Synagogues across the globe are shutting down their doors for good. Demographic changes, financial problems, assimilation, and lack of interest in Jewish life among younger people, as well as the feeling of insecurity due to anti-Semitic attacks, are among the major factors that contribute to this phenomena. But there is a deeper cause to the declining membership and its consequences for communities: the lack of cohesion and sense of a common home among the Jewish people as a whole. The festival of Sukkot, during which we celebrate unity and hospitality with those closest to us is an invitation to reshape our destiny and reflect on building a common sukkah where all Jews can be united as one and with them the entire world.
The Jewish festivities this year face a new reality. Once vibrant Jewish communities around the world have seen their membership significantly reduced. For instance, the community in Nice, once the fourth largest in France with around 20,000 members, has decreased to a mere 3,000. Similar situations can be found in Jewish congregations in Boston, New York and the Midwest, all due to dwindling membership.
“Jews exhibit lower levels of religious commitment than the U.S. general public” among whom, only 26% said religion is “very important,” in comparison to 56% of non-Jews, according to American research organizations. The studies also show a gap between Jewish attendance at synagogue services compared with other denominations: “Jews report attending religious services at much lower rates than do other religious groups. 6-in-10 Christians (62%) say they attend religious services at least once or twice a month (compared with 29% of Jews),” revealed the survey.
I am not surprised. After WWII, the sense of belonging and the need for communal association thrived among Jews, but nowadays there is basically nothing to hold a community together. In a generation where everything is disposable and anything can be acquired, independence has become more highly valued than ever before and calculations for community trail accordingly. One may ask, “Why should we be part of a community and identify as being Jewish? What do I get out of it?” “Nothing, and perhaps the opposite,” would be the probable response. In fact, Jewish life essentially has little or no meaning if we do not ask life’s most significant questions, such as “Why do I exist?” and “What does it mean to be Jewish?”
The word “Jew”—“Yehudi” in Hebrew—stems from the word “unity”—“Yichud.” Our purpose as Jews is to reach a state of unity among each other and to share it with the nations of the world, i.e. to be “a light unto the nations.” However, in order to attain such a lofty goal, we need to first rise above our egoistic nature, that is, to transform our attributes of self-concern and self-indulgence into concern and care for others.
How does this relate to the Sukkot holiday? This festival is precisely a call to exit our comfortable egoistic “home,” meaning our self-love, and to build a new structure, a sukkah, the symbol of the new world that we can create if we acquire the quality of bestowal, the quality of love for others.
Sukkot symbolizes the beautiful process of inner change where we take the “waste of barn and winery,” items that, according to the wisdom of Kabbalah, represent the quality of love for others that are now mingled and immersed within our egoistic thoughts of self-concern, and raise such attributes like a roof, high above our heads. We construct a cover for the ego and, day by day, during the week of Sukkot, perform additional clarifications about the qualities that contribute to altruism and ask for our correction. Then, symbolically, the light that sifts through through the thatch roof transforms our previous egoistic qualities into a new state where we recognize love and connection with others as life’s most important values.
The true meaning of Sukkot is to build a new reality of mutual understanding and support—a sukkah of peace, so that the entire Jewish people and the whole world can gather beneath that big thatch of covering and be united as one. When this comes to pass, the temporary home of the sukkah will be transformed into a temple, a common place in our hearts, and not merely a physical structure.
I wish you all a joyful and peaceful holiday!
Featured in The Times of Israel