Transforming Synagogues: Two New Guides

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January 1, 2007
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Jack Bloom

ReThinking Synagogues: A New Vocabulary for Congregational Life Lawrence A. Hoffman, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006, 240 pp, $19.99

The Spirituality of Welcoming: How to Transform Your Congregation into a Sacred Community Ron Wolfson, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006, 224 pp, $19.99

Synagogue 2000 (S2K) — now (S3K) — is one of the most exciting synagogue ventures of our time. And these books by the founders of S2K are some of its first fruit. Lawrence Hoffman’s book, chock full of historical and sociological background, is erudite, elegantly written, and demonstrates an astonishing breadth of scholarship and research. Ron Wolfson’s book, though its title and subtitle should have been reversed, is a veritable potpourri of hands-on, helpful hints for all who work in synagogues. Both books are reader friendly and eminently usable. Pages include windows highlighting crucial ideas, and chapters conclude with “Concepts from This Chapter” followed by “Activities and Topics for Discussion.”

It was clear to our authors that ethnicity (think Borscht Belt) was defunct as a Jewish life motivator when they met at the behest of Rabbi Rachel Cowan (then Grants Officer for Jewish Life at the Nathan Cummings Foundation) and discussed S2K as the rebirth of Jewish spirituality and “the reinvention of the synagogue… Synagogues must become spiritual and moral centers for the 21st century.” Christian megachurches are borrowed from extensively for synagogue change, which is not necessarily bad. Hopefully as the Christians have succeeded, so may it be with the Jews. Jewish examples of success are virtually all the result of charismatic rabbis and their teams.

S2K’s ultimate goal was transformative change leading to the creation of a Jewish sacred community, defined as “an organization of relationships and acts by which we emulate God. Synagogue is that set of relationships and acts, not a building.” The goal, represented by the acronym PISGAH, summit, defines S2K’s congregational aims and the core focus of these two volumes: P rayer, I nstitutional change, S tudy, G ood deeds, A mbiance of the sacred, and Healing.

Two caveats: First, our relationship to world Jewry and to Israel is not mentioned in PISGAH. Synagogues full of the living waters of Jewish spirituality should not divorce themselves from a global connection to Jewish community. Our North American communities should transmit deep appreciation of and loyalty to the Jewish people beyond our shores, wherever they may live. If that suggests a Judaism as ethnicity, so be it! While these two books leave this vague, I am confident it will be clarified in future S3K work.

Anticipating my second caveat, Wolfson confesses: “I am not now nor have I ever been a rabbi.” Hoffman, though ordained and a superb teacher of liturgy to generations of students, has also not served a congregation. Rabbis are mentioned in Hoffman’s book minimally. S2K is “directed at synagogue boards, denominational leaders, seminarians, cantors, rabbis, executive directors, educators, and all the others who make synagogues their passion.” I wonder about the sequence since it is not alphabetical. Is it a value judgment? Rabbis appear a bit more in Wolfson: “The rabbi is the key factor in the success or failure of a synagogue transformation effort. For better or worse, the rabbi is the de facto chief executive officer of the congregation.”

The very limited space given rabbis in these otherwise superb books dedicated to synagogue renewal is astonishing. It is a given that neither author nor any lay person, seminary student, or rabbi who has not served in a pulpit can know from personal experience what every congregational rabbi knows in his or her gut. Rabbis choose to become rabbis, and the outcome of that choice is being a symbolic exemplar of God — a walking, talking symbol to and of their congregation. What makes that doubly difficult is the attribution to the rabbi of superlative inner qualities and inordinately deep commitments that the rabbi must exemplify in a relatively unprotected private and public arena.

Hopefully future books from the leadership of S3K will turn their energy and competence to helping congregants understand their symbolic exemplars (cantors included) and provide helpful avenues in which our clergy might grasp and utilize the gifts of their leadership to create truly sacred Jewish communities.

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Rabbi Jack H. Bloom, PhD, is Editor of Jewish Relational Care A-Z, and author of The Rabbi as Symbolic Exemplar. In addition to his private practice at the Psychotherapy Center in Fairfield, Conn., Dr. Bloom mentors and teaches rabbis in the Reform and Conservative movements. He can be reached at JackHBloom.com.

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