Transform our Shuls from places of expectation to places of aspiration

I must admit that I was wrong. About a year ago, the Orthodox Union launched a challenge grant designed to support congregations that create innovative programs and services to invigorate synagogues and stimulate congregants to re-embrace synagogue life. The reason for this was that during COVID many people stopped attending shul because of health concerns. Now that COVID was over, we needed to find innovative ways to bring people back to shul. I had thought that for the most part, people wanted to return to shul and once shuls offered its full complement of services, such as youth programming and kiddushim, then everyone would attend shul as they had prior to the pandemic.

Even though I don’t have hard statistics, my sense from speaking to a number of colleagues is that even though people have returned to shul, many more are only returning as JFK, or “Just for Kiddush,” Jews. Fewer women are attending davening Shabbat morning, prompting Erica Brown to publish an article about this unfortunate phenomenon a few months ago in Tradition.  I have also found that many more men as a whole are coming to shul just to socialize and for them, the prayers and the sermons are merely a distraction. Some come at the end of the davening, in time for Kiddush, whereas others come to shul earlier and spend most of their time sitting in the back of the shul or elsewhere, socializing until shul ends.  It seems to me that many orthodox Jews attended Shabbat morning davening before COVID by rote but they were uninspired. As such, once they became accustomed to not davening in shul during COVID, they did not push themselves to daven in shul once it was deemed safe to return to shul.

The challenge of encouraging these men and women to return to shul is that we do not live in a culture of expectation anymore. We don’t like to hear that we are expected to do things that are not always comfortable, or easy for us to do. When it comes to our Judaism, this can be true, as well. We want our Jewish experience on demand, or on our own terms. When shul leadership tells their congregants what they expect, often the response is let me observe Judaism my own way. Shul leadership may be forced to be satisfied when they see that these members enter the shul building, whether it’s to support the shul’s core mission through setting up the kiddush or being on the shul security team, or whether it’s simply to socialize with other Jews in the shul building. As long as these members feel connected to the shul then we have succeeded because we can no longer live in a world of expectation when it comes to our congregants. We can only provide religious opportunities and hope that our congregants take advantage of those opportunities.  If they walk in the door, then it’s a success.

I hope that we categorically reject this approach. I hope that our response to these challenges will not be to accommodate our weaker instincts. Normalizing behaviors that pull our congregants out of shul and away from prayer makes the struggle that much harder for those who try to remain engaged. While complacency may be comfortable, it always stifles growth. We must not allow this culture to develop in our communities. Perhaps the way to do this is to transform our communities from having a culture of expectation to a culture of aspiration. What is the difference between a culture of expectation and a culture of aspiration?

A culture of expectation is one where there is an expectation to achieve something.  In today’s climate where people reject expectations being placed on them, they tend to resist this culture, especially when they are made to feel inferior because they cannot handle what they are expected to do. In contrast, a culture of aspiration is one where there is a hope or a desire to achieve something. In a culture of aspiration, we don’t look down on people who struggle to feel inspired in shul. In a culture of aspiration, we encourage others to struggle with us, to join us in our journey and to push ourselves in the hope that we will achieve something.

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Parshat Va’etchanan, Remez 830) states that we are required to say, “When will my deeds be like the deeds of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov?” What does this mean exactly? In Alei Shor (volume 2, pages 375), Rav Wolbe writes that each of the Patriarchs strove to achieve a spiritual level on his own and he was not satisfied with the level that he achieved from his parents and his upbringing. Each of the Patriarchs aspired for more. When we make this statement, we express the same aspiration in our own spiritual level.

Someone was talking to me about her religious growth and she said that she was upset because it’s hard for her to control her thoughts because she grew up not observant exposed to many ideas that are antithetical to Torah values. She wishes that she would have been born observant so that she wouldn’t have been exposed to thoughts that are alien to Torah values and she hopes and prays that her children and grandchildren will train their mind to only be thinking and serving God. Instead of criticizing her for sometimes having these thoughts, I told her that I admired her. After all, many of us just observe Judaism by rote, but she clearly lives a life of aspiration, as she is constantly thinking about growing in her connection to God. We must create this culture in our shuls if we want to bring people back to the core mission of our communities.

Shuls are at a turning point now post-pandemic. On the one hand, the sense of community and belonging that have been created by our synagogues are unparalleled in communal religious life. On the other hand, it is not a given anymore that membership in an orthodox synagogue means regular synagogue praying attendance for men and women, even once a week. There has been a rejection of this culture of expectation. Let us hope that along with conversations about membership recruitment and fundraising which allow our synagogues to flourish, Rabbis and lay leadership have conversations about how to strengthen our core missions of communal Torah and Tefillah in shul, how not to settle for religious mediocrity and how we can foster a culture of aspiration in our communal religious lives.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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