Are Synagogues A Barrier To Judaism?

We seek to create the conditions under which barriers to being truly Jewish no longer exist: a society abolished of class; where synagogue membership costs are not exorbitant…”

This excerpt from the mission statement of the Jewish Solidarity Caucus, an unofficial Jewish caucus in the Democratic Socialists of America, is one of the most peculiar things I have come across lately. A political manifesto involving synagogues is more than a little unusual, though I’m no expert on political philosophy.

But since when are “synagogue membership costs” a cornerstone of socialism? The answer is because many young Jews, socialist and not, have highlighted it as one of the biggest barriers to participation in Jewish life.

This realization comes from writing for New Voices magazine about Jewbook, the enormous family of private Facebook groups that are centered around Jewish identity, knowledge, community, and challenges.

Many groups skew in the 20s-30s age range and have more diversity than the typical synagogue setting, with more Jews of Color, Queer Jews, and disabled Jews navigating the intersection of their identity online.

Members of Jewbook that I spoke to for the New Voices piece consistently mentioned barriers to synagogue life when describing the alienation of young Jews from institutional Jewish life. They argued against the perception that Jews who aren’t involved, do so because they either don’t want to be or because they prioritize other things in their lives.

Sarah, an admin for one of the many groups in Jewbook, said that “for a lot of people there are barriers of money, time (if they work hourly jobs and either exhausted or simply always have shifts on Shabbat), disability, anxiety, location, etc.”

She added that “some barriers seem to be about miscommunications…several Jewbookers have expressed that they don’t want to come to even a single service if they’re not a member because they don’t want to freeload, and they can’t afford membership.”

Her solution? “Shuls need to do better at reaching out and letting people know that a) they can come and b) if they want to be a member they can do so affordably. On that note — they need to also understand that some people cannot afford even their discounted rates, and offer those people a way to still be involved.”

In theory, this sounds like a great fix. But the reality of today is also one where many synagogues are losing money due to fewer congregants and increased costs associated with operating programs and buildings that have accumulated over the years.

So are the demands of synagogue membership costs feasible? Maybe it’s a moot point.

Rabbi Jeremy Fine, of Temple of Aaron in St. Paul, doesn’t find synagogue membership costs to be the issue at all for young Jews. Rather, it’s about walking through the doors and, indeed, about prioritizing synagogue life. “There is almost no financial barrier to entry for young Jews in their 20s,” he told me in an email.

Rabbi Fine further explained in a call his belief that all synagogues are open to young Jewish professionals. “No synagogue is judging you or your finances. We don’t start out that way, none of them do,” he insisted, adding that no one views young Jews as freeloaders.

Asked if synagogues were doing a good enough job communicating this openness to young Jews, he used other public spaces as an example. “Do all playgrounds have to write ‘we’re open to the public’? They’re open to the community,” he said. “Certainly in Minnesota, all the doors are open.”

The concern of synagogue membership in Jewbook doesn’t exist in a vacuum, however. Many members of Jewbook just don’t feel comfortable in synagogues with the stigmas still attached to things like mental health and sexual identity.

“In shul, people are always asking me what I’m doing (academically/career-wise) and when I expect to finish,” the admin told me. “I’ve had educational setbacks due to depression and anxiety so I’m still in undergrad at age 25 with about two years left,” she said, admitting that “I always feel uncomfortable trying to answer and find a way to sound normal, because I know I can’t tell them the truth about my mental health.”

Sarah also explained that she hides the fact that she is queer from her synagogue, something she doesn’t have to do in Jewbook, clarifying that “it’s not that my shul isn’t open to [LGBTQ] people, it’s that it’s not really affirming.”

Jewbook, in contrast, is a place where these young Jews feel at home, safe from the insecurity of synagogues, even as they want to be involved.

This point was highlighted by Nylah Burton in a piece titled Marginalized Jews need Facebook more than ever. Jewbook “lacks both the anxiety and the (often) exorbitant fees of synagogue membership,” she wrote. “Especially for under-represented groups like Romani Jews, LGBT Jews, converts, and black Jews, the fear of not being accepted can be a powerful deterrent to entering more formal spaces.”

I find a few more questions lurking, unspoken in all this: When synagogues and other Jewish institutions say they’re focusing on “young Jewish professionals”, how many other young Jews are left out due to not meeting the criteria of that term? Is everyone a young Jewish professional, even when struggling with finances, acceptance, and their education? What are the open doors not seeing?

And suddenly it makes sense. “We seek to create the conditions under which barriers to being truly Jewish no longer exist: a society abolished of class; where synagogue membership costs are not exorbitant.”

It deeply disturbs me that the issue of access is so poignant, for so many young Jews, that it has become a political manifesto. But maybe, even with all the effort synagogues and institutional Jewish life are pouring into engaging young Jews, there’s truth in the accusation of inaccessibility if many Jews are expressing it.

Jewbook is an incredible phenomenon in the way that it is allowing so many more diverse Jewish voices into important conversations. But those conversations are of little use if they only happen online, and it’s time to bring them into real brick and mortar Jewish institutions.

Synagogues, as central institutions to providing a space and resource for prayer and constancy of Jewish life, might find that the way back to institutional life for young Jews isn’t necessarily through the next big beer meet up. It doesn’t always have to be unique programming aimed specifically at the interests of young people, some of who are Jewish. The way back can also be by looking closer at access to synagogues and giving it to those who need it, though they may not fit as typical “young Jewish professionals”.

Maybe I’m preaching to the choir. But there is no reason for accessibility to Jewish life to be a socialist proclamation. It’s already a Jewish proclamation.