Jewish Institutional Darwinism


Kudos on Gary Rosenblatt’s column, (“Is ‘Free’ Judaism A Good Idea?” Oct 19), a most timely article on an issue that bedevils most congregations today. 

From the perspective of the full-service synagogue, where I sit and stand, the “pay to pray” dilemma of course is in broad relief at the High Holy Days when we turn the liturgy on its head. Our synagogues fly in the face of the words from one of the season’s Selichot prayers, “My house is a house of prayer to all peoples.” This is never an easy calculus, as we still believe it is possible to extract at least once a year something of a loyalty tax in the place of what eludes our grasp the rest of the year. 

Amid an embarrassment of riches, in terms of communal amenities, we have become a generation of “consumers” as opposed to “joiners.” Even in the Orthodox community where regular synagogue attendance is a widespread norm, the plethora of choices has enabled many not to have to choose a synagogue but to instead drift from one shul to the next. Loyalties today are at best fluid.

The absence of centralized planning, of any kind of compelling “kehillah concept” has led to a proliferation of expensive properties that are oftentimes underutilized. Too many multi-million-dollar Jewish school facilities are empty on the weekends, where the case of a synergistic relationship between “shul and school” would better justify the bricks and mortar and be a responsible use of today’s scarce material resources.

Instead we have a model of Jewish institutional Darwinism that is becoming a veritable spiritual and cultural food fight, leaving our communal landscape strewn with fiscal debris. The ‘kishke’ issue and visceral need of Jewish day school education has displaced investment in full-time synagogues, which used to be a central Jewish address. The question at hand is not only the price point and the debate around free or fee-based Jewish experiences, but how do we more effectively take advantage of the economies of scale. There is a need to learn and speak a different language that appreciates these shifting sands.