Ear­li­er this week, Rab­bi Shmu­ly Yan­klowitz wrote about prayer and activism and pri­or­i­tiz­ing the vul­ner­a­ble in jus­tice. He has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

Many Jews today claim that they are spir­i­tu­al not reli­gious,” that orga­nized reli­gion is not rel­e­vant, or that they would rather spend their free time alone than with oth­ers. Those who attend syn­a­gogue week­ly often reserve the ser­vice, espe­cial­ly the ser­mon, for a spe­cial nap­time. Oth­ers pre­fer a 20 – per­son base­ment set­ting for a quick prayer ser­vice rather than a for­mal, large gath­er­ing at shul. Around two-thirds of Amer­i­cans claim to be mem­bers of a house of wor­ship, which is more than 25% high­er than Jew­ish syn­a­gogue mem­ber­ship. Is the syn­a­gogue becom­ing extinct? If so, should we seek to pre­vent extinction?

At its worst, syn­a­gogue is rife with fac­tion­al­ism and small-mind­ed­ness, a place to mum­ble irrel­e­vant words and snooze dur­ing an out of touch ser­mon, and lat­er nosh on stale chips at Kid­dush while dis­cussing the stock mar­ket and the lat­est gos­sip. Syn­a­gogues spend their lim­it­ed funds on plaques, high-end scotch and a new social hall rather than on ade­quate­ly pay­ing staff and invest­ing in learn­ing pro­grams. Con­gre­gants dri­ve $50,000 cars but request assis­tance on the mem­ber­ship dues. The expe­ri­ence is pre­dictable, tedious, and bor­ing. It resem­bles a busi­ness trans­ac­tion, where one has paid mem­ber­ship dues for the right to ser­vices, more than a sacred oblig­a­tion. The staff and board do not lead with Jew­ish val­ues but act as man­age­ment as if the con­gre­ga­tion was just anoth­er busi­ness ven­ture. The rit­u­al is emp­ty and the action is either inad­e­quate or nonexistent.

Lead­ing such a con­gre­ga­tion is vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble. The rab­bi is required to per­form four full-time jobs, take 3 A.M. phone calls, act as the scape­goat for all fail­ures, and also please each con­gre­gant while han­dling cri­tiques with a smile. Con­gre­gants are forth­com­ing with com­plaints, but few vol­un­teer when they can watch the foot­ball game on tele­vi­sion. Rab­bi Abra­ham Joshua Hes­chel observed: The mod­ern tem­ple suf­fers from a severe cold. The ser­vices are prim, the voice is dry, the tem­ple is clean and tidy…no one will cry, the words are stillborn.”

Some see pat­terns of dys­func­tion. Pro­fes­sor James Kugel iden­ti­fied three kinds of harm­ful syn­a­gogues: the 1) Cer­e­mo­ni­al Hall Syn­a­gogue,” 2) Nos­tal­gia Cen­ter,” and 3) Dav­en­ing Club.” In the Cer­e­mo­ni­al Hall, the con­gre­gants nei­ther care to par­tic­i­pate nor learn about what is real­ly going on; they just wish to be an enter­tained audi­ence. Mim­ic­k­ing a Broad­way show, shul becomes enter­tain­ment, and the rab­bi and can­tor get a score for their per­for­mance. At the Nos­tal­gia Cen­ter, the rab­bi is often the youngest one present, and Judaism is about sit­ting where one’s grand­fa­ther sat, say­ing kad­dish, and telling old Yid­dish jokes. Every­thing is wrong but noth­ing should be changed. The congregation’s tra­di­tions and cus­toms trump shared val­ues, mean­ing, con­nec­tion, and oppor­tu­ni­ties for growth. At the Dav­en­ing Club, there is a false sem­blance of prayer inten­si­ty, but it more close­ly resem­bles a mum­ble-fes­ti­val, with­out any real spir­i­tu­al uplift.

On the oth­er hand, at its best, shul can be a trans­for­ma­tive spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence. Eager con­gre­gants roll up their sleeves to build the com­mu­ni­ty, pro­vid­ing an open, rel­e­vant expe­ri­ence for all. Prayer cen­ters can be wel­com­ing, par­tic­i­pa­to­ry, and col­lab­o­ra­tive. Most impor­tant­ly, a strong syn­a­gogue is dri­ven by shared val­ues and a sense of mis­sion and pur­pose. Con­gre­gants look inside the walls of the prayer com­mu­ni­ty for inti­mate con­nec­tion and rec­i­p­ro­cal com­fort, and look out­side for oppor­tu­ni­ties to reach out and give back. Peter Steinke, author of Healthy Con­gre­ga­tions, explains that con­gre­ga­tions need to move from being cler­gy-focused to mis­sion-focused. Rather than rely­ing upon cler­gy to inspire and enter­tain the con­gre­ga­tion, every­one is involved in a sys­tem of involve­ment, encour­age­ment, and teaching.

A healthy con­gre­ga­tion takes effort to build. A diverse pop­u­la­tion attends shul for very dif­fer­ent rea­sons: chil­dren, sin­gles, emp­ty nesters, inter­mar­ried fam­i­lies, etc. Each pop­u­la­tion must be hon­ored and be giv­en a seat at the table. Too often, the elder­ly mem­bers of the con­gre­ga­tion com­plain that there are not enough young peo­ple at the con­gre­ga­tion to keep the tra­di­tion alive”; to improve, they must be will­ing to adapt the expe­ri­ence to invite a new audience.

For the syn­a­gogue to sur­vive and be rel­e­vant in the 21st cen­tu­ry, con­gre­gants must seek authen­tic prayer expe­ri­ences, enrich­ment through learn­ing, and a con­tri­bu­tion to com­mu­ni­ty build­ing. One does not just show up when con­ve­nient, but to sup­port oth­ers con­sis­tent­ly. Do not sit back and blame a poor prayer expe­ri­ence on the rab­bi. If you find your­self unable to achieve mean­ing­ful prayer, learn­ing, and vol­un­teer expe­ri­ences, con­sid­er chang­ing shuls (and search with­in your­self). The heart must actu­al­ly be open if one wish­es to be inspired. But do not quit the syn­a­gogue enter­prise — it has sur­vived thou­sands of years for a reason.

Rab­bi Shmu­ly Yan­klowitz is the founder and pres­i­dent of Uri L’Tzedek. His book, Jew­ish Ethics & Social Jus­tice: A Guide for the 21st Cen­tu­ry, is now available.

Rab­bi Shmu­ly Yan­klowitz is an author and activist. He is the Pres­i­dent and Dean of the Val­ley Beit Midrash col­lab­o­ra­tive adult edu­ca­tion pro­gram, Founder & Pres­i­dent of Uri L’Tzedek, the Ortho­dox Social Jus­tice Move­ment, and Founder & CEO of The Shamay­im V’Aretz Insti­tute. His work has pub­lished in the New York Times, the Wall Street Jour­nal, The Atlantic and the Huff­in­g­ton Post, as well as many sec­u­lar and reli­gious pub­li­ca­tions. Rab­bi Shum­ly is the author of sev­er­al books on Jew­ish spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, social jus­tice and ethics. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.