The Future Synagogue

Recent articles in the Washington Post highlight a growing trend in the young Jewish community. Young Jews - 20s and 30s - seem to be attracted to informal, holiday/shabbat related activities. Some gather regularly in peoples' homes, others gather slightly more formally in "minyanim" at the DCJCC or in churches or other locations downtown. None of these groupings are organized by rabbis and in fact they all prefer to be self-governed and coordinated. They all seem to prefer a "traditional" approach to prayer and emphasize community and "ru'ach" - spirit - in their "davvening".

On the one hand, this could bode well for the future of synagogues. Many synagogue leaders bemoan the lack of trained, committed, young people who care about the future of synagogue life. This new trend could just be the source of new blood that synagogues need to ensure the future.

But, on the other hand, it seems clear that these young Jews have no interest in joining synagogues. They've started these "minyanim" because they grew up in synagogues and found them to be lacking. These new "minyanim" provide the informality, community, tradition, participation, etc. that they are looking for. Only in these groups are they finding the spirituality they seek.

And that poses a serious challenge to synagogue leaders. Hopefully, synagogues will look long and hard at their mission statements and strategic plans and devise a way to attract such young people to their institutions. Gone are the days when young families affiliated with synagogues instinctively. People now are very selfish and look for communities that satisfy their needs. Synagogues can't assume that people will just walk through the door. Synagogues need to actively pursue new members and provide the shul experiences they desire. 

This is a wake-up call to synagogue leaders and I hope that we are up to the task! Our future depends on it! 


  1. I lived in downtown D.C. from '05 to '08, and part of the issue I think is that there are a lot of transplants from other locations living in the city who aren't planning on settling in downtown D.C. (and very few of these younger transplants live walking distance from the upper 16th street synagogues because of how pricy it is). This causes a reluctance to officially join a synagogue, the local area of which they might be leaving in the next few years (especially if they are a congressional staffer, a student, on an internship, etc.). That's the appeal for the informal gatherings, like D.C. Minyan or 6th & I -- not only is there "no obligation," but many other like-minded young Jews also attend, and it becomes an extension of the Hillel minyanim that they participated in while in school (which, in turn, were heavily influenced by the style of prayer of Jewish youth groups). On top of that, there are few synagogues in the immediate downtown area, especially for those who walk to shul or otherwise rely on public transportation, so informal minyanim within working distance are appealing for that reason. And finally, there is appeal to young Jewish professionals who are looking for "doses" of Judiasm but who aren't willing to commit full-time to a synagogue routine. These options are near work, near home for those who live downtown, and lack the commitment (timewise and financial) of joining a synagogue. I'm not sure that this presents problems for synagogues. Though there has recently been an influx of young professionals into D.C., most will move out of the city when they choose to settle down and start a family, and will be more likely to join a local synagogue. And it will be these Jews who will bring this style of prayer and ru'ach out to the suburban synagogues.

    At least that was my experience in D.C. Are you finding the same informal minyanim out in the suburbs as well?


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