Monday, July 1, 2013

American Jews Hate Synagogue and There's Nothing You Can Do About It: As Explained by My 1950 Boyfriend Will Herberg

The Postwar Revival of the Synagogue: Does it Reflect a Religious Awakening? -- Will Herberg, Commentary, April 1950 (no link, article behind paywall)
But the divisions within the synagogue, however large they may loom when seen from the inside, are trifling compared to the great gulf that today separates the synagogue as a whole from the vital areas of Jewish life. Let it not be forgotten, in the first place, that out of the close to five million Jews in this country, no more than one and a half million-- or less than a third-- have even the remotest connection with the synagogue. Public-opinion surveys some years ago indicated that hardly eighteen per cent of American Jews attended religious services at least once a month... It must be admitted that only a minority of American Jews are in any important way associated with the synagogue. [emphasis mine]
Oysh. But that was then and this is now, right?

Errrrr.... Let's look at a snapshot of 2010

The folks at the Steinhardt Social Research Institute had this to say about the last major estimation of American Jewish population and life in 2010, (from their summary, page 17)

  • Majority of Jews uninvolved uninvolved in Jewish communal communal life, lack education
    • Even among those who identify “by religion,” majority do not belong to synagogues, participate in Jewish life cycle events, or have visited Israel
    • Most U.S. Jews do not understand understand Hebrew and many not able to read
I spend a lot of time reading Jewish sociological research papers (I know, I need a boyfriend, a corgi puppy and/or a life). From reading the literature today, you'd think folks woke up yesterday and noticed that American Jews hate going to synagogueEveryone's running around with their gotchkes in a royal bunch, angsting how to drag us back to a place that has no relevance or compelling interest to the average American Jew AND NEVER HAS!!! That simple revelation, though, seems elusive to the khakhomim of the Jewish institutional world, a place whose memory is both selective and short.

Indeed, let's give the mic back to Will Herberg: 

Even the minority of Jews who do belong to the synagogue do not as a rule find it the center of their interests as men and as Jews. Other concerns-- Zionism, labor unionism, philanthropy, social services, "anti-defamation" -- seem closer and more deeply related to the immediacies of life and the core of personal emotion; and with these concerns religion and the synagogue appear to have very little to do.
What is not sufficiently appreciated is that however natural it may appear to us, the present position of the synagogue in relation to Jewish life represents probably the sharpest break with fundamental Jewish tradition that modern history has witnessed. It represents the fragmentation of Jewish existence, and the secularization of Jewish institutions and activities. [emphasis mine]

Rather than (or even in addition to) bringing our youth closer to IDF hotties, or building Identity, or rebranding Judaism, or any other narishkayt the Federation wants to fund, we'd be well served to spend a few minutes confronting the trauma of the recent past. How can we heal the historical and cultural fragmentation still being felt by the average Jew? I've got a few thoughts, one of which is that it ain't gonna happen in a synagogue.


  1. I try not to be pessimistic, but I don't think that cultural Jewishness (aka, Askenazi non-religious culture) can survive without religiosity and I don't think Jewish religiosity can survive for more than a generation among Jews who don't know Hebrew.

    As much as I enjoy and practice "cultural Judaism," I don't know why Jewish-Americans should cherish their (non-religious) cultural distinctions any more than Irish, Italian, Chinese-Americans do (most of whom give that up pretty readily). When Jews don't value the religious component of our heritage I'm not surprised when people dis-identify, intermarry, and slowly lose the cultural parts of their heritage as well just like other American ethnic groups do.

    I particularly worry about Jewish communities outside of NY, LA, DC etc. Judaism is a communal experience. Maintaining cultural Judaism just through reading or maintaining religious Judaism just through holidays at home - doesn't seem sustainable to me.

  2. I'm sure that learning Yiddish is fun (I cherish what little I know), but when more and more Jews do not have that Ashkenazi heritage and synagogues are hoping to make the liturgy accessible, making Hebrew instruction the emphasis in Jewish education makes sense.