Why should I belong to a shul?

Having been shul-less for months, I haven't missed it. Asking other twentysomethings of varying religiosity, I am not alone, writes Jennifer Lipman.

November 24, 2016 23:20

I am a lapsed Jew. I haven't taken to pork, or started partying on Friday nights. But right now, I'm not a synagogue member. Having joined as required when I married, our membership expired in the spring and since then we've ignored the entreaties to return to the fold.

Joining a shul, I always thought, was something Jews did, like guilt, or over-catering. Even if you went sporadically, your Jewish-home from-home would be there. You'd join to attend services, for the Rosh Hashanah seat, for the community life within.

But having been shul-less for months, I haven't missed it. Asking other twentysomethings of varying religiosity, I am not alone. Some belong, mostly those who daven regularly, but many do not, or joined only on starting a family. Some cited cost; others said they just wouldn't attend anyway or that other organisations better support their identity. "I can be Jewish and practise without being a member," said one.

As a child, I was a regular - it was the primary place for social life outside school. But, in my teens, Jewish life came not from davening but youth movements and summer camps, later from JSoc. As my twenties progressed, it came from young professionals' dinners or charity events, Shabbat meals with friends, and even from twitter debate. I continue to observe Shabbat as I did in childhood, and my Jewish identity remains rock-solid, but shul barely factors.

So there's little urgency to rejoin. Why pay for a membership that on the rare occasions I attended "my" shul still left me feeling like an interloper? Burial rights, a down payment on your true forever home is the common riposte, but that bears inspection. Of my latest bill, less than £30 was allocated to that (the United Synagogue sets it at £70 for the over-29s).

It's not as if the fees are negligible, albeit that they vary between shuls and there are needs-based reductions. For my north London community, the bill stood at £660 (I speak of the US; at comparable Reform and Masorti shul the fees are considerably lower, especially for the under 30s). Incidentally, it's also cheaper in the US if you're under 30 - and single. Tribe offers full annual membership for just £60, but once your ketubah is signed, you're soon expected to pay up, no matter that being married doesn't automatically improve your salary.

For a generation predicted to earn less than our predecessors, when we're trying to get on the property ladder or plan for a family, forking out for something we'll use only rarely is hard to justify. Especially since membership isn't a prerequisite for services.

In any case, shul is about more than davening; joining is as much about investing in a community and building your place in it. For many millennials, that's a commitment we're not ready for. While Jews buck national trends, we're still more peripatetic today, settling down later than our parents, unlikely to live today where we will tomorrow.

Above all, from my perspective, it's that shul, right now, doesn't feel like it's for people like me. The festivals invariably see us back at our parents' and, week-to-week - like most childless young professionals - my preference is a lie-in rather than leyning.

Shuls, with their toddlers' services, communal dinners and seniors groups, are for the settled, for families, not unencumbered twentysomethings whose life is city-wide not local and whose Jewishness is cultural or charitable rather than liturgical. It's not that we don't want community; it's that the community we feel at home in isn't shul specific (or even necessarily denomination specific).

Friends who have joined suggest it is out of a nebulous desire to identify, or a sense of "future community"; they put in now for benefits they will enjoy later. Certainly, once I have a family I wouldn't dream of not paying my dues. Shuls provide excellent services, have immense running costs, and are hardly profit-making beasts.

One day that Jewish home-from-home will be integral, and for that reason we will rejoin. Yet not everyone will; membership is no longer a marker of Jewish adulthood. So perhaps it's time to rethink the model. Ask for a donation, like churches, or offer "registered supporter" options, reducing the cost but beginning the commitment. Or membership for the Uber age, where you sign up to "the" community rather than a specific one, so you are putting in wherever you end up.

For all but the very observant, I doubt shuls will ever have much to offer twentysomethings, and certainly not to the degree of other groups. So they should give thought to how they can ensure membership becomes an early habit.

November 24, 2016 23:20

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