A Response To Alan Silverstein’s Jewish Identity and Continuity in Smaller Cities

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June 1, 2007
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Muriel Harris

I was greatly heartened to read in the June issue of Sh’ma an article by Rabbi Alan Silverstein (“Suburbia: Battleground for Jewish Continuity”) in which he speaks up forcefully for the need for suburban Jewry to retain its identity. I could only nod vigorously in agreement as he writes:

The future of most non-Orthodox American Jews will be determined by the degree to which suburban living remains compatible with sustaining Jewish identity. . . . In 2007, Jewish communal life must continue to seed and reseed the infrastructure that has emerged as the lifeline of the world’s preeminent Diaspora community. (6)

However true those words are, for our synagogue—and for other synagogues like ours— there is a Catch-22 in that premise.

I don’t know if Rabbi Silverstein includes smaller cities in his concept of   “suburbia” or how close to a large city a town has to be to qualify as a suburb, but in our area (about 125 miles from Chicago, with a population of about 80,000), I have found the stumbling block in our attempt to continue our survival to be the fact that we aren’t in a large city.   In attempts to locate outside funding for our small Conservative synagogue (too small to fund our large needs and ambitions), we do not qualify for outside assistance because we are located in an area without a large number of Jews. We cannot seek funds for a preschool or afterschool program (with dreams of a day school some day at the lower grade levels), and we are turned down for the same reason when seeking funds for a number of other projects we could undertake to strengthen the Jewish identity in this community. And the irony of not qualifying for renovation and repair funds for our lovely synagogue (listed on the National Register of Historic Places and given a plaque by the Wabash Valley Trust) is that we are still an active synagogue. If the building were about to be turned into a museum (and not used for synagogue purposes of religious observance), we could apply and perhaps fund needed repairs to the infrastructure of a building over 100 years old and not handicapped accessible. (And local funding for assisting with upgrades for the handicapped is not available to a religious organization.)

Without funding help, our synagogue is likely to close its doors some day, a place in which among the grown children of current members there are now three rabbis in major cities and two Jews who have executive positions in Jewish non-profit work.   We could sustain our continuity and continue to assist in preparing our children for lives as actively Jewish adults if there were an influx of Conservative Jews to the area. It’s an area that includes a major university, is growing rapidly (a new mall, two new hospitals being built, major expansions in housing and manufacturing), has won awards as a desireable area to live in, and is in great need of professionals to move here (see our Website, http://www.soalafayette.org/), but Jews don’t look for positions in places not well known as “comfortably Jewish” or not on the larger map of Jewish America. And we haven’t located funds for the large amounts of money needed to advertise in Jewish publications to let them know we exist. How many readers reading this recognize this syndrome?

There is the very plausible and reasonable argument that funding agencies offer—that they cannot invest in projects where there aren’t already a sustainable number of Jews to ensure success of the project. I would feel the same if I lived on that side of the fence. But I don’t. I see small Jewish communities, many of them being the very sources of producing children who will leave the nest and be identifiably Jewish, to be failing in ways similar to our synagogue and for similar reasons.

And yet another layer of irony is that the Jews who do move to communities where a strong   Jewish life is receding are the ones who come with a less-than-vigorous commitment to their Judaism. Their children have no choice but to drift further because they have nowhere to learn, study, observe that commitment. Intermarriage is now a common denominator in such communities. And while many children of intermarriages are brought up as Jewish, in the marriages where the Jewish partner starts out without much to offer his or her children, the household easily slips away into nothing at all or, if the other partner is committed to a religion, to adopt that religion.

Where does that leave those smaller Jewish communities that find themselves dissolving? Perhaps the way to start is to heed Rabbi Silverstein’s words, to realize that such communities need help to retain Jewish continuity and need to be recognized that they are important to support if support is needed. Jewish philanthropies can be awakened to the problems caused by their guidelines. There are families that do generously fund synagogues in their area, but where there are no such benefactors,   the outlook is grim. Among the wish lists we draw up is the wish that some philanthropy dedicated to the continuity of the Jewish people recognizes the problem and lists its priority as being a resource for synagogues “in underserved areas,” the euphemism used by one funding agency that recognized the needs expressed in a grant proposal we sent while acknowledging that their guidelines do not allow them to consider such underserved areas. But Jews are, if nothing, inventive and clever. Maybe there will someday be a philanthropic organization known as the Fund to Serve Underserved Areas if, that is, there are any synagogues left in the underserved areas to serve.

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