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Synagogue attendance needs to increase

By George D. Hanus

July 14th, 2006

A funny thing happened on the way to the synagogue: Very few Jews came!
The Gallup Organization, a national polling company, recently published shocking results of a survey. Its pollsters studied weekly attendance at houses of worship of members of the major religious denominations in the United States.

Jews ranked second to last. Less than 15 percent of the Jewish community attends synagogue services weekly.

The numbers become even more sobering if the Orthodox community is taken out of the equation. Most Orthodox Jews attend weekly or daily synagogue services.

When the Gallup poll is adjusted to exclude Orthodox Jews, who represent approximately 10 percent of the Jewish community, it shows that less than 5 percent of all other Jews attend weekly synagogue services.

The only segment of the population that attended houses of worship less frequently than Jews, according to Gallup, were individuals who identified as atheists, agnostics or had no religious affiliation.

One could argue that one reason for low weekly synagogue attendance is that there is a threshold of Jewish knowledge one has to achieve in order to feel comfortable in a synagogue.

The language (often Hebrew), the rituals (standing and sitting, taking out the Torah) and the specific order and significance of the prayers can all be lost on someone without several years of Jewish education.

Indeed, on the occasions that we do attend synagogue, it is understandable that many of us feel distinctly uncomfortable, like someone wearing brown shoes at a black-tie wedding. Many Jews feel so out of place that their self-consciousness overrides any spiritual experience.

Nobody likes to feel stupid or ignorant. It is very common to feel self-conscious and uncomfortable when you feel everyone else understands what is happening and you don’t.

Alienation grows

The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that Jewish families not attending synagogue services will become further alienated from those services. Children lose yet another opportunity to be educated in their heritage, which results in a self-perpetuating cycle of Jewish illiteracy.

The cycle spins outward and faster as fewer Jews attend services and fewer Jewish children understand their heritage. The more uncomfortable they feel, the more they want to leave. The more they want to leave, the less likely that they will want to come back as they catapult out of the orbit of Jewish identity.

Our Jewish sages describe prayer as the source of life. Among other benefits, prayer elevates our souls, brings us closer to God, purifies our hearts and inspires us to behave ethically. Prayer is also a great comfort to those of us who have hardship or anxiety in our lives.

Prayers like the Shema are an acceptance of God’s sovereignty and commandments.
The Shmoneh Esreh is a prayer we say publicly on behalf of the community, and the Tahanun is a prayer in which we beseech God to help us personally.

Jewish prayer is deeply fulfilling, holy and spiritual, but only if we have enough Jewish knowledge to understand the words and rhythm.

Our Jewish community has been known for more than a thousand years as the “People of the Book.” The “book” in question is the Torah and it has bonded us as a people for millennia.

Neither army nor military might has sustained our community. Rather, it has been the “power of the book” which has kept our community together from one generation to the next.

But lately, the name of the book has been forgotten or changed. For some, the “book” is the checkbook; for others, a book of Jewish recipes. For still others, the book that guides their lives is “Who’s Who?” or “How to Get your Kid into the College of your Choice.”

It is the synagogue that provides the opportunity for Jews to gather with other Jews and engage in communal prayer while increasing our individual connection with God.

Modern medicine has just begun to understand something that we Jews have known for thousands of years: the healing and therapeutic power of prayer is enormous and incomprehensible.

If every Jew took the simple step of going to synagogue to engage in dialogue with God, having regular Shabbat meals with our families and giving our kids a meaningful Jewish education, the first line of this essay would say instead: A funny thing happened on the way to the synagogue: the place was packed with Jews.

George D. Hanus of Chicago is chairman of the Superfund for Jewish Education and Continuity and of the World Jewish Digest. This article first appeared in the June 2006 issue of the World Jewish Digest and is reprinted by permission.