Denominational Judaism has once again proven itself to be out of touch with American Judaism as well as underscore its corrupt nature by virtue of its need to focus first on the bottom line. The Jewish Week, a New York publication ran an article “JCC, Synagogues in Holy War in Boca”, September 1, 2010 that described the turf wars between the JCC’s in several communities and the respective synagogues. Apparently there are JCC’s out there more concerned with meeting the needs of their membership than they are placating the financial considerations of the local synagogues. For generations, synagogues have been more interested in selling tickets and membership packages than they are in meeting the spiritual needs of Jews. The JCC’s, on the other hand, have become sensitized to this growing number of unaffiliated Jews and have done the right thing by offering services as part of their larger basket of Jewish programming.
I remember growing up hearing about the local Conservative congregation stationing ushers at the doors of the synagogue, not letting anyone enter the sanctuary without presenting entrance tickets. It seemed then as now, more of an off, off, off Broadway production show, than services marking the holiest days of the Jewish year. Many of the unaffiliated aren’t interested in a “show”, nor are they interested in paying exorbitant prices for the privilege of hearing a rabbi pontificate on current politics, international or national with hubris of actually believing that they know more than the congregants. But the clergy (rabbis & cantors) have egos and their hyper-inflated salaries massage those egos to the point that when they are on the pulpit they assume the aura of Moses coming down from Horeb with the law. This is a once in a year opportunity for them. The rest of the year they are playing to an empty house (unless there is a bar/bat mitzvah), so they want to maximize their exposure when this once in a year opportunity presents itself. The larger the audience the more the clergy can justify their salary packages.
This is why Chabad, the JCC’s and other independent programs have made significant inroads in the Jewish community. No longer does one have to be members of synagogue in order to feel Jewish or to “belong”; one can attend services at Chabad for a minimal charge; attend services at the JCC or services provided by an independent organization. Chabad were the pathfinders in this approach many years ago, when they sensed that there were many unaffiliated Jews who opted out rather than attend services which were costly and lacking, to boot. Initially I was resentful about Chabad’s outreach programs. They smacked of missionary work, which I found distasteful. But they understood something that I hadn’t as of yet grasped. There were Jews out there who were interested to some degree or other in exploring their Jewishness, but not to the point of making a large financial commitment to their local synagogue where the lion’s share of membership dues went to infrastructure and the rabbi’s salary instead of into programming. Chabad came along and said, that we are more interested in your neshama than we are in your pocket book.
Chabad, the JCC’s and the “independents” are the big winner. The local synagogues and federations can’t blame Chabad for their approach because that is their express purpose – to be an outreach to the unaffiliated and disenfranchised; to spread Judaism to the four corners of the earth, including American suburbs. Furthermore Chabad doesn’t receive funding from the federation or any other agency. The local Chabad’s subsist on what they can raise by their own wit. JCC’s on the other hand are recipients of funds and operate within a political matrix, which include synagogues and other local federations as well as other agencies. Its bad politics to rock the boat – yet they are, and my hat is off to them. The process began many years ago when many of the JCC’s hired rabbis to serve as “scholars in residence” with the understanding that they wouldn’t be leading services in competition with the local synagogues. After all, the JCC’s wouldn’t want to be accused of undermining the membership drives of synagogues and thus impact on their bottom line. It didn’t take long for JCC’s to understand that they were remiss by not catering to that growing number of Jews who identified culturally as Jews but refused to pay inflated membership fees where they received little value for their money.
Small, independent groups and boutique synagogues are mushrooming around the country; a statement that the denominational synagogues just aren’t meeting their spiritual needs. And it’s obvious that they have made significant inroads; otherwise, why are rabbinic organizations hostile to these startups? Perhaps this will serve as a wake up call to these sterile synagogues and their leaders that unless they change the way they do business they will continue to loose membership to “start ups”, Chabad and JCC’s.