Synagogues: Disappointment and/or Elation: a blog by Rabbi Marc D. Angel

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A recent article in New York’s Jewish Week quoted an elderly man who said that lately he wakes up in the middle of the night “feeling terrible, depressed—I’ve never felt this bad.” This man had been a major financial supporter of his synagogue for many years.

He had attended daily services, was active on the Board, and played a key role in many synagogue activities. Now, at age 90, he is bitterly depressed. He didn’t pray at his synagogue on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, but attended a “break-away” congregation.

After a lifetime of commitment, investment of time and money, this man now finds that he is no longer comfortable in the synagogue that had been his spiritual home for so many years. The synagogue that had been a source of solace and strength was now, for this man and others like him, a source of internal strife and political in-fighting.

This man has lost confidence in the congregation’s rabbi. He has lost confidence in the Synagogue’s Board. It is not that this man is one cranky old critic; several hundred of his fellow congregants have also “voted with their feet,” praying at other synagogues and/or withholding contributions to their troubled synagogue.

As I read the article quoting this man, I thought about a number of emails and phone calls that I’ve received from around the country relating to people’s experiences with their synagogues during this holy day period. Here are a few excerpts.

“I had a wonderful holiday. The synagogue was full, people were really energized. It was so special.”

“I attended services on Kol Nidrei eve and noticed a lot of empty seats in the synagogue. The congregation is surely not growing but seems to be shrinking. I know some members who have quit and who are now praying in other synagogues.”

“The rabbi’s sermon was so moving, so spiritual. I left services feeling elated.”

“I was disgusted with the rabbi’s sermon. You would never know that Yom Kippur was a sacred time. The rabbi told jokes and gave some odd historical trivia. We learned nothing, and felt no inspiration at all. How could a rabbi be so out of touch with the needs of his congregants?”

“I am in Israel for the first time for the holidays and I can’t tell you how wonderful it is. I finally feel complete. I am so glad I made Aliyah.”

“In our synagogue, a group of people walked out during the shofar service because they didn’t like the way the shofar blower was sounding the teruah. This caused unpleasantness among the congregation.”

“We had to deal with “shul politics” during the holidays. Some people wanted “honors” and didn’t get them, or didn’t get the ones they wanted. A lot of squabbling, a lot of pettiness.”

“I finally found a synagogue that is alive, welcoming and warm. The rabbi is a real human being whose knowledge and wisdom are amazing.”

I am sure that each of us can add our own comments, pro and con, about our synagogue experiences. But I continue to mull over the sadness of the old man whose words I cited at the beginning of this essay.

Synagogues should not be sources of depression and frustration. Synagogues should not be torn apart by factionalism, gossip, or “shul politics.” Rabbis must be proper religious role models, and must have the gravitas to stand before God and community with humility and dignity. We should be able to find spiritual solace and uplift in synagogue services; we should be able to leave services feeling stronger, happier, and wiser.

How sad it is to ponder the words of the 90 year old man—and all those who share his feelings—who feels a sense of exile from the synagogue that had been central to his life for so many years.

While there are so many positive and excellent qualities to so many synagogues, there are also negative features that serve to undermine the synagogue’s genuine mission.

When synagogue leadership allows controversy to fester, or allows the synagogue service to deteriorate, or remains silent when so many congregants feel alienated—then our communities will continue to be troubled and infected with internal strife.

I am deeply pained when I read of a devoted Jew who feels he must leave his long-time synagogue, and who has “never felt this bad.”

I am cheered when I hear from Jews who find their synagogues to be warm, enthusiastic, spiritually uplifting, and who leave services saying that they “never felt this good.”

For all of us who deeply care about the spiritual health of our synagogues, we need to be counted among those who reject the strife, mediocrity, egotism and vulgarity that sometimes emerge in our synagogues. We need to play our role in raising our synagogue’s standards and ideals.

If we can’t succeed at these goals, we may find ourselves together with the 90 year old man who has left his synagogue due to his frustration, sadness, and sense of propriety. This is not a happy prospect for individuals or for synagogues. We must not only pray, but we must work for, a happier state of being for our synagogues.