The decline in synagogue attendance in the non-Orthodox world is not a new phenomenon, though the problem has been exacerbated by COVID restrictions. The immigrant generations that populated Conservative and Reform synagogues through the twentieth century still considered synagogue attendance as a form of religious identification and a sentimental attachment to their European roots. These passing generations have not been replaced by Jews who find prayer meaningful. As a result, rabbis have sought creative ways to attract Jews to shul, whether by preparing elaborate refreshments after the service is over or by scheduling events on Shabbat that might become an attractive lure. Even with these strategies, little has changed.
Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the premiere Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century, addressed the (Conservative movement’s) Rabbinical Assembly as early as 1953. He observed that even when Jews attend synagogue on the Sabbath — and, hence, should be very much tuned in to a spiritual experience — they still might not internalize the religious message.
He said: “Of course, people still attend ‘services’ – but what does this attendance mean to them? Outpouring of the soul? Worship? Prayer? Synagogue attendance has become a benefaction to the synagogue, a service to the community rather than service of God, worship of the congregation rather than the worship of God. A variety of suggestions have been made to increase synagogue attendance: invite distinguished guest speakers, radio commentators and columnists; honor individual members of the congregation; install stained-glass windows, place pledge cards on the seats and raise funds, remind people of their birthdays or anniversary dates. Well intentioned as these suggestions may be, they do not deal with the core of the issue. Spiritual issues cannot be solved by administrative techniques. The issue is not how to fill buildings but how to inspire hearts. The issue is not synagogue attendance but one of spiritual attendance. The issue is not how to attract bodies to enter the space of a temple but how to inspire souls to enter an hour of spiritual concentration in the presence of God.”
The construction of the Mishkan – the portable sanctuary – was less intended to be a place where God dwells and more a place to find God within. As the Midrash notes, the text does not say that God will dwell in it, but in them: in the people themselves. Finding ways to inspire Jews by making prayer more familiar ought to be the highest priority.