As a child, Mr. Zeisel, my Orthodox friend Howie's father took me aside one Rosh Hashana and suggested I return one shabbos to see what his synagogue is really like. I did. From then onward, more than half a century later, shabbos has been the centerpiece of my Jewish observance and the experience through which I judge the synagogue experience. High Holy Days could be absolutely wretched, a performance in processing people through Judaism to subsidize fifty other weeks in which the Jewish pageant really plays out. People go to the Beach Outlets to make themselves memorable for Rosh Hashana. But there is a subset of us that have no need to feel memorable but to isolate some time each week to put away the studies and courses of college and medical school, seeing people as friends who share the college journey and not as competitors for the next professional destination. After graduating, I no longer had the same people at my side all week, leaving shabbos as the time to reacquaint with people I missed during the work week. Shabbos took on more of separation of time. I attended shul because I wanted to attend shul. There were the formalities of the worship, the type of ritual or formality that encourages a mixture of community and respect. Torah got read, tunes chanted, kiddush made, sometimes lunch eaten, then off to a quiet afternoon, usually alone, sometimes with recreation not available to me at other times. The shabbos morning destination only failed me once before, I relocated its venue, restoring it to what I had come to expect.
Unfortunately, it has been failing again. I can assign blame if I want, and until recently that was what I wanted. But not now. It really isn't anybody's fault that I show up ever less frequently, rationing my shabbos mornings at my own congregation to twice monthly and now to when I have an invitation to do something useful to somebody else while I am there. I'm not indifferent, I'm actively disappointed with the experience, would replace it once again if it were as easy as last time. I have been going to AKSE out of my perception of obligation more than any desire to worship there on shabbos or renew acquaintances with anyone I've not seen in a week. I sit and stand, stare into space, no desire to interact or challenge myself. I've almost returned to Hebrew school when I am there. Rabbi's vision of what he wants to impart to us and my vision of what I might like to receive just don't mesh. I can protest but the baalebatim seem deaf to any opposition, perceiving probably correctly that they have pretty much already lost as many members as they are likely to lose. Yes, the concept of shabbos is the same everywhere, but I guess I am not the same everywhere. There is salvage at Chabad and Beth Tfiloh but not really replacement of the experience that once made me an AKSE shabbos advocate and more eager participant than I have been in recent years.
Only a relatively small subset of our Board attends with any regularity on shabbos morning. They pay dues, rather large sums at that, so there must be some attractions to survive when the shabbos experience implodes. And there is that experience of Temple Square, where as a non-believer, I am formally excluded from entry into their building of worship, yet remain in awe of the parts to which I have access and in admiration of the people who enabled this. Even within an American synagogue mindset, the baalebatim of fifty years ago probably appreciated that worship may not be their sustainable centerpiece, designing their buildings with sanctuaries that took up only a small amount of floor space, improvising for the few occasions when large crowds came for worship, but expanding the activities of the shul to be more of a club, a House of Assembly. As worship deteriorates for me at AKSE, there are elements that seem to be going well when they have a champion to make it go well. Kiddush and other food presentation have become more attractive. Money seems to be handled in a more responsible way. The Sisterhood events seem stable. So maybe there are participatory surrogates to compensate for a deteriorating worship experience. These can never be the centerpiece but they can you by, at least for a while.