When I became a Jew, the first thing I did was join my synagogue. It was an easy decision, socially if not always financially. I’d already been attending Emanuel Congregation for three years. It was my Jewish community, and joining, I felt, was as much a part of my Jewish identity as finding the perfect mezuzah or complaining about matzah on Passover.
Growing up in a religious Christian home in Kansas, not going to church was never an option. There are six churches within a quarter mile of my parents’ front door and the message was clear: Find the one that works. Shop around if you must, but find a church and go to it. In a small town, community is everything. To this day I have no idea what folks who don’t go to church do in Colby, Kansas before noon on Sundays.
Synagogue membership, I’ve found, doesn’t play that same role in the Jewish community. I’m 30, childless, and unmarried. Many times I’ve felt that synagogues don’t really want me at all, and I think many other young, single Jews feel the same. When I get married, they say, when I have children, when I’m ready to sit on the religious school board or complain about the parking lot, then I’ll join a temple.
We hear a lot of talk these days about the decline in our Jewish population due to intermarriage and apathy. I blame the apathetic relationship between my demographic and our synagogues. What better time to find a spiritual community than when you’re unburdened by the compromise necessary for marriage? What better time to discover your own Jewish identity without regard for the strength of the children’s Sunday morning curriculum?
Technology allows us to find like-minded Jews all over the world to blog with, tweet at, or Facebook. Classes and study programs, often subsidized, allow us to study Jewish texts and history alongside our peers. Independent minyanim are popping up to fill the perceived spiritual void left by synagogues that market their programs to couples and families.
But none of these takes the place of a synagogue. As Jews, we are our own small town, and community is everything. As worldly and cosmopolitan as some of us are, as different in observance or practice, we need each other.
A synagogue is a community. A flawed, frustrating community that needs us—our views, our opinions, and our uncomfortable, unfamiliar child- and spouselessness. And we need that community, if only, as it sometimes seems, to serve as a model of what our Jewish community has been, not what it can and will be.
The men and women who form the core of my Jewish family here in Chicago, many of whom I’ve met at and through Emanuel Congregation, are often, like me, converts or from interfaith families. We celebrate holidays together and with our congregation. We circle our wagons when trouble brews and stir the pot when things begin to feel too complacent. We serve on committees, teach in our religious school, and wrestle with temple politics. But our deepest bond, to each other and to Emanuel, is that we need each other, and we know it.
Check out my synagogue Sunday, May 16 at an event featuring comedians Fred Armisen of Saturday Night Live and Jeff Garlin of Curb Your Enthusiasm. They will be joined by musician Jeff Tweedy of Wilco in the show “Comedy, Q’s and A’s.” Get discounted tickets for Oy!Chicago readers. Use discount code "OyChicago".