For non-Orthodox Jews, communal prayer in the synagogue on Shabbat is seen as an optional activity that a relatively small percentage of liberal Jews take advantage of on a regular basis. A recent study found that in Reform congregations 17 people out of 100 families who are members attend on any given Shabbat and that this number increases only slightly for Conservative congregations to 24 people out of 100 member families. At the congregation where I serve, we have a vibrant Friday night service and two different Saturday morning options in which about 10% of the congregation are “regulars.” (Regulars are those I would define as attending at least twice a month.) On any given week, there are many others who attend; some who participate occasionally and others who come for a specific event like the observance of a yahrtzeit (the anniversary of a death of a loved one), a guest speaker, or another life-cycle event (bar and bat mitzvah services attract the highest number of non-regulars).
Smaller congregations and congregations that are primarily prayer communities (as opposed to “full-service” communities that have learning programs for children and other activities) tend to have a higher percentage of regular Shabbat worshippers. Of course, there are the exceptions to the rule—every few years we hear about the “hot” new prayer service in some city that everyone of a particular demographic (usually 20s-30s) wants to attend—but even highly successful and vibrant synagogues rarely exceed the statistics quoted above.
In Jewish circles we often refer to them as “lox and bagel” Jews; Jews who like Jewish foods and humor and who pepper their speech with Yiddish words.
Why is that? Every study of the Jewish community finds that many people who consider themselves Jewish also think of themselves as atheists. This is because there are many Jews who identify with Jewish culture but not the religion. In Jewish circles we often refer to them as “lox and bagel” Jews; Jews who like Jewish foods and humor and who pepper their speech with Yiddish words. There are also some Jews for whom supporting the State of Israel is the center of their Jewish life. Jews who fall into these categories rarely show up at synagogue except for a bar or bat mitzvah service or maybe the High Holy Days.
There are also Jews who are active members of congregations but hardly ever attend worship. Religious education is a primary motivation for this group. No matter how distanced one may have become from Judaism, having one’s child become bar or bat mitzvah is a huge pull for families to become part of a synagogue. There’s an old joke that the fastest way to get rid of a mice problem in a synagogue is to bar or bat mitzvah all of the mice and then they’ll scram fast! Congregations bemoan the loss of families once the youngest child in a family has completed this rite of passage.
Additionally, the reason that few liberal Jews attend worship is because Jews don’t focus on prayer as the center of our religious life. Pirke Avot (Sayings of the Sages), a collection of rabbinic aphorisms from the 1st century, teaches that prayer, learning Torah, and doing acts of loving kindness are three equal legs that support our Jewish life. Many actively engaged liberal Jews will often spend more time in study and doing good works than in prayer.
Finally, even for those who regularly observe the Shabbat, some choose to observe at home instead of at synagogue. After the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 C.E., Jewish ritual practice moved not just into the synagogue but also into the home. According to rabbinic Judaism, the table where the Shabbat meal is eaten is considered to be a Mikdash Me’at, a replacement for the altar in the Temple. Because the home is accorded religious significance the Friday night meal has become the center of Shabbat observance for some families.
Just like movie cineplexes offer a wide variety of movies to suite the tastes of a diverse audiences, some synagogues offer many simultaneous activities in addition to Shabbat prayer such as study, yoga with a Jewish twist, or a movie on a Jewish theme.
So how do I as a rabbi deal with the dearth of worship participation in my community? In my community, we have moved Friday night services to an earlier hour so that people can participate in worship and then go home for a leisurely meal instead of wolfing down dinner and coming out late on a Friday night when people are tired after a long week. On Saturday morning, we include Torah study as part of our worship service. Midway through worship after we have read the scriptural reading for the week, we have a discussion in the sanctuary about the Torah portion we have just read. For many people this is the highlight of the Shabbat morning service. We also offer different kinds of worship opportunities to make worship attendance more attractive to a wider array of people. Our “Tot Shabbat” service is one example of tailoring our worship to different constituencies. Some synagogues have experimented with what has been dubbed “Synaplex.” Just like movie cineplexes offer a wide variety of movies to suite the tastes of a diverse audiences, some synagogues offer many simultaneous activities in addition to Shabbat prayer such as study, yoga with a Jewish twist, or a movie on a Jewish theme. These attempts at drawing more people to synagogue on Shabbat have had some success but they’re hard to sustain week in and week out and for people who want to worship on Shabbat, they’re torn between going to the Jewish-themed movie and worship.
Ultimately, our best hope in the non-Orthodox Jewish community of increasing communal worship attendance is teaching children the meaning of prayer and helping them cultivate a relationship with God through worship. When I was growing up, we learned the words of the prayer service and the order (which is always the same), but not how worship was an opportunity to develop a spiritual life and connect with God. We are trying to do that now with our children now. I’ll let you know in about 20-30 years how successful we’ve been!
In the meantime, the cantor (musical worship leader) and I work assiduously to create meaningful worship experiences that take into account the various ways that people access their spirituality — music, words, community, breath, movement, and silence — and deftly weave these into the service. I don’t know if this will bring the throngs into the sanctuary, but, if we’re successful, it will enable those present to access the Divine and deepen their relationship with God.