In Big Picture Written by

The Empty Parking Lot at the Synagogue

I walk into the Rosh Hashanah service. It’s the evening before, so admittedly not the high point of the High Holiday.

But the synagogue is mostly empty. The parking lot’s vast concrete scale a testament of a recent past, part I guess, a post-WWII resurgence of faith and community and part a remnant of a suburban growth that in this part of Baltimore County and for this community spoke of a kind of golden age.

Which is maybe the point. Suburban synagogues may physically be in the wrong place for a new generation.

Anyway, we’re here now.

So we enter the synagogue. Me a former outsider, likely to never be fully comfortable in this space, but surrounded by a family I love. My family.

I grab a kippah on my way in. A well-worn and accustomed gesture. I know what to do here, even if I didn’t bring one with me (although I do have a few around).

Inside the people are as scattered as the cars outside. Groups clustered in their own spaces, families praying together, brief moments of community surrounded by a sea of empty benches.

I’m hard pressed to find more than ten people under the age of twenty there, fewer still if not for the very little ones with their families.

The service starts.

The congregation slips into the familiar rhythms. The Hebrew passes me by in a blur. I always hate that the prayers translations are so focused on the people of Israel, even if I read it as metaphor, and the people referenced as stand-ins for something more universal.

But otherwise the prayers are pretty applicable to any Abrahamic faith. They have wisdom about humility, finding purpose, living a good life. The intersection of English keeps me engaged enough, and I always love the moments of silent reading. I catch myself looking around wondering to myself how others are processing the material, the experience.

Then the songs start. They are not my songs, and yet occasionally I grasp vague intonations of power and upwelling that catch at me. But the voices are too few, the community too scattered to truly uplift.

There are clearly things here of value. There is still a community present. The Rabbi’s evocation of Pope Francis’ call to reserve judgment and to mindfully pursue tikkun olam (loosely, the duty to repair the world) speak of an openness and plurality of wisdom that makes me feel included. But if the message is good and no one is there to receive it, does it matter?

How much of the value being translated is memory? How enduring can the past truly be?

The new generation is missing. I can’t help but feel subtle echoes of a steel town’s soulful cry for better days in the slow click of the canes as we file out. But this time, is the root cause globalization or something closer to home?

Just minutes later we walk into a Rosh Hashanah dinner filled with family and warmth. We light candles, remember the symbolism and impact of recently lost family, and eat the traditional foods. Everyone is here. The communal bond evoked by the Holiday is viscerally doing its job. It’s fun.

We get into a discussion about the dichotomy of dying synagogues and thriving families almost as soon as the apples and honey emerge. What is it that this generation’s urban youth crave? Vodka and Latkes and other good natured “jokes” quickly move into a deeper questioning. What do we need and how do we get it?

There are three Jewish women seated at my table of ten. Each of them is planning to marry a Gentile (lucky me) who is also sitting at the table. What does that mean for all of us here? Even more importantly, what does that mean for those who, god willing, aren’t even in the room yet?

If the synagogue’s attendance is any answer, the only certainty is, it won’t be more of the same.

Last modified: May 27, 2018