Beliefnet
My father is turning 80 this week, and it's made me think about the achievements of his generation of American Jews. Raised during the Depression, they struggled for economic survival and social acceptance. Then they went off to war to defeat Hitler, came home to raise families, lobbied to help establish the state of Israel and then support her, and built solid Jewish institutions: Jewish federations, Jewish community centers, and impressively large and imposing synagogues.

Israel is now established and is making peace with her neighbors; Jewish prosperity and presence in the American mainstream is a fait accompli; Jewish federations are among the most successful charitable federations on the planet; and the big synagogues are still big--and unfortunately, they are very often empty.

What happened? Each generation inherits the unfinished business of the last, and the pressing business for the Jews of my father's generation was survival and acceptance. Now, those are no longer pressing issues for Jews in North America, and a new generation has come with a new question that the institutions of my father's generation cannot easily answer. The question is: survival for what? And with that question has come a quest for content, for meaning, for spiritual intimacy. Unfortunately, spiritual intimacy and the big box style of synagogue architecture don't go together very well.

Spiritual intimacy means knowing the people you're praying with. It means that when someone you worship with is ill, you visit her personally in the hospital; that when someone dies and you say the Kaddish, you're not just hearing a name read from a list in alphabetical order. You know something about that person's life. Spiritual intimacy is very difficult to achieve in a big box synagogue.

Here's an analogy: My father was a neighborhood druggist. When he first opened his store during the Fifties, it was one of a dozen family-owned corner drugstores all operating within a mile of one another. Each offered friendly personal service, an intimate experience, and its own lovely idiosyncrasies. One specialized in homemade ice cream, another had a great candy counter. There was one store, I think, where you could make bets on horses under the counter. In each store, however, the man who filled your prescription knew your name, was familiar with your health problems, and could talk to you one on one. By the time my father retired about 20 years ago, only one such store remained--his own. The rest had been taken down, one by one, by the huge discount pharmacy chains, the big box stores that offered better prices in exchange for impersonal service.

My father never saw any contradiction between his decades-long struggle with big box drugstores and his preference for worshiping in a big box synagogue. An intimate little shtibl (synagogue in a rabbi's home), a humble shul of the kind his parents and grandparents frequented, would never have suited him. The big box shuls represented certain values that were important to my parents' generation. Not all those values were religious, and some were strictly social; and the big boxes made a big architectural statement to our neighbors that Jews had not only survived but were thriving.

My father's store was located near a Roman Catholic church in an entirely Catholic neighborhood. He was the first Jew to attain acceptance as a merchant there--and in the late Fifties and early Sixties, this degree of tolerance was a breakthrough. He was the first Jew, in fact, to be invited to join the local Lions Club to which all the neighborhood businessmen belonged. So in turn, at my bar mitzvah, the Lions were invited to roar. All were Catholics, and for many it was their first visit to a synagogue. They were duly impressed by the decorum of the service and the size of the sanctuary (though some of the men nervously asked if they had to be circumcised first before entering).

The large and impressive sanctuaries offered a Judaism of spectacle and theater that emphasized the starring roles of the rabbi as sermonizer and the cantor as musical soloist. Large choirs and organ music provided extraordinary show-business values. My father looked forward every Rosh Hashana to his favorite performance--a stunning duet between our cantor and a female soloist that reminded him of the soaring vocal flights of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. The size and anonymity of the large congregation promoted passivity and put the spotlight on the rabbi high up on the bimah. The sermon, not prayer, became the focal point of the service.

The big box shuls worked. Reducing the congregation to a passive audience suited a generation that had more pride in being Jewish than active Jewish faith. Theirs was a comfortable Judaism by proxy. A surprising number of active members of my parents' congregation were either atheists or agnostics, and interestingly, little about the big box service either disturbed or challenged them. That was because what they heard in the sermons tended to reinforce Jewish pride without raising difficult questions of Jewish faith. They were told that their Jewish ethical values were superior to others; that the Torah was the greatest book of wisdom ever (and anyway, we wrote it first, before the Christians and Muslims got hold of it, and that Jews cared more about social justice and equality than anyone else. These messages made people feel good about themselves and about being Jews. Judaism was important--not as a vehicle for getting closer to God, but because it was the religion of the Jews.

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