May 9, 2002
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, New York
"The Centrality of the Synagogue"
Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, Ph.D.
Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary of America
It is exactly one hundred years ago that Solomon Schechter came
from England to America to become the head of the Jewish Theological
Seminary. In 1913, just two years before he died, he traveled to
Cincinnati to speak at the dedication of the new campus of Hebrew
Union College. On that memorable occasion and with his customary
wit, he made reference to His Majesty's government and His Majesty's
opposition, without completing the analogy. The deeper truth, he
stressed, was "that both His Majesty's government as well as His
Majesty's opposition form one large community, working for the welfare
of the country and the prosperity of the nation." To his great credit,
Schechter, in that short address, chose not to focus on the evident
differences between Reform and Conservative Judaism but on the less
visible but deeper bonds of unity.
As a firm believer in his unifying concept of catholic Israel,
I too wish to honor this singular moment by speaking of the cohesion
that underlies the religious diversity of American Judaism. Indeed,
it is that common ground that Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute
of Religion seeks to affirm this evening by conferring an honorary
doctorate on me and Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, the Chancellor of Bar-Ilan
University, a leader of rare courage, whom I love and revere, in
the same graduation exercises. I dare say that President David Ellenson,
Chancellor Rackman and I are all kindred souls who treasure a common
heritage of great antiquity and unbroken continuity.
But I wish to direct my remarks to the future rather than the
past. Many of the graduates commencing this evening are headed for
positions of religious leadership in the Reform synagogue. I wish
to persuade you that the synagogue, generically speaking, is the
bedrock institution of the total Jewish community. It alone is the
aquifer for the social capital that nourishes and drives the vaunted
organizational structure that marks American Jewry. The communal
ethos, the spirit of voluntarism, the skills of self-governance
and the social networks indispensable to the conduct of organized
life in the public sector are all developed within the private sector
of the denominational synagogue.
Permit me to give you some empirical evidence to buttress this
contention. The recent elections for the World Zionist Congress
this June, paltry as they were, showed that at least 85% of those
American Jews who cared enough to vote were affiliated with a religious
movement, most likely through membership in a synagogue. The massive
rally for Israel in Washington on April 15 overflowed with synagogue
members and youngsters from religious schools. On a national basis
it is synagogue members who contribute 80 percent of the annual
campaign of UJA-Federation. In MetroWest, New Jersey, where 56%
of the population belongs to synagogues, the figure is 90 percent.
And in still another area of communal life, two-thirds of the membership
of all JCC s comes from synagogue members as does the membership
of an organization like Hadassah.
In other words, the synagogue provides the lion s share of the
funding, membership, participation and leadership of the organized
Jewish community. Unaffiliated Jews are both inaccessible and unforthcoming,
litt1e more than free-floating electrons without a nucleus to keep
them in a Jewish orbit. From this perspective, the most worrisome
statistic in the population survey of 1990 is the low rate of synagogue
affiliation of just 41 percent, a figure, I fear, that will be still
lower for the population survey of 2000 which is about to appear.
Jewish life in America is an inverted pyramid that rests precariously
on a shrinking apex. But one-third sustains the whole community,
and it belongs to the synagogue sector.
The reason for that is because the mission of the synagogue is
to make Jews. Its ritual, educational programming and social action1
imbue Jews with a sense of peoplehood and communal responsibility.
The need for a minyan bespeaks the centrality of community. We offer
our prayers in the plural. At Yizkor, we honor the memory of our
loved ones through the giving of charity. And our synagogues face
east to affirm our ties to Israel. Judaism turns on acts of loving
kindness the cumulative goal of which is to mend the world, tikkun
olam. Citizenship in the Jewish polity springs from belonging to
Any synagogue! For mine is an ecumenical argument. A11 denominational
synagogues, with the exception of stieblach, which are escape hatches
from Jewish responsibility, are incubators of social values and
group skills. Each in its own way promotes a Jewish identity that
reaches beyond the egocentric. By all indicators, synagogue members
show a higher level of personal practice, more extensive Jewish
education and a lower rate of intermarriage than non-members. In
short, social capital flows into the Jewish community from the wellsprings
of the non-sectarian denominations of American Judaism.
If, then, the synagogue is the central institution in the American
Jewish community, it is in the interest of the total community to
increase its membership. No post is more important than to be the
president or rabbi or educational director of a synagogue. To be
sure, individual synagogues must be revitalized, better staffed
and more welcoming and new synagogues need to be founded where few
or none exist to serve a burgeoning population. But the task cannot
be done by local synagogues and their national movements alone.
To grow the seedbed of the community requires the deep involvement
of the Federation world.
I would like Federations to consider mounting a campaign to urge
Jews to join the synagogue of their choice, to embrace the notion
that synagogue membership is the identity card of Jewish citizenship.
Only Federations can create the climate in which affiliating with
a synagogue becomes a personal obligation. Our collective survival
in the open society rests upon turning Hillel s ancient plea of
"al tifrosh min ha~tzibbur, do not withdraw from the community"
into the supreme commandment of contemporary Jewish life. Imagine
the power of the total community if synagogue membership doubled
to 82 percent. All ships in harbor would be lifted by that rising
tide. And toward that end, the nascent Federation—synagogue partnership
must move from episodic to systemic.
Beyond a sustained advertising campaign, I would propose the adoption
of a rhetoric that pays homage to the critical role of synagogue
leadership. Currently, Federations tend to relate to synagogues
as minor league franchises whose primary function is to groom players
for the majors. Nothing is put back. A large scale national fellowship
program sponsored by the United Jewish Communities for young people
ready to prepare themselves in an accredited school for the rabbinate,
cantorate, Jewish education or communal service would go a long
way to burnishing the reputation of the synagogue, not to speak
of addressing the pervasive crisis in personnel. In making these
recommendations, I do not wish to slight the laudatory initiatives
undertaken in recent years by such pacesetter Federations as Boston,
Detroit and New York. The urgency of the hour simply calls for much
In this regard, it is noteworthy that Schechter culminated his
communal career in 1915 by founding an organization of Conservative
synagogues, which he deemed would be his "great bequest..to American
Israel." By then he had realized that his Seminary, for all its
revitalization and expansion, hung by a thread. Without a solid
base of vibrant synagogues, neither Conservative Judaism nor its
academic and religious center would survive the forces of erosion
at work in America. Schechter, like his spiritual mentor, Leopold
Zunz, had long spoken of the synagogue historically as the national
heartbeat of the Jewish people. Now he set himself the task to insure
that it would remain so in radically different circumstances. He
needed the synagogue for students and funding, for employment of
his graduates and for the dissemination of historical Judaism. But
on a grander scale, Schechter knew from his inimitable scholarship
that the synagogue was an oasis in a wilderness of exile, a place
where weary travelers could find meaning and companionship. While
its ritual is a bridge to the divine, it is also a force for cohesion
and the language of social values. Those ensconced in its matrix
sanctify God s name by translating the ideals of Torah into a model
community. And to serve that institution, as you graduates soon
will, is still a calling of ultimate significance.