An interesting question was raised at last night’s board meeting, in the course of a discussion about our Saturday morning service. We were talking about the differences between Friday night (a service that has been growing in numbers for years) and Shabbat morning (a service that has been shrinking numbers wise). A comparison between the two services is instructive, and in and of itself lends some insight into the dynamic. The Friday night service is shorter, less formal, more participatory, very much in tune with the modern zeitgeist in terms of what people are looking for from their religious institutions. Saturday morning is more than twice as long, formal, tie and jacket for men, more structured, and has an older style and vibe.
We also spoke about the different demographics – Friday night younger, on average probably a good 10-15 years younger than Saturday morning. A thoughtful board member then raised the following question: is there a difference between the Friday night and Saturday morning groups in terms of their belief in God? That is to say, has there been some kind of theological self selection, more traditionally faithful folks tending towards one service, those less inclined towards another?
On the one hand, you just can’t take God out of the equation. After all, we are a synagogue, a house of worship. Without the worship part we would simply be a JCC, a social gathering place for Jews, where people could do some learning, participate in social action initiatives, stay connected to Israel. All important, but all things that can happen outside of a synagogue. What makes a synagogue a synagogue by definition is that it holds religious services. And if you are worshipping, engaged in prayer, at some point God is connected to that process. How might very well change dramatically for different people, but still the whole God idea is central. The synagogue is in some significant way about exploring the world of the spirit and soul, helping us to get in touch with our inner selves, our hopes and dreams, our faults and failings. Can that happen without God? Of course. But the premise of synagogue life is that it can happen better with God.
That being said, one does not have to be a ‘believer’ to be part of a synagogue, or even to find connection to the synagogue meaningful and important. There is an old story about Schwartz and Greenberg, both of whom faithfully attend their shul’s morning minyan. Greenberg is a true believer, but Schwartz has serious doubts about the Divine. One day Schwartz’s wife asks him about his service attendance: “Greenberg I understand,” she says, “he believes in God. But you don’t! Why do you bother to get up every day and go?” Schwartz responded to his wife: “Greenberg goes to shul to talk to God. I go to shul to talk to Greenberg.”
To answer my board member’s question, if I had to guess I would say there are more Greenbergs in attendance on Saturday mornings, and more Schwartzs on Friday nights. The Saturday morning crowd is still tied to the Judaism of my bubbie and zayde, still rooted in the experience of our ancestors who came from Eastern Europe, lived traditional Jewish lives, spoke Yiddish, kept kosher, and by and large were true believers. The Friday night crowd is one more generation removed from that experience, and also deeply immersed in secular life and all of its glitter (like most Americans, by the way!). The challenge for the synagogue is to maintain the one, to tend to the needs of traditionally oriented folk, while at the same time cultivating the interest of the other, that newer and younger demographic that is still connected, but a little bit further down the chain of tradition.
What a task! But at the same time it is good to know that there is meaningful and challenging work ahead. As for me, I’ll see you in services. Either Friday night or Saturday morning – I’ll be at both!