In the following Sh’ma Roundtable, rabbinic leaders of the various movements as well as scholars of American Jewry speculate about the challenges and opportunities ahead for synagogues. They brought a thirst for honest, candid conversation as they pondered whether the synagogue is “beleaguered” and how American Jewry can work together beyond institutional boundaries to embolden and rethink a pillar of communal and spiritual life.
Riv-Ellen Prell: To begin, please articulate who you imagine the members of synagogues are today, from the point of view of your movement. In responding, please consider issues of gender, age, religious affiliation, sexuality — any identity questions you understand to be critical to synagogue membership today.
Rick Jacobs: The Reform movement has been quite successful at creating a big tent — opening the doors of our synagogues to interfaith families, to LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) individuals and couples, and to spiritual seekers of diverse backgrounds. And many of our congregations, if not most, are multigenerational. Yet many who have tended to feel a bit tentative about their role within synagogues remain uncertain. For example, single parents generally camp out on the margins of congregations; young people in their 20s and 30s wonder, when they look around, if they really belong; and non-Jewish partners still seek entry points into our communities.
But let’s take your question a bit deeper. Asking about our members is different than asking about our communities. What is our responsibility to those who live in our communities but who do not formally become members? When people participate in our programs at different moments in their lives, should the synagogue consider them part of the community? What would that look like? Our synagogues are challenged not just to open the tent flaps but to build bridges to those who have not felt welcome or represented within them.
Steve Wernick: There’s a distinction between who our members are today and who we want our members to be. What challenges synagogues today is that much of the next generation — people under the age of 40 — have multiple allegiances and their identities are much more fluid than in earlier generations. The driving question is how to welcome and accept newcomers while maintaining a diversity of approaches to Jewish life.
Too often, we give the message that we want people to join and support our allegiances. How do we create multiple opportunities of allegiances and multiple portals for exploring sacred purpose and meaning?
The “identity of affiliation” that we grew up with was nurtured and supported by external factors that no longer exist. The people joining our synagogues tend to be on the end of the spectrum of people with identities of affiliation. Those not joining our synagogues are people whose identities are influenced by a sense of choice.
David Cooper: Twenty-eight years ago, a group of people who felt excluded from the larger Jewish community started our synagogue. We felt excluded because we were interfaith families, or we were LGBT families, or we were politically progressive and didn’t want to be in the closet about our feelings for Israel or our criticisms of Israeli policies. We look around and most of the synagogues in our area are LGBT-friendly. Although our congregation is enormously welcoming, we still feel a resistance by folks in their 20s to join and become members of an institution.
Shawn Zevit: While the majority of Reconstructionist synagogues are in large urban centers, we provide rabbinic leadership to a number of synagogues that are in “one synagogue towns,” and these smaller communities need different kinds of resources.
I’ve also noticed trends of the aging population: We’ve had older people who retire or relocate — especially snowbirds — who want to form a community of conscious choice. When they relocate, they don’t want to just join what exists; they want to create something that has meaning for them. While we must remain concerned about the younger generations, we should not ignore the vibrant older population who are beginning to form inspiring communities of spiritual, intellectual, cultural, and social connection, and who want to study and continue to grow and evolve.
Riv-Ellen Prell: Let’s talk a bit about training rabbis for the pulpit. How does the synagogue of the 21st century shape the way you train rabbis? What do you hear from your rabbis in their first pulpits about what they’re finding, what they need to know?
Kenneth Brander: Synagogues are the spiritual progeny of the Temple. From talmudic literature, we know how the Temple, the beit hamikdash, functioned, and there is a lot of similarity with today’s synaplex synagogue. The Temple had multiple portals of spiritual entry; it engaged the community through music and prayer as well as experiential study. In the beit hamikdash, lifecycle events were commemorated and celebrated. There was a focus on charity and social justice; ecological responsibility was a priority and volunteer activities as well as philanthropy were recognized. The synagogue in the Temple had a president and vice president.
What I try to communicate to the rabbinical students I teach is that while the Temple of the past and the synagogue of the present are quite different, the meta-narrative of the Temple — as a place of multiple spiritual gateways — is parallel to the synagogue. The synagogue, like its spiritual ancestor, must serve as a haven and heaven for all those who enter.
What’s important to teach rabbis? They need to continuously be spiritually energized — both the rabbi and the rabbinic couple. This avoids burnout. Rabbis are CEOS of small corporations. Although we spend much time focusing on the pastoral and pedagogic, we must also give our rabbis management skills to build collaborative relationships with the lay and professional leadership teams. Using best practices from the corporate and entrepreneurial sectors, we should create best practices for the synagogue community. Rabbinical students don’t always appreciate all that we teach them in school; they don’t take the practical aspects of their education as seriously as we would expect. That is why a comprehensive continuing rabbinic education program is necessary — especially after a year or so in the field.
Isa Aron: American Jewry is changing and the synagogue needs to change to adapt to the needs and interests of American Jews. We face the challenge of embracing appropriate changes while holding onto essential traditional Jewish values. We can neither capitulate to the wishes of contemporary Jews nor ignore them. Synagogues in the 1950s tended to ignore what was going on in American Jewish life. They just didn’t worry about the fact that American Jewry was changing.
Today, the synagogue must maintain its sacred purpose rather than become like the auto club that people join for very limited purposes, but certainly don’t identify with. Too many synagogues function like auto clubs, and way too many rabbis capitulate to this paradigm once they get to their congregations. As Rabbi Brander said, rabbinical students do not always grasp the full import of what they learn in school. Abundant research on teachers in pre-service programs supports this fact. So, rabbinical schools need to get into the business of significant continuing education. Learning about cooperation, collegiality, and change management is critically important, and we can’t assume that what we teach pre-ordination is sufficient.
David Cooper: I see a growing trend of decentralization. I don’t envision a synagogue like the Temple with many portals in, but rather with portals looking out — not out of Judaism but out into a decentralized process of experiencing one’s spirituality within Jewishness. We need models for building community in a decentralized way.
Kenneth Brander: For so long, synagogues have provided a model where the rabbi was religiously and spiritually engaged but there was no ISP (individual spiritual plan) for individual members. Portals must create opportunities that allow a wide diversity of people to have serious spiritual experiences. I agree with the idea that there has to be decentralization. Yet too much decentralization jeopardizes the notion of community. The holiness is in the dialectic and the devil is in the details.
Riv-Ellen Prell: If we can go back to rabbinic training, how do you train your rabbinical students to appreciate a synagogue in which we emphasize multiple portals, and how do we encourage rabbinical students to address the tension between a diverse group within a larger community?
Steve Wernick: Today, people want to be part of both the production and consumption of services: hence, the description, “prosumer.” We’re dealing, by and large, with a highly educated, very technological, successful population. The skill set that rabbis need are many: basic leadership skills, the capacity to think and plan strategically, change management skills, and also, the basic community organizing and relationship building skills. These skills need to be taught and nurtured through continuing education — perhaps through the professional rabbinic organizations.
Rick Jacobs: There is nothing more important for rabbinical students than to be probing students of Torah who have serious spiritual depth. That grounding will allow them to respond to the challenges they face. Young rabbis enter a world where the institutions are ailing, aching, and anemic.
Across North America, we have some of the most uninspiring sleepy institutions. We have a high level of dysfunction. Reinventing the synagogue is a pretty big task for someone who just finished five years of Talmud, Bible, history, philosophy, liturgy, and practical rabbinics. We’re asking rabbis to serve congregations and, by the way, completely change how it does its holy work.
Once rabbis are a couple of years out, they need new tools to think about their work. For example, I’m struck by the way in which non-Orthodox rabbis in Israel have to go outside of their own communities to create connections; they can’t assume that an institution, a building, a structure will support them. We need to import some of that savvy and entrepreneurial spirit to American Jewish communities, where rabbis will learn to make connections outside their own walls — and of course within.
We send out young rabbis without the tools to effectively swim against the culture of North America, which privileges the personal over the communal religious quest and fulfillment. We are trying to shape a collective experience. At the core, rabbis must be grounded. We need to help them deepen their own theologies, their own practices, and their ability to make relevant and alive the timeless and the timely.
Shawn Zevit: I am so inspired listening to this conversation as we share heart and soul; it’s an example of the nature of conversations we need to create across the denominational line. We need to talk about covenantal community — not just in our seminaries and training programs, but with lay leadership. We need to create alliances with other institutions — Jewish; across faith lines; and in collaboration with similar values-centered individuals, organizations, and institutions in all sectors. At the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, we’ve been teaching our students spiritual direction as well as community organizing for some years now. And we’ve been exploring what curricular and spiritual formation models are needed for 21st-century Jewish life. But when I consult with our clergy, students, and lay leaders about models for a faith-based community — we talk about fundraising, planning, strategic planning, dynamics of growth, leadership, etc. — I am most often thanked for reminding them of our 4,000-year journey as a Jewish people, of connecting them to core Jewish texts, values, and emerging best practices. We are not in the “nonprofit” or “for-profit” business, but the “prophetic business.”
If we want people to see synagogues as more than fee-for-service entities, we need to make the covenant of membership more than just a check. We need to confront the fear that we may ask people for something they won’t give, that we’ll invite them to something and they won’t want to come. People are longing to have more asked of them — especially if it elevates their soul and gets the work of their hands aligned with the possibility of what they can become.
Riv-Ellen Prell: I’d like to invite any of you to share a final thought that doesn’t reiterate the complex situation we’ve discussed.
Isa Aron: We need to acknowledge that many synagogues are beleaguered. If we listen closely to what Rick said, he is acknowledging that maybe they should feel beleaguered.
I’m involved with a new project called the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, whose purpose is to make bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies (and the preparation leading up to them) significant moments in the lives of congregants. In our 15 pilot congregations (chosen out of 39 applicants), we are supporting and challenging them to deepen the learning and the experience that accompanies the bar/bat mitzvah so that both parents and children will have a strong motivation to stay connected to congregational life.
Rick Jacobs: There is incredible innovation and creativity within the Jewish community — and pockets of it within the synagogue world. The synagogue has reinvented itself again and again throughout our history. We must reinvent today’s synagogues to be communities of probing, lifelong learning, soul-searing spirituality, caring and kindness, connected to Israel and the wider Jewish world. Although this is a moment of tremendous possibility, we are beleaguered. Isa is right, and we must now approach our work with an honesty, clarity, and focus that we’ve not had in the recent past. We need to be very deliberate and nimble about the ways in which we bring core teachings of Judaism — which are very much alive — to individuals, families and the community at this key moment of change.
Steve Wernick: We need professional and lay leaders that have the courage to break the comfortable models of organizational development that we’ve used for the past 100 years. We live in an age of high competition for time and attention, and people have less patience for mediocrity. We have to learn to make differentiated decisions that produce the outcomes and impacts we desire. And we must articulate why we are making those decisions.
Reflective organizations build a culture where they are always asking probing questions, challenging the status quo, and developing metrics to measure the impact. As a people, we do this every year at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and an effective board should be doing this annually. This is part of the genius of Judaism — providing opportunities for ongoing heshbon hanefesh, accounting of the soul.
Kenneth Brander: I’m not so worried about the synagogue. The times we’re facing are both a challenge and an opportunity.
I think that we need to recognize that we have a responsibility to create the next generation of klei kodesh, community professionals, and lay kodesh, holy lay leaders of our community. In order to do that, we must address an issue that many rabbis have: fear of the collaborative conversation with laypeople, to use Steve’s word, in the “prosumer” paradigm.
Steve Wernick: Given all the difficulties, the synagogue as an institution remains the most successful mechanism for the mass transmittal of Jewish identity from one generation to the next as well as a locust for lifelong Jewish engagement and learning. We have to be asking questions about how one segment of the community relates to another, especially when the boundaries of community are blurred: What are we doing within a synagogue’s walls to create opportunities for people to journey Jewishly outside those walls, where their own particular affinities and interests lie?email print