Have you heard the one about the young Jewish couple who have a kid while living in a big city and find themselves searching for community around the high holidays?
You know, the couple who decide to pony up for synagogue membership at a large congregation in their city neighborhood, and then subsequently become involved through the synagogue preschool, the young sisterhood, and various holiday events? This couple basks in the warm glow of baking challah and attending Tot Shabbat services. They introduce their kids–first the one kid, then two–to more Judaism in five years than either of them had been exposed to in over 25. And they enjoy it! Never before had they yearned for Jewish connection and yet here they are, singing the prayers, making Jewish friends, teaching their kids Hebrew. Then, as the creep of Kindergarten approaches, said couple feels the need to find a new home in the suburbs. As a consequence, they leave their big warm city shul and head east (or in this case, north).
Do you know what happens next, in this all-too-familiar-tale?
The couple in question, with their two tots in tow, feels lonely around the Jewish holidays. So they call up their old friends at the big warm city synagogue and inquire about tickets for holiday services. But this young, participatory, involved family is told that alas, because they are no longer dues-paying members, there are no seats for them this year. We have no room for you to join us for Rosh Hashanah services, they are told. Shanah Tovah.
And so, we are left to assume that this formerly-engaged young family of four will spend Rosh Hashanah not at synagogue with their community, but at home, alone, or maybe even at McDonalds. Who knows.
If you haven’t heard this story, you most likely know other stories similar. Stories where monetary, proprietary, yuck-etary issues got in the way of what Judaism and holiday worship is all about. Community.
Sure, I’m being melodramatic. And yes, the family I mention above could easily seek out a congregation near where they now live, and go knocking on doors, and possibly pay a few hundred dollars to sit with a community they don’t yet know. But chances are this family won’t. Chances are very high that this experience will sour the family on synagogue worship for quite some time and truthfully, who could blame them?
The notion of paying money for high holiday tickets is an old practice and yes, in many ways, necessary for a synagogue to keep its lights on (MyJewishLearning can explain why, here). In short, if you are not a member of a synagogue and you want to attend services, and there’s a rabbi and cantor who need to be paid, and a building that needs to be heated and cooled, and booklets to print up and Kiddush wine to order and you get the idea–then this sort of tithe, if you will, is necessary.
And yes, many synagogues have sliding scales for ticket prices, or will offer special community services–held at off-hour times during the holidays, for those who don’t want to pay but do want to pray.
And yet, I’m here to argue–looking at you again, machers–that our community isn’t doing enough to welcome in the young and exhausted, who are just trying to connect, without strings attached. Turning a young family away, when they want to come to synagogue and worship with a community? Wrong. And, at the risk of sounding histrionic, the stuff that total assimilation is made of.
There are five words that the Jewish establishment must remember when thinking about how to engage young people: Meet Them Where They Are.
To Wit: I recently took my kids to a PJ Library event at a local synagogue in our new town. While a friend who happens to be closely connected to this particular congregation invited me, PJ library events (Jewish-themed activities for young kids, based around a PJ library storybook) are open to the community. So off we went on a Friday afternoon, my twin toddlers and I, to read a story, do an art project, bake challah.
The girls had fun. The challah they “baked” actually tasted good. Everyone was incredibly friendly, hands were outstretched, introductions were made, the young rabbi of the congregation came to visit, took photos, made introductions, helped his own kid color on a challah cover. We enjoyed.
Fast-forward not even a week. I’m at home. My kids are upstairs napping. The mail arrives. I run to catch the carrier before he slams our mailbox cover, setting off a domino effect of barking dog and kids woken too soon. Top of the mail pile? Envelope addressed to my children. Not in the handwriting of their grandmothers. Who else sends them mail? I check return address: it was from the shul we had just visited for the challah baking extravaganza. I open the envelope up. Inside is a letter to my kids, thanking them for coming to the PJ library event, and two high holiday tickets, one for me and one for my husband, along with an invitation to join the congregation at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, as guests of the synagogue. No fee required, no RSVP necessary, no literature on synagogue membership. No “pay for pray.” Just a warm and welcoming gesture from an established community to a new family in town. It was so simple, so menschy, and so right.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a lot of time on my hands these days. Raising my kids has sapped me and my husband of basically all the juice we might have otherwise put toward community building. We feel around in the dark for old friends, make tentative plans, frequent neighborhood parks, try and catch a PJ library event when we can. But honestly, we’re mostly focused on keeping it together. “These are the lost years,” a veteran parent told me not long ago, as she spied me chasing my girls down the hall of the local JCC. I’d rather not think of them as lost, but yes, these are not easy years, though I know they are precious and will pass by too quickly. In my heart I want to be building a Jewish presence in my kids’ lives. In my reality, I’m lucky if I can bathe them regularly without passing out from exhaustion.
The Talmud teaches kol yisrael arevim zeh le zeh, which basically translates as “all of Israel is responsible for one another.” This synagogue took responsibility for my family. And it didn’t take much. They sent a note in the mail. They made it easy for us. They let us know they wanted us around.
Temple trustees, board members, presidents, and staff: during this high holiday season, if you find yourself in a position to open your doors to the young and unmoored, do so! Worry not about hosting poker nights or golf club extravaganzas. Don’t send bulletin after bulletin to a ream of addresses that mean nothing but wasted paper. Identify a family; throw two tickets in the mail. Include a schedule of childcare hours at the temple. Make it easy. They will come. And it will be sweet.