Friday, January 20th was not a wonderful weather day here in the Quad Cities. Indeed, it was actually quite miserable, with cold and snow falling all day into the early evening. It most understandably was one of those days when, having arrived at home after a long day at work, for most people, going out again was probably one of the farthest things from their minds. Here at Temple Emanuel, during the course of the day we wrestled with whether or not to cancel services. However, since by mid afternoon, we only had about 2 inches of snow on the ground, we decided to hold them. After all, Shabbat is Shabbat, and 2 inches does not a blizzard make.
One of the calls which we received during the day, asking whether or not we would be cancelling services was from the associate pastor of a local Presbyterian church whose Confirmation class had been scheduled to attend our worship that evening; a church which has been sending its Confirmation class to our synagogue for a “Jewish worship experience” for so many years I cannot begin to count them. When I told her that services would be held as scheduled, she sounded quite pleased rather than disappointed.
That service was planned as a special one for our congregation. Not only were we hosting these visitors and longtime friends of our congregation, but we also were hearing from those of our congregation who had the privilege and pleasure of attending the recent joint biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism and the Women of Reform Judaism, as they shared with us their insights and reflections on that gathering. On top of that, we were observing the first Yahrzeit of beloved modern Jewish music composer, Debbie Friedman, by including in the music of the service many of her settings for our prayers.
No sooner had the Cantor and I pulled into the parking lot than the students from the Presbyterian church started arriving in car-after-car-after-car. While some of our congregants arrived later, when the service began, the Presbyterians were in a significant majority. Though the numbers gap shortened as the evening progressed and a few more of our people arrived, I strongly suspect that had it not been for the special reports and music, we would have remained far outnumbered. At the beginning of the service, I made a quip about how it seemed as though the Presbyterians were made of far hardier stock than the Jews, but we all know that it is more than that.
Our congregation serves as host to many different church groups in the course of any given year. One thing that most of these groups hold in common is that they are in awe of what they experience here. They are captivated by the very sound of the Hebrew prayers. They find our melodies enchanting. The text of our services really touches them. They are both fascinated and moved by our Yahrzeit boards, our observance of Yahrzeits, and especially when mourners share some reflections on the people they are remembering that Shabbat. And when the ark is open, and they see the Torah scrolls they are wide-eyed in mystical wonder, and especially so when they are fortunate enough to attend on a Shabbat eve when we actually take the scrolls out of the ark, carry them around the sanctuary, and read from them. For so many of these church members, attending our services constitutes a spiritual, or even mystical, experience.
This is truly one of the great ironies of American Jewish life; that Christians have a far greater appreciation of Jewish worship than do Jews. They find so much more meaning in our worship than do our own people. Nor is this odd imbalance limited to the worship experience. I find it so whenever I speak or teach about Judaism to a non-Jewish audience. The non-Jews flock to study Judaism while the Jews seem to flee from the opportunities to do so. In speaking with the folks at our own Federation, they, too, acknowledge that while their public programs have met with great success, it is not so much the Jews who attend them but rather the non-Jews. Indeed, for as long as I have been in our community, that has been the greatest complaint that I have heard about the massive crowds who year in and year out attend our Interfaith Yom HaShoah observances; “Where are the Jews?”
I have to tell you that our community is not alone in this Jewish malaise. According to a study done by the Pew Forum, which is an organization devoted to studying all aspects of religious life in America, we American Jews have a pretty pathetic showing when it comes to the appreciation of our religious opportunities. So, for example, while the national average for those who attend worship services weekly or more than weekly is 39%, out of 14 different faith groups, with Jehovah’s Witnesses ranking 1st at 82%, American Jews are tied with “Other Faiths” for 12th and 13th place – just above the “Unaffiliated,” with 16%. According to that same survey, when it comes to how important people feel religion is in their lives, with the national average for those who feel that it is very or somewhat important being 84%, and with Historical Black Churches ranking number 1 with 98%, we Jews rank number 12, with 71%, just above “Other Faiths” and the “Unaffiliated.”
One cannot help but feel sad in the face of these statistics, and in the face of the reality that not only our synagogue but almost all American synagogues face on an ongoing basis. Why is it that so many of those who are not Jewish have such a great appreciation for the rich and wonderful heritage which is our own, while we Jews look at it and yawn? Perhaps it is the fault of the synagogues. Perhaps it is the fault of the rabbis and the cantors. Perhaps it is the fault of our religious schools. Perhaps it is the fault of our obsessive desire to “fit it” with the rest of our society and not to be viewed as “different” or “alien” by our non-Jewish neighbors; to be with them, wherever they are, whenever they are there, doing whatever they are doing, and not to let our Judaism get in the way of that. But more likely, it is all of these reasons, and even more.
There are those who say that competitiveness is a Jewish trait. Maybe it is. But if it is, then we as Jews cannot be satisfied being near the bottom of the list when it comes to religion; just one or two steps above those who openly profess that they do not care at all about religion. So what are we going to do about it? Whatever it is, we have to start doing it together.
This entry was posted on January 27, 2012 at 4:57 pm and is filed under Being Different, Christianity, Church Group Synagogue Visits, Churches, Clergy, Dealing With the Death of a Loved One, How Meaningful Religion is in One's Life, Interfaith Relations, Iowa, Jewish, Kaddish, mourners, Pew Forum, Praying in Hebrew, Praying in the Vernacular, Quad Cities, Quad Cities Jewish Community, Quad Cities Jewish Federation, Religious Identity and Involvement Studies, Shabbat, Synagogue Life, Synagogues, Temple Emanuel of Davenport, Torah, Worship Service Attendance, Yahrzeit, Yahrzeit, Yom HaShoah. You can subscribe via RSS 2.0 feed to this post's comments.
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