Bringing the dynamism of urban synagogues to the ’burbs

Bringing the dynamism of urban synagogues to the ’burbs

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf

I grew up in suburbia. And as soon as I was old enough, I fled. I never wanted to look back. I associated the suburban sprawl, the strip malls, the antiseptic lawns and subdivisions, and the sense of conformity to be too constricting and oppressive for me. Years later, when I came out as gay, I realized that so much of my sense of alienation was my own inchoate sense of being queer — at odds with what I perceived as the suburban celebration of conventionality and “normalcy.”

Fast forward to several decades later and at the age of 50, I made a surprising decision. I am now the rabbi of a suburban synagogue. While so much seems the same out here today, something is markedly different: my congregants and I are not at all like the people I remember. We are considerably more sophisticated, and less conventional, than the stereotypical suburbanites of my youth. 

I grew up in suburban New York in the 1970s and ’80s. My parents’ generation were a part of the wave of first-generation American Ashkenazi Jews who marched out to the suburbs in the years after World War II to claim their piece of the American Dream. They craved assimilation into the security and constancy of two-car garages and 2.5 kids in quintessentially American schools and sports fields.

Beneath this veneer of Americana, however, we white-passing suburban Jews seethed with angst. Never far from our consciousness were the pogroms and the Holocaust. We established our synagogues as anchors of Yiddishkeit in a sea of anxious assimilation. Not just houses of worship, our synagogues preserved our Jewishness for us. Even as we pursued our American homogenization with gusto, we put our hopes into b’nei mitzvah celebrations and religious school to ensure that, despite it all, we would have Jewish grandchildren someday. 

A couple of years ago, I had a conversation with Adam Simon, the executive director of the Aviv Foundation. We spoke about how modern-day synagogues are on the decline, the need for bold new ideas in American synagogue life, and the remarkable success of some urban congregations like Romemu on the Upper West Side and IKAR in Los Angeles. And then Adam said something that fascinated me: “It’s true that some of the most creative and dynamic congregations are springing up in urban settings, but we haven’t quite cracked the code yet on how to create that kind of dynamism in suburban synagogues.”

That idea really struck me. How can we replicate urban dynamism in the suburbs — in the land that, as I recalled, people didn’t want bold unconventionality? Is it too late, or even just a pipe dream? I like a good challenge. I want to crack that code.

The first decoding key I bring with me is this: The basic premise of American-Jewish identity is quite different than it was a generation ago.  Put simply, we are not as anxious as we used to be. Even with the rise of anti-Semitism and the like in our day, our essential anxiety about being Jewish is not what it once was. Why? Because we are assimilated now. Completely. American Ashkenazi Jews are now privileged, successful, white Americans. 

The second key I bring is the insight that suburban younger generations are more sophisticated than we were at the same age. As “technology natives,” our kids have unprecedented access to knowledge and ideas at the earliest ages — a blessing and a curse, to be sure. Suburban kids —and rising numbers of their parents — see right through the American Dream. In our climate of increasing polarization, more and more suburbanite parents and kids are aware of society’s moral failures, and how conformism can be toxic.

The final key I bring is the awareness that suburban synagogues, by and large, still operate as if it’s the 20th century. Our religious school curricula, bylaws, and membership models reflect a relationship to a Jewish community striving to be American, while worrying about losing its Jewishness. There are, for sure, many things about American synagogues — as centers of community, tradition, and values — that must never change. Nevertheless, the suburban synagogue is often out of sync with 21st-century suburban Jews who, it turns out, are no less sophisticated than their urban counterparts. 

Today, if we are going to seek out a synagogue at all, it will be one that prioritizes how to be more engaged, spiritual human beings over ethnic continuity.

We’re already proud of being Jewish — even as we may intermarry.  Welcome to the new 21st-century Jewish narrative: we know that absolutism is wrong, that identity is fluid, that sexuality is a spectrum, and that America’s moral leadership and “progress” is in doubt.

The truth is that we American Jews have been solving the conundrum of being fully American and fully Jewish all by ourselves in a way that synagogues never dreamed of. We have embraced our Jewishness as an integral, inalienable PART (but not the WHOLE) of who we are — right alongside our Americanness, our skin color, and many other personally distinguishing characteristics. Being Jewish is a given. What we do with it is an open question. 

Synagogues, therefore, must become not just houses of worship, but houses of identity that teach what Jewishness means to being human. If identity is seen as fluid, we must lift up the rich rabbinic/Talmudic tradition of radical inquiry, heterodoxy, and acceptance of a diversity of views as channeling our multi-facetedness into meaning and action.

It’s time to stop insisting that we are Jewish. It’s better to celebrate our inquiry into WHY we are Jewish. Suburbia needs Jewish communities to form around questions of ethical leadership and choices, and of embracing greater diversity. Synagogues must become bulwarks not against assimilation, but against the loneliness and isolation that characterize our time. 

Suburban synagogues — their structures, their culture, and the Torah that they teach — must show us how to engage, connect, and act meaningfully with our increasingly complex and multi-textured understanding of our world. It’s a tough code to crack, but the time has come for us to try.

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf is spiritual leader of Kol Shalom in Rockville, Md.

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