Monday, December 06, 2010

S-T: Another SouthCoast synagogue set to close.

Following up on a story that I shared here in October about the anticipated closing of New Bedford's Ahavath Achim Synagogue, this past weekend the New Bedford Standard-Times offered a similar report on another Jewish congregation in nearby Fall River:
In 1966, Jeffrey Weissman attended a Rosh Hashanah service at Fall River's Congregation Adas Israel that was standing-room only. Now, with a congregation that is moving, aging and dying — and a Hebrew school that long ago fell silent — the synagogue where he married his wife, Janet, is for sale.

"If we keep this building, we're only going to be here three more years," said Weissman, the synagogue's president. "We'll be out of money by then."

If this story sounds familiar, that's because it is. Weissman's confirmation that the Robeson Street synagogue is on the market comes on the heels of an announcement by officials at fellow Orthodox synagogue Ahavath Achim that it will close by year's end. Together, the Fall River and New Bedford congregations tell the tale of two synagogues with rich pasts and uncertain futures.

. . .

The board of directors at Adas Israel, which was born decades ago from the merging of several synagogues, hasn't yet decided to close. But Weissman recently estimated the membership is down to about 100 people, including people in nursing homes.

"The average age right now is probably about 87," he said. "I'm 68, and I'm a baby."

This stands in stark contrast from 1960s-era photos, which depict a crowd of middle-aged couples at the synagogue.

"Ninety-nine percent of (them) aren't even here anymore," said Weissman, who is in charge of Fall River's two Orthodox Jewish cemeteries. "I remember burying a lot of them."
To read the rest, click here.  To repeat what I said in response to October's story on Ahavath Achim, reports like these remind us that the oft-reported decline in religious involvement by Catholics in the United States is part of a broader social phenomenon that affects all religious groups. Some religious leaders, rank-and-file believers, and public commentators cling to a version of American exceptionalism which presumes that this country's religious consciousness will remain robust while other 'highly developed' nations become more secular. The truth is that American society is becoming more secular, albeit at its own pace and in its own way. Those of us who care about the future of religion in the United States would do well to recognize this reality and to thoughtfully (and prayerfully) reflect on our role as people of faith in an increasingly secular society. AMDG.


At 12/07/2010 7:16 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Your reminder that it's unlikely the U.S. would remain fervently religious in face of the decline of religion in the developed world is quite apt--it's one many commentators, and surely, the general populace, has a hard time realizing (except, of course, followers of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins).

Still, it would be an interesting sociological question to probe whether practical Judaism (an 18th century-like phrase, I realize) is facing a steeper decline in the U.S. than other faiths?

At 12/07/2010 10:55 AM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thank you for the comment. A couple of reactions:

1) As for Judaism specifically, I don't have any data so I have no idea what the rate of decline is like. I also wonder how these trends affect consciousness of Jewish ethnic (as opposed to religious) identity. I'm reminded of a comment that Tony Judt once made to the effect that "being Jewish largely consists of remembering what it once meant to be Jewish." Once that memory is lost, what does "being Jewish" then mean?

2) On the non-recognition of secularization in the U.S., I think that the commentariat/media and believers themselves often show their lack of awareness in different ways. The media tends to focus on what it sees as 'growth' areas in American religion while ignoring the larger picture of decline. So, for example, you'll see stories highlighting the apparent success of megachurches which don't mention the fact that the people who are switching to Evangelical or Pentecostal denominations are outnumbered by those who are dropping out of religious practice altogether.

One big problem for many believers, and perhaps especially Catholics, is complacency. A lot of parishes focus on the most reliable parishioners - older people and retirees, basically - and don't make an effort to retain youth or to lure back Catholics who've stopped going to church. At the same time, you can also find Catholic leaders who comment disparagingly on the state of the Church in Europe and suggest that we don't have to worry about the same problems. That's just foolishness, and it ignores the reality of what's going on in this country.

Of course, we also shouldn't generalize too much about "the Church in the United States" is like, as the situation varies a lot from place to place. I recall a conversation that I once had with a campus minister at a Jesuit university in the Midwest; he told me how many students went to Mass on Sundays, and I expressed surprise at the high percentage. He replied, "We don't have the kind of problems they have on the Coasts." I took some umbrage at this, not simply because I come from one of "the Coasts" but also because it seemed to me that such an attitude would make it harder for one to face up to things when the apparently satisfactory rate of Mass attendance on campus starts to drop off.

I could say a lot more, of course, but that's enough for now.


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