Shul Searching

From “The Jewish Journal,” September 26, 1997

Reprinted with permission.

You would think that in a city with 519,000 Jews and at least 175 synagogues of all different strains, Judith — she requested her last name not be used — would be able to pick a place of worship to spend the High Holidays. But she can’t. “I have no idea where I’m going,” she said. “I just haven’t found the place.”

Call it Judith’s Dilemma. Call it shul-searching. Or call it finding the place. For thousands of Los Angeles Jews, the problem is something of a late-summer ritual. “Every year, every year, we go through this,” said screenwriter Adam Gilad, whose own High Holiday search has taken him from Orthodox minyans to feel-good pray-ins

At High Holiday time, no term seems more apt than “wandering Jew.” Only 41 percent of all Jews are affiliated with a synagogue,” said Rabbi Paul Dubin, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. “These places experience enormous growth all at once, then shrink after the attendance falls back down.” The problem for synagogues is dealing with the enormous ebb and flow. The problem for congregants is finding where to go in the first place.

Of course, it didn’t used to be like this. In the old days, you simply went wherever your parents or friend brought you. If you came from a small town or a particular neighborhood, you didn’t have the choice of more than a couple houses of worship. Synagogue membership would remain in the same family for generations.

But Jewish life today is much more menu-driven. The question facing most post-World War II Jews is not “where do I have to go?” but “where do I like to go?”

This Rosh Hashanah, which begins at sundown on Oct. 1, Amy Jo Donner, a public relations executive, will attend synagogue with her parents, as she almost always has. But next year, she said, she and her husband, Michael, both Reform Jews, will begin looking for their own temple to call home. “I want to find a temple we really like,” said Donner. “We haven’t found one yet.”

So what are Jews looking for in a High Holiday service? Inspiration, relevance, child care, and good parking — though not necessarily in that order. What they don’t want is too much Hebrew, dull sermons, expensive tickets and a stuffy or snobby atmosphere. Amid the wealth of synagogues, many Los Angles Jews find a poverty of viable choices. Traditional synagogues that have choirs, long sermons and an almost theatrical approach to the solemn liturgy clash with a young generation’s demand for a more participatory approach.

“The problem,” said Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, “is they’re going, expecting something big, and they’re being disappointed.”

Seven years ago, Schwartz — known as Schwartzie to anyone who’s ever come into his high-energy orbit — began holding services aimed at those dissatisfied with New Year’s at mainstream synagogues. About 90 people attended. This year, Schwartzie’s Chai Center expects about 1,200 to show up. The services, held this year at the Henry Fonda theatre in Hollywood, are conducted largely in English, with Schwartzie’s running commentary and plenty of Shlomo Carlebach tunes. The rabbi calls it “Chassidic Reform.”

But the Chai Center is not for everyone: There’s no child care, men and women sit separately, and parking on torn-up Hollywood Boulevard is challenging. “You’d be surprised how many calls I get about parking,” said Schwartzie. “This bothers me.” The rabbi wondered aloud if the most important selling point for a service isn’t “freeway close.”

But the wandering Jews interviewed for this story cite numerous reasons beyond parking for deciding against a particular shul — boring sermons, tickets that can cost hundreds of dollars per seat, standoffish fellow Jews, too much Hebrew liturgy, too much English liturgy, a hammy cantor, an iffy neighborhood. Donner’s pet peeve is reserved seating, which usually means members with seniority get the best seats. “Young people are at the back of the bus the whole time,” she said.

Judith’s dissatisfaction is harder to pin down, yet common. At 40, the parenting teacher is a committed and learned Conservative Jew — just the type of new congregant synagogues ache to attract. She has been to several High Holiday services at various congregation in the past and has yet to call any one home. What’s missing from most, she said, is a soulfulness that’s at once elusive and, when present, palpable. Her experience at a Rosh Hashanah service last year with Rabbi David Cooper of Congregation Ohr Ha Torah, which involved chanting, singing and mediation, was her favorite so far. But that service is held just one evening. The rest of the time, she searches. “It’s more than the service,” she said. “It’s the place, the people.”

Schwartzie hears such complaints frequently. “I don’t even know if they know what they’re looking for,” he said. “They’re dating, but they want to fall in love.”

Synagogues — aware that the High Holy Days are their best opportunity to pull in new members — advertise their services in The Journal and the Los Angeles Times. Schwartz and some Chabad congregations post fliers on telephone poles and shop windows, complete with phone numbers and World Wide Web addresses.

But those searching rarely rely on ads alone. They are more apt to go where their parents go (“I might not like it,” said one young woman, “but at least I don’t have to pay for tickets”), where friends recommend, or to whatever synagogue is closest to home.

And where will Judith go? “I have no idea,” she said. “I’m not looking for hip; I just want to be able to sing and pray.”