora, has also helped calcify it into a carbuncle of a tradition, sealed in a dry and didactic anal retentiveness, with the result that the rabbinate has become both creator and guardian of an increasingly arcane and divisive form of spiritual practice. My feeling from talking to Jews in London – who, by and large, are more observant, more literate, and yet more politically divided as a community — was that there’s an aching need to move beyond arguments about who’s Jewish, or who’s more Jewish, and toward something where everyone can learn, celebrate, and care without being categorized.

This is reminiscent of the chavura movement that began in the ’60’s, but it’s focused less on rebellion and more on the revived interest in liturgy and in a more spiritual experience.

One reason Do-It-Yourself Judaism makes sense is that younger people are so mobile that joining a synagogue, a more formal investment in a community, doesn’t make sense. If you might be moving in a year or two, why plunk down those dues? If you’re rootless, why act any different?

Today at synagogue, we heard from Jack Wertheimer about the atomization of the American Jewish community. It’s not, said Professor Wertheimer, simply that Jews are intermarrying and ceasing to be Jewish; it’s that we are involved in local causes rather than national ones, sense our community as being local rather than global. In June of this year, Professor Wertheimer had a debate with Jewcy author Joey Kurtzman, who claimed that the idea of “Jewish peoplehood” was a thing of the past: inherently divisive, even racist, and not something the generation coming up is interested in promoting or preserving. Kurtzman referred to himself as one of a legion of “Frankenjews,” or “Jewish American mongrels”: products of intermarriage for whom Halakha (Jewish law) is of “dubious value,” and for whom “the era of peoplehood has ended.”

Wertheimer’s reply: “Pick a single religion and single people. It will save you much grief.”

I think Kurtzman, like many young writers, overvalues his own generation’s perspective as evidence of some kind of sweeping movement. Jews have intermarried whenever they’ve been in a society that tolerated it (and sometimes when it didn’t). They have fled, moved, migrated and settled whenever it was necessary for survival. Jews have, in the past 230 years, been through no fewer than six major upheavals that shook the tradition to its foundations (interestingly, it takes about 230 years for the Jewish calendar to fall a full day behind its Gregorian counterpart). None of these ended either the notion or the reality of peoplehood: they simply transformed it.

If Jewish peoplehood isn’t preserved, then Jewish worship is either entirely irrelevant or terribly crucial, because that’s all that’s left. If my London experience is any guide, it’s closer to crucial: Jews feel that the questions of who is Jewish, and what constitutes Jewish practice, are terribly important, and should be broadly inclusive. Orthodox Judaism appears to disagree.

We may be going through another major upheaval now: the redefinition of our peoplehood in a society that no longer keeps us at arm’s length. Judaism will not die in this embrace, but it will change. Lay leadership will blossom under the rabbi-less system, the way it’s already begun to in Israel.

And synagogues, and their rabbis, will need to let themselves be transformed, along with the rest of us.

Have a good week.

About the Author


David was born and raised with a vague understanding that, as a Jew, he was the proud inheritor of a dead spiritual tradition. The synagogue (Reform) was the forlorn museum of that tradition. He didn’t mind supporting the museum, but being forced to attend school in it every Sunday seemed, in childhood, to be harsh punishment for a circumstance of birth. Read More

11 Responses to “ Judaism without Synagogues ”

  1. This is an interesting post on a very important topic.  Shmuel Rosner, over at Ha’aretz, is considering it as well on his page (link edited by Avi).

    Anyway, I think your comments about the perspective of Jews in London is quite interesting. In Jerusalem last spring I hung out with some Dati guys from the UK for a bit, and some of their American counterparts, and the difference between the two was that the American guys tended toward a visceral hatred of non-Orthodoxy, where the British guys didn’t really seem to care much. It was an interesting dynamic.

    Regarding the idea of synagogue-less Jewish religious life, I think the fact that many ex-Reformim are more observant without the institution than they were within, and my speculation is that they had to cut ties to have the freedom to explore without being accused of being “one of those.” There is a nice group of us in my shul who have our own separate Friday night gig going once a month, where we have dinner together, daven ma’ariv, learn a bit of Torah, and talk, all in one of the participants’ homes. It is a wonderful break from “official” services, and a way to bring Jewish practice and life in to a more comfortable and free setting.

    kol tuv,

  2. Before getting to LA I was quite excited about the idea behind independent Jewish communities that seek to balance egalitarianism, tradition, study and social responsibility. In fact Tamara and I have been including one such community (IKAR) as part of our regular circuit of shul hopping. And in terms of services it’s great but after participating for several months on and off the community feels like (albeit an engaged one) Reform community that just happens to do all Hebrew services using a conservative Siddur. There is very little opportunity for serious study and/or deepening of observance, especially outside of the shul (I don’t actually mean shul at the JCC where they have services). They are primarily focused on Tikkun Olam style social justice and activism. I’m down with the eco-kosher, fair trade non-sweatshop fashion shows and woman/gay rights stuff. Just not at the expense or exclusion of creating a community that is serious about observance, study, and Halacha (however that might be defined).

    To be honest I don’t care of the guy sitting next to me at services, is gay or not. I’m more interested in whether he keeps kosher and if so how he makes it work. I’m down with eco-Kashrut and focusing on how to bring that into Jewish life but not as a replacement or in lieu of traditional Kashrut. I’m down with having mitzvah days and projects where we go out and volunteer in the community but I want equal effort put into learning Hebrew, how to incorporate Teffilin into daily life or how to Kasher my home.

    From what I gather many of these independent communities do hold traditional Shabbat services but it seems that’s all they mean by traditional. There are community standards (if not flat out peer pressure) to engage in “progressive causes” but I haven’t seen even a fraction of that effort put into promoting suggested ideals for observance, nevermind any attempt at community standards.

    Oh man,I’m just a real downer lately!
    Sorry guy’s.

    I promise this week, I will be much more constructive in terms of my commenting.

  3. Avi:

    I agree that the idea of “Tikkun Olam” has sort of been hijacked. To be sure, it includes (or can include) social justice work, but it can (and should) have a much higher meaning as well. One issue raised: should a Jew’s priority be helping other Jews? Or should a Jew commit her/himself to non-Jewish causes as much as if not more than Jewish ones, as a demonstration of commitment to the equality and well-being of all God’s people?

  4. David: Ok so in some respect you are saying it’s a question of ” what exactly should Tikkun Olam emphasize. As for the hijacking, what are your thoughts as a CJ lay leader (in-training?) on how the current emphasis on Tikkun Olam, may (or IMO is indeed) overshadowing the importance of Observance is a primary mode of (personal) Jewish expression? Even if only from within a CJ context.

    Also I thought I would share a few relevant/related links covering this topic.

    First , it seems that David was quoted by BZ (of Jewschool fame) in his recent post on the NT times article. Nice!

    Also Shmuel Rosner of Haretz has an interesting article summarizing and sharing his take on the recent Synagogue 3000 Study on these independent communities.

  5. David,

    I read an interesting summary of a talk given by Rabbi Mordechai Finley of Ohr Hatorah (independent synagogue here in LA, and this is actually from a summary of the talk by Luke Ford). Rabbi Finley was quoted as saying “Reform Judaism made a mistake emphasizing social justice as its main theme. Judaism isn’t primarily about ethics. It’s about holiness, community, ritual, and peoplehood.”

    (Very interesting. I’m thinking about dropping by Ohr Hatorah this Shabbat.)

    Judaism without synagogue? Maybe. But at this point in my Jewish education (read: nascent), I often find myself inquiring about a synagogue’s “adult learning opportunities” as much as the worship opportunities themselves… And big synagogues are the ones who typically provide this (as far as I’ve seen). I haven’t been a Jew long enough to see how out of touch “institutional” Judaism is with people, although I read lots of articles that voice this concern…

    But a havurot as an addendum or supplement to synagogue worship would be interesting to me, particularly if amongst the members were other Jews by Choice or like-minded folks hoping to learn and support each other

  6. My name is Sara and I am looking for a Rabbi who will officiate an interfaith ‘barmitzvah’ in North Wles coast town of Prestatyn. We have no shul. No scrolls. Joel’s Hebrew teacher moved from the area and he only will be able to read a small piece in Hebrew. Is anyone willing to officiate this personal and individual ceremony?

    We want to hold it at end of July/begining of August in Prestatyn. Ofcourse, we will pay all costs and fees.

    please contact me on [email protected]

  7. […] and more Jewishly literate than the generation that gave birth to it, is starting a new trend …http://jewsbychoice.org/2007/12/02/judaism-without-synagogues/JTA – Jewish &amp Israel NewsAccording to Ynet, Jewish American student activist Rachel Fish told […]

  8. thanks you very nice

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