If You Build It, They Will Come: Who Are ‘You’ vs. What Is ‘It’

Dr. Gail Labovitz
October 23, 2012
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What I noticed reading the draft of the current Sh’ma is that the issue is quite top-heavy with rabbis first and foremost, with a strong representation of academics and leaders of community organizations close behind.  Who is rather noticeably missing from this conversation?  Lay people, synagogue members, indie minyan members, unaffiliated Jews.  Imagine a round-table of synagogue presidents speaking about their communities and members, or non-rabbinic leaders of indie minyans in conversation about the composition, funding, and/or day to day workings of their communities.

Now, this may seem a strange, even hypocritical concern coming from someone who is herself a Conservative rabbi and whose career is dedicated to training yet more new rabbis within that denominational context (I teach rabbinic literature and Jewish law for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies).  But it may be precisely because my rabbinic career takes place outside of the congregational context that I have this reaction.  My experience of synagogue life has always been far more from the perspective of the congregant; I have more than once chosen a synagogue to join, paid dues, and my husband has even served as a synagogue board member and committee chair.

And yet, that being said, I was struck and, frankly, personally implicated by Rabbi Stephanie Kolin’s mention of a rabbinic colleague who “recently told me that if she were not a congregational rabbi, she wouldn’t necessarily join a synagogue.” Because the truth is, something like that exact dilemma is a part of my up-bringing and continues to be reflected in my adult choices regarding synagogues and prayer communities (which overlap significantly but are not identical).  Most of my formative experiences of Judaism, and Jewish prayer more specifically, were in spaces and groupings that desired and expected egalitarian communal participation and leadership – most notably my family’s membership, during the 1970’s and up through about the time of my bat mitzvah celebration, in the havurah that met at Germantown Jewish Center in Philadelphia.  In fact, GJC is known as a pioneer of the multi-minyan model of synagogue communities, and set the pattern (personally and perhaps communally) for the two synagogues in which I have been a dues paying member as an adult: Ansche Chesed in New York City, and currently Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles.  What is more – in each case, while my family and I have been members of the synagogue as a whole, our primary prayer space and community choice has been in one of the lay-lead minyanim that met in the synagogue building (Minyan Maat in NYC, and the Library Minyan now).   In neither case were we attracted to the service that met in the “Sanctuary” of the synagogue, under the supervision of the senior rabbi of the synagogue – that is, in the service and space that looks most like one you’d find in a “typical” non-Orthodox, usually suburban (and upper middle class) synagogue.  The very synagogues that I am ostensibly training many of my students to serve and lead.

So who are those services for?

I might observe that when I say “lay-lead” above about the minyanim I have been part of, both included a significant number of rabbis in non-congregational careers, rabbinical students, and academics in all areas of Jewish studies among their active participants.  Do my own, admittedly limited and subjective, observations and experiences thus suggest that the most committed (at least in terms of religious practice and observance) and knowledgeable people in our communities are no more attracted by “typical” synagogues than the many unaffiliated Jews out there?

And while I and others like me may not be very representative of the problem, I will add this: the proliferation of marketing and other jargon that so many of my colleagues seem to be turning to as their vocabulary for thinking about and addressing the issues doesn’t help me very much at all.  I’m not exactly proud to admit this, but I briefly considered making my blog post simply a bingo card of the latest cachet terms, so that readers could play along at home – “portals,” “emergent,” “entrepreneurial,” “best practices”…  How do you “focus-group” or create a “strategic plan” for God?  Why isn’t Torah our “mission statement”?  For that matter, at the risk of alienating anyone I haven’t already just alienated, I’m also thoroughly tired of the word “spirituality.”  What is distinctly Jewish about spirituality?

It occurs to me that so long as we – rabbis and founders and leaders of new organizations and initiative – are engaged in “outreach,” “meeting people where they are,” trying to open more or multiple “portals in,” and so on, we are still assuming the responsibility is ours.  If you build it, they will come – we only need to figure out what “it” is.  Just to be clear, I’m not arguing for ignoring ways in which our communities are unnecessarily unwelcoming, unfriendly, unresponsive.  What I am asking is for Jews, ordinary, every-day “lay” Jews, to take responsibility for their Judaism.  Is Judaism one of your priorities (I’m not even asking that it be your single primary one), or is it not?  In all honesty, I’m more interested in those who already want in and aren’t finding the welcome they need, than those who can’t be bothered to make the effort without coaxing.  Here’s where I think the havurah of my youth, and Minyan Maat and the Library Minyan, and synagogues formed by LGBTQ Jews, and the indie minyans currently convening around the country get it right.  When already established institutions didn’t seem to have a space for them, the people in these groups didn’t (only) complain about how unwelcoming those establishments were, they did the hard work of getting together a core group, figuring out the details of how they were going to pray together, and making themselves into communities that supported each other and helped members grow in their Judaism.  Maybe what we really need to be doing is asking them how they did it.

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Dr. Gail Labovitz is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the American Jewish University, where she teaches primarily for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, and is also an ordained Conservative rabbi. She is the author of a number of scholarly articles, and the book Marriage and Metaphor: Constructions of Gender in Rabbinic Literature. She has also worked as a Senior Research Analyst for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, and the coordinator of the Jewish Feminist Research Group for the Women's Studies Program at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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