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  • Writer's pictureRuth Schapira

Why do buildings substitute for substance for Jewish teens?

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It used to be Culture vs Content. Now is it Building vs Substance?

I call this the IMBY* Phenomenon: In My Back Yard.

It’s the reason that often holds synagogue communities back from collaborating. It’s the pull of the building.

And often, programs that would offer more substance are foregone in favor of holding programs right where everyone wants them to be, in their own backyard.

I remember years ago, a beloved teacher (who has since moved to Israel) used to mourn the sad state of Jewish education when she grimly noted that parents were interested in “Polaroid Judaism”, meaning that as long as their kids were ‘exposed’ to Jewish culture they’d stay connected.

So, if they attended a Jewish film, ate some Jewish food, and speckled their language with a few Jewish words, that would suffice to strengthen their tenuous ties to Judaism.

Well, this is one step further than that.

This is a quote I heard recently when a parent was discussing her son’s involvement in synagogue:

” Well, at least he walks into the building (one night a month). I’m happy he does that.” 

It seems like it’s enough for some parents that their kids connect with Judaism just by walking in the synagogue.

As if one can believe in a building.  Or that kids can ‘get’ Judaism by osmosis.

Sometimes, against all financial odds and educational common sense, the powers that be want the programs at their particular location precisely because they want kids to be in the building.

Do we have so much invested in the membership/mortgage structure that we’re happy just when the building is used?

There’s a well-told story about a Rabbi who asks a camper (who participated in a camp’s weekly havdallah ceremony by the lake) if she was continuing the practice at home.

“I can’t”, she replied.

“Why not, don’t you remember the service?”

“Yes, of course. But I can’t.”

“Why then?”

“Because there’s no lake.”

Let’s make sure our programs are created and continue for all the right reasons not  just because they’re in the building.

We all know that buildings don’t substitute for substance.

What are your thoughts? Have you experienced this phenomenon in your area?

*The original term NIMBY is an acronym for Not In My Back Yard, which became shorthand for the attitude that people did not want anything that might be construed as unsavory located in their neighborhoods.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

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