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  • Writer's pictureSara Zober

Open Letter to My Teacher: Chicken Little and Our Rabbi Problem

Dear Rabbi Hoffman, Moreinu v’Rabbeinu,

I read your Open Letter with dismay and confusion. When you said that the “doom and gloom about the future of synagogues” was untrue, I rejoiced because I agree it doesn't have to be. When you characterized the proposed mainstream solution as financial support for “entrepreneurial startups of pretty much anything that legacy synagogues are not,” I was confused. When you called the rabbinic shortage a case of “Chicken Little,” of scaring young people away by talking about the death of synagogues and legacy institutions, I grew despondent.

With all due respect for the ways you have been and continue to be my teacher (though I was educated in Cincinnati, your books and research continue to guide my rabbinate), I believe that you are mistaking a symptom for a cause in this matter. The FACT report includes a few important statistics that didn’t seem to warrant a mention in your blog post, but that I feel are central to this issue.

“...synagogues likely mirror the larger reality of the church world where 70% of the people attend the largest 10% of congregations. So too, the largest synagogues are attracting more and more members, while smaller ones, in difficult markets, report challenges.” (p.5)

My bias: I have never served in a congregation with more than 350 families, and have never served in one in a major city (Cincinnati is by far the biggest city I’ve worked in). Now I am once again serving in one of those “difficult market” synagogues - a 150-family Reform synagogue in Reno, NV. We are hours away from our closest “larger” synagogue (in Sacramento, CA), so if our synagogue were to fail or flounder or be part of the 40% declining, Judaism as it is practiced between Sacramento, Boise, ID, Salt Lake City, UT, and Henderson, NV would essentially go under.

To tell the truth, Reno is the perfect paradigm of the 40-20-40 synagogues, because the beautiful, legacy Conservative synagogue in our town (the oldest synagogue in the state of Nevada) is shrinking to numbers in the low double digits, while we grow a little as we get a few of their members and almost all the new families. This is the real cost of the 40% of us who are growing and the 40% of us who are shrinking, and it is a crisis. Judaism in our entire region will be worse off if our Conservative synagogue dies (leaving us and Chabad), and some significant American Jewish history in our state will be lost.

I also want to point out that for most of the positive metrics cited by the FACT survey, synagogues self-reported. It wasn’t long ago that I was in placement, and to hear synagogues talk about themselves, they are all on the cutting edge of what they do. I work for a wonderful synagogue full of people who try so hard and are growing, but even we are not achieving what we aspire to on our website, either inside the congregation or with our outreach. I would guess that the 83% who self-reported their value to their communities have overestimated their reach.

This is not to say synagogues aren’t important to their communities - God forbid. This is to say that metrics like “actively involved in their community” are nebulous and unprecise at best. Our congregation sends kids to camp, hosts another congregation in our building, is financially sound, and hosts a Pride booth each year, and I’d count all of that as actively involved. But is it really indicative of vitality? Does it change our community or allow us to be changed by our community and its members in a meaningful way? In order for this metric to reassure us that things are progressing, I think we need much more quantifiable data on what we do and whether it works.

This brings me to my most painful point: one that I don't relish making. The Reform and Conservative YJA engagement statistics from the FACT report show generational-level failure.

In the mid-2000s, when the initiative came out, I was graduating from college and newly married - YJA’s prime demographic. I was in a place where “most young Jews do not settle,” Lancaster, PA. I became involved in the synagogue because I had something the synagogue needed - a voice and b’nai mitzvah tutoring ability. Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, I watched as other young folks, many with young families, walked into synagogues, and walked right back out.

Sometimes it was unchecked racism, misogyny, or homophobia. After all, Millenial Jews are the most racially diverse group in Jewish history, and America’s Reform and Conservative synagogues are oh so white and Ashkenazi.

Sometimes it was sheer exploitation or finances. After all, we were making minimum wage while renting during a recession just after graduating with massive student loans. Far from offering help, our parents freaked out about us not being “financially responsible” if we mentioned asking for reduced dues. Not to mention, in Board conversations, statements like "why are all the young people not financially pulling their weight?" still persist today.

More often, we left because it became clear that the halls of power were mostly closed to us. I have served on Temple Boards as a non-voting member (first as a cantorial soloist, then as a rabbi) since 2008, and the 2020s were the first time that I (now pushing 40) was not the youngest voting adult on the Board. During that time, I served on the boards of seven synagogues in various capacities.

Synagogues, to the Millenial (and likely the Gen Z) generation, are places where young people go to be exploited and where their ideas go to be largely ignored and unacted upon. And now that I’m almost 40 and not part of the YJA demographic, I see that any institution unwilling to give young Jews in their 20s and 30s any power will not grow in a healthy way. Unfortunately, that is where most of our institutions are.

All this leads me to the Chicken Little symptom - it’s not that young people are listening to others talk about the doom and gloom of institutional life. It’s that we have already lived through it. We have already tried to affect change in our synagogues, we’ve already gotten exploited, frustrated, ignored, bruised, and then left to create our own thing. For twenty years already. That's half a generation of failure in the form of 8% engagement.

"Where else do we find a multi-generational community through which you can grow through time?" - Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman

Our communities are not those places any more. More often, they are places where the older generation comes to be served and the younger generation comes to be told they're not working enough or paying enough. The reality, in my experience as a rabbi, is far different from that narrative. Two short vignettes to illustrate:

Our synagogue hosted two service days this summer. The first was a weed-pulling day because a lot of our older folks were complaining that the weeds were unsightly. We called for volunteers to do some seated, shade jobs, and other more heavy-duty jobs. All abilities were welcome.

One of the older folks who complained showed up, ready to help, but the only other people there were the rabbis and three families with kids in our religious school. The parents (Gen X and Millenial) were angry and resentful. One parent told me “the congregation doesn’t even financially support our religious school - why are we out here weeding for them when they’re not helping us or our kids?” But they spent hours weeding.

Our next service day was to help the religious school. Nine folks from Gen X, Millenial, and Gen Z showed up, but nobody older than 55, not even to show solidarity. It made me think back to the way communities were run when I was a kid. The folks 60 & up would always do the seated work or prep the food. The 40s and 50s would delegate and help with the bigger jobs. The teens to thirties would lift and bend and climb on ladders. The kids would sort and run errands from one place to the other.

So, in reality, we are asking the same question here. Where do we find a multi-generational community through which you can grow through time? Because the synagogue isn't that place anymore, and this is why synagogue talk is full of gloom and doom and young folks aren't becoming synagogue leaders.

We are missing a huge element that we once had in the past - the peaceful transition of responsibility has continued, but the peaceful transition of power from one generation to the next has stalled. Our 60+ congregants are showing up for the services they want and the adult education they are interested in, they are remaining as rabbis, Board members, and Committee Chairs, but they’re not supporting the everyday work of the synagogue in any way close to the way their parents did. Even more concerning, congregants 60 and up are holding the reins of both institutional power and donor power, creating a tier of "workers" who are mainly Gen X and Millenials.

Because of this power dynamic, those of us in our 40s and 50s (Gen X) are warily getting involved only in aspects of the synagogue that are already serving us and our families. Those of us in our 20s and 30s (Millenials) are even more reluctant yet, not to mention vastly poorer and more overworked than our Gen X siblings. And our Gen Z kids feel it even more. Their youth groups have been defunded, and their camps have been closed. NFTY and USY are so expensive their parents can’t send them, and their Millenial parents aren't even being served by the synagogues. Our young folks love being Jewish, but as the FACT survey noted, only 8% of Jewish institutions seem to see them as worthy of investment.

I’ll have to post something else about what I think the rabbinic job description should be because this is already too long. I appreciate your views and agree with many of them (for example, that entrepreneurial, non-synagogue Judaism isn’t a panacea by any means) and I know that we both have a deep, abiding commitment to what is best for the Jewish people in America. I look forward to the work ahead for both of us and welcome your thoughts.

Your student,

Rabbi Sara Zober

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