Watching people assemble for services on Rosh Hashana, I was struck anew by a powerful reality of houses of worship: They remain that rare place in American society where people of different ages sit together in common cause. Yes, people gather at a sports arena or concert, but that is to watch, not to participate. Besides, the baby in the stroller and the 93-year-old are not usually found at the same concert. In a world where community is increasingly difficult, and atomization is becoming the norm, Prayer is a moment of togetherness.
Sociologist Robert Putnam famously wrote about the shrinking of social capital more than a decade ago. Observing that bowling leagues declined as more and more people chose to bowl alone, he cast his eye about society and saw the fragmentation in almost every sphere of public life. Political parties are less attractive, social clubs and groups less cohesive and prevalent. Now more than ever in history we can function autonomously, sitting at home, watching TV, getting our news from the Internet, paying our bills online, and ordering up everything from food to books to videos to lawn furniture, all without moving from one spot.
Not so if you attend a Synagogue or Church or Mosque. Many houses of worship now stream their services, yet they are still designed as places for people to come and join together. The inevitable frictions and joys of human contact are central to prayer. Each year after the holidays I receive letters of complaint about people who were talking, disturbing those who sat near them. But I get far more letters of appreciation as people renew acquaintances, see children grow from year to year, feel the mysterious, sad tug of realizing that certain faces are no longer there, and remembering that a video screen cannot match the anxious thrill and warm spark of human contact.
An old Jewish story has it that two men, Schwartz and Goldberg, were walking to the synagogue. A neighbor, spotting them traveling together, stops and asks: “Hey Goldberg, I understand why you are going to synagogue—you are a believer. But Schwartz, you aren’t religious. Why are you going?” And Schwartz answers, “Goldberg goes to talk to God. I go to talk to Goldberg.”
I long ago learned that most people do not come to the synagogue for doctrine. They come for one another. In the hallway encounters, in the catching up—yes, even in the gossip—there is the tie of community that runs deep in our nature.
The decline in attendance at churches and synagogues is sad for those of us who care for religion, of course. But it is also sad to see the waning of one of the last great institutions that brings people together. Yes, the synagogue is full of problems and politics, but that is just another way of saying it is full of people. Here is a place that welcomes us, sublime and sinful as we are, and asks us to share together with others who are no better and no worse. The Internet will be humming when you get home. The news will be ready at a moment’s notice. In the meantime, you will have interacted with other human beings, and perhaps, had a moment to encounter God.