Synagogues: Past, Present, and Future


by Rabbi Peter Kessler, Temple Ohev Sholom

I remember a time when I was a young child back in Chicago, at least 50 or 55 years ago. My mother was preparing dinner in the kitchen; my dad was already home from work and was horse playing with my brothers and I in the living room. The phone rang. My mother answered it. She said, “Phil, the rabbi’s on the line.” My dad got up and went to the bedroom to talk on the extension. When he came out, he told my mother, “The rabbi wants to take me to lunch on Thursday.” My mom said, “Great…just make sure to bring your checkbook along.”

50 years ago. The rabbi calls, and you answer-you never say no, and oh yes…you bring your checkbook along. How times have changed. But for most of Jewish Harrisburg, the days when the rabbi called and you brought along your checkbook went the way of saying “someone was on the line.”

What does this mean for us, in 2020, when synagogue membership is shrinking and expenses are going up astronomically? It’s a real problem.

When I was a kid, Jewish families in the neighborhood would skip their summer vacations if they couldn’t afford membership dues and a trip to the shore. Temple came first. Always. And without question. There was never any doubt that the family would belong to the synagogue, whether the kids were in pre-school or already out of college, whether the roof needed to be replaced or the car was getting old.

So what happened between 1967 and 2020? A lot has happened. The generation that felt an obligation to support a congregation began to wane. People became more aware of their financial situation and life became more expensive. Stay at home moms began to work. Budgets were stretched. One car became two. Then the kids were driving and two cars became three or four.  No one wanted an old car if their neighbor was driving a new one. No one wanted to live in a house smaller than his or her brother-in-law’s, so credit became the norm. And before we knew it, the unthinkable happened: some of our homes actually lost value! The guarantee of smart investing assuring a good return disappeared.

In synagogue life, congregants became consumers. “What do I get for my dues?,” a question that did not exist before, began to be asked. “You support the synagogue whether you go or not” was a phrase heard less and less often.

Yes, there will always be unaffiliated Jewish people in Harrisburg and all over the country. People who think they can educate their children about their faith and culture by going online, and not by being part of a Jewish community. People who watch the news or get instant feeds on their phones and know more about the political situation in Israel by 5pm than the rabbi because he or she has been doing hospital visits all day.

Besides the unaffiliated, there is the group of people who leave the temple after the kids become B’nai Mitzvah. They paid their dues, they paid their religious school and B’nai Mitzvah fees, and now they only show up at the High Holidays, so their money is better spent elsewhere and they leave the temple.

So, temple budgets are stretched. Synagogues can’t afford assistant rabbis, and many decide they can’t afford a cantor, either. And while people leave the congregation, or decide not to join because their money is better spent elsewhere, the cost of maintaining the building, and the staff, and the programming, and the air-conditioning unit that needs to be replaced, skyrockets.

Another issue that didn’t exist in the past was the cost of security. No one worried about security in 1967, or in 2001, for that matter. But today, security is a major concern at every synagogue. You may not see the thousands of dollars needed to provide cameras and alarms and the hidden security measures, but the cost is there.

So synagogues raise the dues a little bit and do some fundraising here and there and hope for the best. But there is a better answer. An easier answer.

Simply put: tell your friends who have left the synagogue to come back. We may not be able to convince the unaffiliated to be part of a community, but I’ll bet, especially now with anti-Semitism on the rise in America, that we can convince those who didn’t see the value in retaining their membership to rethink their position…and perhaps decide to come back and join the temple, not necessarily because they want to attend Shabbat services, but because they believe in our mission.

Harrisburg congregations are not-for-profit, just like any other not-for-profit in our community. Maybe it’s time for all of us to remind our friends who don’t belong to a congregation, or who have left a congregation, the importance of being part of a community and the importance of supporting the Jewish community financially…to make sure there is a rabbi when you need one, to make sure that there are classes for those who want to convert, to make sure that the Jewish community remains vibrant and safe. To make sure that when something tragic happens to Jewish people, there is a spokesperson who can be interviewed to let the greater community know that we exist. If synagogues don’t exist, we don’t exist. We become just another group of nameless faceless people who one day won’t matter to anyone else.

Maybe it’s time to remind the people you know, the ones you meet for dinner, the ones who belong to your condo association, the ones you greet at the GIANT or Weis or Wegman’s…and ask if they still belong to a temple. Synagogues try to let you know who the new members are…but we never publicize the names of those who have left us. I’ll bet we assume our Jewish neighbors and friends support a congregation in the same way we do. But maybe they don’t. Maybe they have left us.

It’s a scary world out there, and it’s not going to become safer, or cheaper, or easier. It’s only going to become more difficult. And if synagogue life were to disappear, there would be a lot fewer voices to speak out against anti-Semitism, or hatred of anyone for that matter, and less open doors to be part of a community.

So in that way this really isn’t about finances at all. It’s about making an investment to ensure that our Jewish institutions continue to exist. Yes, we can’t continue without money, but we also can’t continue without membership.

And so I ask two things: The first is…please don’t leave us, even if there comes a time when you think you don’t need us anymore. You need us, and we need you.

The second is this: talk about your congregation when you are with your Jewish friends. Ask them if they plan to come to a Purim spiel, or the Congregational Seder, want to attend a Shabbat service, or come to learn Yiddish on a Sunday morning. Ask them if they made a pledge to the Yom Kippur appeal, and ask them if they still retain their membership. And if they don’t, convince them to come back.