Sacred Space…Wherever that May Be?

Facing a common dilemma.

By Rabbi Richard F. Address, DMin

In recent years, I have found myself facing a dilemma that I was unprepared for. Yet, as I travel the country for my work, I have found that it’s an increasingly common experience.

Despite being a rabbi and working my whole life in congregations, I find myself feeling lost and spiritually homeless. I have plenty of congregations in which to worship, but none really feels like “home.” Is it me? Or is it something else at work amongst our generation? How can we find a place to pray that means something to us?

There has been, interestingly enough, a rise in what are being called independent minyanim (i.e., prayer groups) within the Jewish community. More often than not, they are mainly composed of baby boomers who, for a variety of reasons, feel more comfortable in a smaller, more intimate prayer setting than in the traditional synagogue. Many remain members of their congregations, yet find themselves drawn to having the Sabbath observance with their friends, praying in a more relaxed atmosphere and studying as a community. In many cases, there is no rabbi; rather, the lay people themselves take turns leading the experience.

I think this highlights something that speaks to the rise in these groups. Boomers are, for the most part, educated and aware. They have no problem identifying issues in their lives and seeking answers to those issues in an adult and meaningful way. Too often, traditional congregations “dumb down” the powerful spiritual messages of the tradition, leaving many wanting more. Thus, they seek the experience of like-minded people.

These small group experiences (first studied by Robert Bellah) seem to resonate with more and more people. We want to be able to explore these experiences, from the foundation of our own religious tradition, in serious and challenging and meaningful ways. We do not need to attend a service to be entertained; we seek avenues that show how our religious traditions can be relevant to the course of our lives.

These experiences also point out something we have touched on previously in this space: the power and importance of personal relationships in our lives. I believe that the reason most people remain within a community is based on the relationships created within that community. If we are in an environment in which we feel validated, loved, cared for, and secure, we will stay. That is really, I believe, THE major challenge of religious institutions in the coming decades. The need to create relationship-based communities trumps the program, a building, and even, at times, the clergy as the key ingredient in belonging.

I think that this desire for relationships is also one of the motivating factors in so many boomers seeking so many new forms of religious experience. Over a decade ago, Professor Wade Clark Roof coined the phrase generation of seekers to describe the baby boom generation. His research, and that of others, has validated boomers’ ease in creating new ritual and worship experiences. We are searching for something. Our lives have become so complicated and so driven and defined by logistics and outside forces, that we all too often feel that we have lost our own self and soul.

I welcome your comments on this search for new worship experiences and solicit your comments and stories.