May 20, 2016
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
A friend of mine asked me recently, “Does anyone go to services Friday night anymore?” It was an innocent question, reflecting the fact that he doesn’t go to services on Friday night, of course. But it highlights a cultural change in American Jewry over the last forty years.
Today there is a sort of consensus opinion in the American Jewish community that Reform and Conservative Jews simply don’t go to synagogue on Shabbat any more. I am here to tell you that while there is a kernel of truth in that assumption, it is not actually true. The week my friend asked that question we had three different Friday night services, Shabbat Rocks! in the sanctuary with Avanim, the Chapel service with Adult Choir, and Downtown Shabbat with Armon Bizman at the Jewish History Museum, the Old Stone Avenue Temple, our original home. There were 140 people at Shabbat Rocks!, 35 in the chapel service, and a full house of 65 downtown. All three were filled with active, engaged, Jews energetically enjoying Shabbat.
But the overall perspective on the “Who goes to services anymore?” question is relevant nonetheless. Things have changed in recent years, and we feel the effects in every non-Orthodox temple in America.
In the 1960’s, ‘70’s and ‘80’s regular attendance at Friday night services was a pretty standard experience for people who belonged to Reform synagogues in America, while Conservative Jews came mostly Saturday morning. While many Jews came much less often—far more people showed up on the High Holy Days; actually, everyone showed up Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur—there were still lots of people who came to services every week. Those who didn’t attend usually felt some embarrassment, at least when they saw their clergy. I would hear sheepish comments, like “I know I haven’t been at services for a while…” from congregants I hadn’t seen since Yom Kippur. It was like they had ordered a BLT and looked up to see the rabbi at the next table… they probably still ate the sandwich, but they had the decency to look chagrined.