A year ago, I got a call from the president of the synagogue in the small city where I lived, “Why,” he began, “Aren’t you a member of our congregation yet?” he asked.
To be honest (and this is shameful to admit) it simply never occurred to me.Yes, I’m a Rabbi. But at the time, I was a University Rabbi, who led Shabbat services on campus on Friday nights and coordinated all the Jewish holiday practice at the university. What did I need a synagogue for? I was a de facto member of both synagogues in town as it was (Reform and Conservative). I studied Torah with the Rabbis, had coffee with them regularly, and knew most of the Jews in town.
But this year, working in a major urban congregation where I focus specifically on our twenties and thirties members, I have a different perspective.
In Montreal, we have a thriving multigenerational community: young families, the elderly, empty-nesters, teens, and of course, my peers (Jews in their twenties and thirties). And in talking to my generation about their involvement in the synagogue, my perspective on synagogue membership for my generation has been transformed. I’ve seen just how meaningful and important the institution can and has become in their lives… but not necessarily for the reasons that you’d expect. Here are a few:
1) Community: In an increasingly globalized, mobile world, many of our twenties/thirties are recently out of college, graduate students or young professionals. Many are single, and many more have left their families in other provinces or, in some cases, countries. They are in Montreal for work, or school, far away from where they were raised, where people knew them and their families. In the synagogue they find community; we notice when they’re not around, when they’re sick, and we learn to know when they’re having a bad week. People celebrate their small victories (giving a paper, or getting a promotion at work) and they make friends of multiple generations. Sometimes this means they babysit for older congregants, other times it means they simply gain a new perspective on this phase in their lives. They also make friends with more life experience and (sometimes) more wisdom; and sometimes, even, people who may help them find a job. Above all, they avoid the sometimes crushing sense of isolation that can come after college, when you move to a city where you have no family; they have a family now. We’re it.
2) Shabbat (or the Sabbath, if you’re a Christian) sets a rhythm to your week. If you make time each week to slow down, stop and reflect on the joys and challenges of the past six days, you live at a different, more modulated pace. You become reflective. You give yourself permission to stop, to rest. You have something to look forward to, regardless of how the week has gone, or what your weekend plans are, and can feel secure in knowing that, at least one night a week (and hopefully one day, as well) you take off the pressure, and attend to your inner life, in a place, where, like Cheers, everyone knows your name.
3) It’s cheap. Most major synagogues have reduced (or even waived) their membership fees for young adults. They care more about making sure you have a spiritual and religious home than they do about your money. And if you can’t afford to give anything, most places will likely be willing to trade membership for volunteer hours. Just ask.
4) You just might learn something. Missing college or graduate school? The learning opportunities in American synagogues have become increasingly varied and numerous over the past few decades. Even if you hated Hebrew school, you may be surprised (and delighted) to find that Jewish texts are as voluminous as they are sophisticated — and they’re also nuanced, multi-vocal and fascinating. Above all, they tend to concern themselves (regardless of when and where they were written) with many urgent and modern questions: What does it mean to live a meaningful life? How – or why — should we retain a distinct identity in a multicultural society? What does it mean to live in a world where God appears to be hidden, or altogether absent? What does it mean to be a good person? I promise: You won’t be bored.
5) Free food. Almost all of our events specifically geared toward younger members are home cooked Shabbat dinners, involve some kind of baked goods, or are hosted in coffee shops or bars. Unless you’re a graduate student (or work at Google) you’re not going to find this much free food anywhere else.
6) Spirituality. Last but certainly not least: you may find yourself spiritually edified or reawakened by your time in a synagogue (even if you don’t believe in God). Many synagogues these days offer a variety of prayer experiences tailored to different tastes: from exclusively musical services, to Jewish meditation, to, in some California congregations, yoga with a Jewish twist.
So, come (re)visit us. We’d love to meet you.