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.
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 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.
But today American Jews don't need to prove that we are equal to our neighbors or better. We are free to be Jews or not, and in that sense all Jews are Jews by choice. Still, the big buildings and the organizations built around them survive. New generations have inherited the old architecture--though it's hardly suited to our new agenda of spiritual intimacy. We come to services and sit passively and then complain because "nothing happened." But spiritual intimacy arises only out of the hard work of creating a community. It can't be found in a passive, consumerist relationship to religious experience. The rabbi can't do it for us by delivering a brilliant sermon, and the cantor can't do it for us by singing beautifully. Each individual worshiper has to take active responsibility for finding religious practice that transforms. And the main thing is to find connections with others, to live out Jewish beliefs though everyday actions. Otherwise, looking for spiritual intimacy in big box shuls, we will be like wayward shoppers lost in the aisles of Home Depot.