After World War II, new synagogues opened all over the United States. Jews had started to move to suburbia and away from New York. Wherever they went, they established shuls of all denominations. As these baby-boomers matured, their synagogues changed according to the trends of the times. Some synagogues incorporated more English prayers, included women in the minyan, and emphasized lay participation. Shul membership was higher than actual attendance. Many families joined a synagogue in order to send their children to the Hebrew school and be part of the social life of the community, but did not feel the need to come to services on a regular basis.
In a study from 1990, it was discovered that Jews born after World War II were less likelyÂ to attend synagogue once a month or more (23.6 percent versus 27.9 percent for Jews born before the war). However, Orthodox synagogue attendance has gone up: Almost half of Orthodox Jews born after WWII reported attending services a few times a week, which is three times the amount that older Orthodox Jews reported. Families with children still make up the majority of non-Orthodox synagogue members, as education remains the principal reason for affiliation. In the study, only a total of 27% of Jews said they attended services at least once a month.
In the last few years, synagogues have modified their services even more, in order to attract new members and encourage attendance. Reform congregations have made the most changes, moving from a formal service to a participatory informal gathering with inspiring and approachable music. Most Conservative synagogues have adopted the triennial Torah reading (finishing the reading of the Torah in three years instead of one) in order to shorten the Shabbat morning services. Participation of women and laypeople in general has become a hallmark of Conservative shuls. Orthodox shuls attempt to accommodate former yeshiva students by emulating the style of prayer popular in yeshivas – a service which is speedy despite cutting no corners. Many have added Carlbach minyans and offer classes during the week and on Shabbat.
Interestingly, when Jews are asked to explain why they do or do not attend synagogue, the presence of God in the synagogue does not seem to be a factor. They don’t attend because they believe in God or stay away because they do not. It seems that attendance or non-attendance is more about allocation of time than anything else. People who work full-time may find that Friday nights and Saturday mornings can be used for a variety of purposes, and going to shul may be far down on the list. American culture schedules fun activities on the weekend, and prayer services, as uplifting as they may be, cannot be described as fun.
This article is based on Jack Wertheimer’s article, “The American Synagogue: Recent Issues and Trends,” in American Jewish Yearbook (2005). Also see the review of a new volume, The Synagogue in America: A Short History, Marc Lee Raphael.