Isn't it a bit odd that it's still so difficult to find a seat in synagogue on the High Holidays? With all the hand-wringing over declining affiliation among American Jewry-- and the survey numbers to back it up -- you'd think that attendance on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur would be down, too.
The fact that it's still the place to be for so many Jews during our most holy season must tell us something important. We just need to figure out what that something is.
The recent "Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia" -- the first to take the demographic pulse of our community in more than a decade -- found that only 35 percent of Jewish households report being members of a synagogue. Yet 80 percent say that it is "very important" to be Jewish. Among in-married Jews, 83 percent of households say that it is "very important" or "somewhat important" to be part of the Jewish community. Among intermarried families, that number declines to 44 percent, but that is still more than the percentage that belong to a synagogue.
So what's going on here? If synagogue membership rates such a low priority for the majority of American Jews, why the rush to the pews on two or three days a year? While rabbis and shul leaders have pondered this quandary since time immemorial, it has greater urgency today. When so many barometers tell us that our Jewish world is a radically different species, why is the trend today no different than it has been for decades? It's got to be more than guilt that keeps generations of Jews finding their way to the sound of the shofar, even if the rest of the year Jewish spiritual affiliations are sparser or even non-existent.
The challenge, of course, is how to inspire the connections to last the rest of the year. People join and participate in synagogue life for a variety of reasons. It could be about educating the kids, finding spiritual fulfillment, forging social -- or social justice -- connections -- or a combination of many factors.
But the common bond is the creation of community -- the root of any fulfilling synagogue experience. Some are already writing off the synagogue as too outmoded to serve the needs of the next generation of Jews. And indeed, some shuls are digging their own graves by refusing to adapt to new realities, and become more welcoming and inclusive.
Yet many local religious institutions have made great strides in recent years to find innovative ways to bring meaning and melody to Jews of many different backgrounds. It's an enormous challenge, but if synagogues aspire to continue playing a central role in Jewish life, then they must evolve.
Finding a place in shul is, of course, more than about finding a seat. With the sound of the shofar ringing in our ears, let it be not only a personal wake-up call to reimagine ourselves in meaningful ways; let it also be a call to connect or reconnect with a spiritual home, a place where we can build community, one seat at a time.