Where Have All the Synagogues Gone?

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

A story in a recent edition of the Chicago Jewish Star really shook me up and set me to thinking. Three Synagogues, all Traditional, found it necessary to merge, as separately they could not sustain themselves any longer. What caught my eye was that they were not located in a changing Jewish community, a community which was losing its Jewish population. They are located in Northbrook, an upper middle class community with a significant Jewish population.

There was a time that, understandably, a Synagogue was forced to close its doors because of the exodus of Jews from its neighborhood. One need but take a “road trip” to Humboldt Park and the old West side, where some of the great Synagogues of yesteryear are still standing in these formerly huge Jewish communities to confirm this fact. In recent years we in Uptown have seen the closing of Synagogues in our general area as well – one Orthodox, two Traditional and three Conservative. With a diminishing local Jewish population they could not continue functioning.

But Northbrook? How could this happen? The answer I believe is a mind-shift, a value change, in Jewish life. Let me explain.

When one considers the massive edifices built by Jewish communities of the past, their magnificent Synagogues, as was the case in Chicago, one must ask, How did they raise the funds to build such magnificent structures and where did the funds come from to maintain them? After all today’s Jewish community is far more affluent than our great grandparents or grandparents who began their lives anew in the golden Medinah. The answer is simple. The sense of the centrality of the Synagogue was all pervasive in the Jewish community of yesteryear. Supporting the Synagogue was an accepted obligation of every Jew at every stage of his/her life. They needed a Synagogue.

Today the situation is quite different. Apart from observant enclaves like West Rogers Park, Synagogues see significant attendance three days a year. The need to say kaddish for eleven months, observe the Yurtzeit of a loved one, once the reality in most every Jew’s life, is no longer universally accepted. The majority of Jewish funerals are not followed by Shiva or even the three day Shiva developed by Reform Judaism, A reception after the funeral has become ever more the norm. Kaddish, Yurtzeit are but rituals of a by gone era.

For the most part Jews affiliate and support a Synagogue during a rather short period in their lives beginning with their eldest child’s need to attend Hebrew School and ending with the Bar or Bat Mitzva of their youngest child. Once this small window of affiliation ends, they may attend High Holy Days services, or as a greater number of Jews today, simply divorce themselves from communal expression of Judaism. They no longer have any need for a Synagogue.

Supporting this is the change in Synagogue construction. In the past Synagogues boasted large Sanctuaries. Today the Sanctuary is rather modest. Connected to the social hall, it can seat the large crowd that attends on the High Holy Days by opening the movable division between the two rooms. Building a Synagogue like mine, Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation, with a seating capacity in its Sanctuary of more than 1,500 is totally unnecessary. Multi-purpose space is the by word of the modern Synagogue building.

Sadly its now becoming ever more the reality that Synagogues such as those in Northbrook, while still located in large middle class Jewish communities can no longer sustain themselves. And we are not speaking of the grand structures of yesterday. The three Synagogues in question, all were housed in presentable structures. Yet none of them compares to the grandeur of the old Synagogues commonly built by generally poorer Jewish communities in the past.

I recall a number of years ago when the Synagogue I was serving was having difficulty with the minyan. As other Synagogues we attempted to develop the minyanaires club, a schedule of men who would agree to come on specific days to support our daily minyan. The response from many was that the “old men” should undertake this task. When I pointed out to those expressing this view that in fact they were the “old men,” they were dumbfounded.

The need to support a Synagogue as a part of one’s life as a Jew both in terms of Synagogue attendance and yearly contributions no longer is central to the life of many Jews. Of the major American religions, Judaism stands out as the one with significantly lower regular attendance at services.

I remember being a guest at a wedding at a large Conservative Congregation in an affluent Chicago suburb. A beautiful summer Sunday wedding, we arrived late. I was confident that we had missed the Chupah. As it turned out the respected and beloved Rabbi of the congregation was saying Kaddish for one of his parents. In order to constitute the minyan, he needed to extract guests from the marriage function. A Sunday afternoon, a congregation of about 2,000 families, their Rabbi saying Kaddish and it was necessary to utilize guests at a wedding to constitute the minyan. It is truly a different Jewish world.