Open Letter To My Students 35: Chicken Little and Our Rabbi Problem

Jewish media these days are filled with doom and gloom about the future of synagogues. They are legacy institutions, we are told, a euphemism for a bequest no one wants, like a decaying British manor that the unwilling heirs cannot afford to inherit. The “smart” money, it is widely suspected, goes to entrepreneurial startups of pretty much anything that legacy synagogues are not. 

None of that is true. 

Here are some facts from the 2020 study of American congregations by Faith Communities Today (FACT), a publication of Cooperative Congregations Studies Partnership (CCSP) at the Hartford Institute for Religious Research. Unlike other polling organizations that survey the religious views of individuals, CCSP studies actual congregations, mostly churches, but synagogues too, as of the 1990s, when Synagogue 2000 (S2K) became its Jewish partner. In 2013, S2K ended its pioneering work in synagogue transformation, but it remained the Jewish research arm for FACT. (For technical reasons, the survey covers only Reform and Conservative congregations. See the full report at https://www.synagoguestudies.org; and the larger version for all congregations, not just synagogues, at https://faithcommunitiestoday.org/fact-2020-survey/.)

  1. 40% of synagogues do report declining numbers, but an equal 40% are growing, while 20% remain unchanged. All is all: a stable picture.
  2. In both the 2010 and the 2020 study, respondents were asked if they thought their synagogues were “willing to change to meet new challenges.” In 2010, only 4% said they were; by 2020, that number had risen to 83%.
  3. Synagogues are genuine assets to their communities. 54% say they are actively involved in community life. 15% host another congregation in their building; 23% have communal day-care programs; 27% host other not-for-profits, like communal food drives. 25% open their building to support groups like AA. 
  4. But do younger members ever join? In 2010, only 8% of members were in the “young member” category (age 18-34); by 2020 the number was 20%. 

To be sure, there is much work to be done. For example, synagogues need to invest heavily in the ways they communicate: 78% use Facebook, but only 40% use Instagram, only 45% txt, only 25% have blogs, and most important nowadays, only 11% have podcasts. In addition, despite rising young-adult membership percentages, only 8% of synagogues say they emphasize attracting young people, while 55% say they put no emphasis on it. The problem is partly demographic: some synagogues are in areas where housing is so expensive that young people cannot live there. But mostly, synagogues just do not know what to do. 83% say they are willing to change, but that doesn’t mean they know what changes to make and how to go about implementing them.

What cries out most for attention is synagogue worship. Worship attendance has been falling in mainline churches as well. From 2000 to 2020, it has declined by 50%! But there is another side to the picture: the spectacular success of megachurches, where in any given church, thousands come to worship every Sunday. They describe their worship as “joyful, inspirational, thought-provoking, innovative.” The atmosphere breathes “optimism, vitality and purpose.” This is a far cry from those synagogues that still worry most about getting the prayerbook read right; or that have good bands but not much else; or that feature short divrei torah that are cute, even interesting, but do not send anyone home with thought-provoking and inspirational input for their lives. There are exceptions, some of them well-known, but for most synagogues, worship is anything but what it should be—and can be.

Still, the overall picture is far from dire; despite the challenges, think of all the things that synagogues do so well that we take them for granted: pastoral care (everything from hospital visits to personal emergencies and life-cycle counseling); life-cycle rituals themselves; regular Torah study for at least the loyalists who attend it; outreach and conversion; interfaith dialogue. Where else do we find a multi-generational community through which you can grow through time? Where else do people assemble in moments of communal trauma? Where else will you find a rabbi or cantor who will drop everything for your mother’s funeral and deliver a loving eulogy by someone who actually knew her. Who else regularly sends marchers to Washington, collects food for the hungry and help for the homeless? Congregations are changing, but America remains a congregational country. Without Jewish congregations, there will be no American Jews: it’s that simple.  

But here’s the clinker. Synagogues need rabbis, and we are not even remotely producing enough of them. As more and more rabbis approach retirement, fewer and fewer are in the pipeline to take their place. The FACT study reveals that in ten years time, we will lose 54% of our pulpit rabbis and gain only 46% — leaving a shortfall of 8%. And those figures predated post-covid levels of seminary applications, which overall have fallen to unprecedented lows, hardly even imaginable when the FACT survey was taken. 

So, my question: why is rabbinic enrollment so dramatically low? Why aren’t young people opting for the rabbinate?

The answer is Chicken Little.

Chicken Little is the American version of a Danish folk tale about a chicken named Kylling Kluk. The Brothers Grimm popularized the tale in Germany, with a side character named Hoene Poene. An 1840 English version altered Hoene Poeny to Henny Penny and made him the main character. Whatever the character’s name, the story is about a gullible chicken and an evil fox, who seeks to frighten the farm animals into running to and fro, so he can pick them off one at a time; to do so, he convinces the chicken that the sky is falling. 

Henny Penny became Chicken Little in a 1943 Walt Disney cartoon, made expressly to counteract the mass hysteria that seized America with rumors that the Germans were on the verge of landing in New York, and the Japanese were about to bomb San Francisco. The Disney version ends with Foxy Loxy himself addressing the theatre audience with the moral of the story: Don’t believe everything you hear.

Wise words indeed. When it comes to synagogues, don’t believe everything you hear. If we all go about forecasting the end of synagogues, we should not be surprised at falling numbers of rabbinic candidates. It is time to give up the Chicken Little gullibility and become properly bullish on the synagogue future. 

Here’s my rabbinic job-description:

  • Be a voice for healing and hope. 
  • Change people’s lives for the better. 
  • Find personal authenticity in the Jewish wisdom of the centuries.
  • Speak your mind and nurture your soul. 
  • Build meaningful communities around a moral and spiritual compass for our time. 
  • Direct ritual moments that touch the heart.
  • Earn respect, love, and gratitude from more people than you know. 
  • Make a difference, have an impact, and matter in the long run. 

A next great chapter of synagogue life will take leadership, vision, courage, and teamwork, but that’s what rabbis are for.

And in the meantime, the sky is not falling.  

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