The Synagogue/Community Model Requires Radical Changes

Rabbi Amitai Adler
October 4, 2012
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The classical model of the synagogue has got to go.

That may not be a popular position for a rabbi to take, but it’s true.

The classical-model synagogue owns a building, runs a religious school or day school, offers occasional adult education opportunities, and runs social events with more or less Jewish themes for its congregants. There is a large sanctuary with one or more rabbis and one or more cantors who conduct services, and depending on community and movement, there may or may not be organized instrumental accompanists and chorale backup. There may or may not be one or more alternative services, sometimes regular and sometimes sporadic, most often organized by congregants, but occasionally by rabbinic leadership. The congregants pay a membership dues fee based on whether they are singles or a family unit, and the dues amounts generally span the range between “expensive” and “fabulously exorbitant.” These dues are spent on rabbinic and cantorial and/or musical leadership, administrative and support staffs, and paying for a large range of programming, most of which is not utilized by the bulk of the congregation (in the sense that each program or kind of program is usually utilized by a very small group of congregants, and not necessarily the same congregants at all events). Usually the best-funded and most publicized programs are the ones that are “sexy” and draw a lot of people: events about Israel, cultural festivals, High Holidays, and so forth.

This is not working.

We need to make three radical changes. We need to sever tefillah from all the rest of this. And we need to shift rabbinic and cantorial leadership away from conducting all services/giving all sermons/synagogue executive leadership, and into primarily educational roles. And then we need to prioritize education.

Here’s what I mean. First of all, minyanim should be independent. They should rent space in buildings they don’t own, rather than owning buildings, or even meet in people’s homes if space permits. They should not have full-time rabbis or cantors as “leaders,” or administrative or support staff, except perhaps for one part-time administrator, if the minyan is large enough (though I also think that minyanim should try to self-limit, to stay under around 150 family units, if possible). The bulk of service coordination, web presence, etc., should be done by volunteers among the congregants. Minyanim should employ rabbis and cantors on a consultant basis (as much as needed), to help train the members of the congregation to learn what they need to know to do their own ritual leadership: mastering Hebrew and learning liturgy, Torah, a modicum of Jewish history and theology, and, most importantly, how to continue learning all these things on their own; how to be shlichei tzibbur (prayer leaders); how to layn Torah, haftarot, etc.; how to give drashot (sermons– which should always be short) and lead Torah discussions; as well as how to observe the mitzvot in the home and elsewhere in private life. Minyan business ought to be coordinated by a committee, perhaps in occasional consultation with a rabbi, cantor, or administrator when suggestions are needed concerning ritual practice or sound organizational practices, respectively. Dues should be only enough to pay for such rabbinic/cantorial consultation as is necessary, plus such minimal administration/support as is necessary, plus rental of space, plus maintenance of basic materials– primarily sifrei Torah, and a small supply of siddurim, chumashim, tallitot and kippot; but congregants should generally be expected to own and bring their own books, tallitot, and kippot. All told, this sum should not be excessive, when split amongst congregants on a scale proportional to income (low-income congregants, in addition to a lower dues rate, could also barter increased volunteer time and community leadership time in place of dues). Any additional costs– social and political events, dinners, luncheons, etc.– would be on a “pay-as-you-play” basis: if you attend, you pay. If you don’t, you don’t, and if not enough people are willing to pay, then the event either doesn’t happen or the congregants interested in organizing have to go find their own money.

But right now, the models of rabbinic and cantorial leadership are not helpful: they are incredibly disempowering. Congregants use rabbis and cantors as crutches, employing rabbis and cantors to “do” Judaism for them, thereby insuring that they do not have to learn how to do all these things for themselves, and reinforcing the idea that Judaism is something that takes place once a week or so in a synagogue sanctuary. Rabbis all too often waste their training and knowledge in roles for which they are unsuited or unprepared, like executive leadership and counseling. Cantors all too often focus on their own technical performance, as though shul were a long-running opera or piece of musical theater in which they were starring. No one is served by this model of rabbinic and cantorial leadership, least of all the Jewish People.

Rather than institutional synagogues of the classic model, we should have independent minyanim and Jewish community centers (although not necessarily JCCs as we now or previously had them). Instead of shuls, larger Jewish communities (like local Jewish Federations, say, or some similar organizing body yet to be created) should assist in purchasing and maintaining large building facilities (like current synagogue buildings, say, slightly refurbished to eliminate giant main sanctuaries) which can then rent out space to independent minyanim of every stripe (so on any given Shabbat, a person could go to a local community center and find Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Modern Orthodox, Haredi, and transdenominational minyanim), and, more importantly, provide space for classes, learners’ minyanim, religious/day school classes (to be organized and run independently, by community-organized school programs), and community batei midrash (public and open places of Torah study). These places could also provide space for such social, cultural, and political events aside from education and tefillah that Jews in the area wished to organize– be the organizers independent minyanim, individual Jews, Jewish organizations, or whoever. Each community center would also employ one or more rabbis and/or cantors to be madrichei beit midrash (consultants and public tutors in the beit midrash) and to do any in-house educational programming. And each community center would also employ one or more trained and licensed Jewish mental health professionals to provide psychological counseling from Jews to Jews. These caregivers could either be direct employees of the community center (i.e., clients pay the community center for services on a sliding scale, and the community then pays the caregiver a fixed salary) or they could be associated providers (i.e., the community center provides low-cost office space and referrals to the caregiver, whose clients would pay him or her directly– though still on a sliding scale, and the caregiver would pay the community center a small rental fee for office space and maintenance, and a small percentage of all fees collected).

Every independent minyan, every Jewish organization, every Jewish event organizer, etc., would provide to the organization running these community centers (we’ll call it the Federation, for the sake of discussion) contact information for participants/members, and the Federation would solicit both charitable dues contributions and various kinds of paid memberships (e.g., one kind of membership gets a single person entry to all non-minyan events taking place at a particular community center for the year; one kind of membership gets entrance to non-minyan events taking place at all community centers in an area for the year; similar memberships for families would be available; another kind might be only for educational programming; another might be only for family programming; yet another might be only for social programming; and there could be joint “package deal” memberships for community center(s) plus dues to an independent minyan— or more than one independent minyan, or memberships for community center(s) plus tuition to a religious/day school program. And, of course, entry to any non-minyan event at any community center could also be purchased individually.

But the focus of minyanim should be the empowerment of congregants to be competent to do their own ritual leadership, to make educated choices about communal practice and their own individual practice, and to be able to assist in helping others to learn the same. The primary focus of Jewish community centers should be the provision and facilitation of educational opportunities for Jews of all ages. The majority of monies collected in the Jewish community for communal use should go to funding education, and making it available and affordable for all Jews. Everything else should be secondary: space should be made available for all other kinds of offerings– social, political, artistic, etc., but the community at large should not necessarily pay for these things, nor should they be the primary focus of organizing synagogue communities.

This model shift is geared toward self-empowerment and motivated participation. If we were to shift to it, there would be an initial drop in numbers of “affiliated” and active, participatory Jews, since this is not a model that entices the dabbler or the jaded, nor will it coddle those who desire nominal affiliation without real participation or dedication.

However, in the long run, that will serve the Jewish People far better: we need commitment. We need participation. We need dedication. We need people willing to educate themselves, willing to help educate others, willing focus Jewish communal practice on wrestling with the tradition, making meaning in their lives, enriching Judaism with thoughtful and educated practice and discussion. Anyone unwilling to do these things, uninterested in having them or making them happen, is dead weight to the community, and thus, while minyan attendance should always be free and open, and any Jew should be able to purchase entry (or otherwise obtain entry if financially unable to afford purchase) to any kind of educational experience, and should be able to purchase entry to most other kinds of Jewish experiences offered in their community, real membership, real affiliation doesn’t need them, and is better off without them. And the more clearly and obviously spiritually satisfying, intellectually engaging, rich and diverse, and supportive of making meaning that Judaism becomes, the more that those who initially shrugged off the commitment and dedication necessary for real participation will revise their opinions, seeing how satisfying and meaningful the lives of their neighbors and friends are becoming.

People understand that what is truly valuable is what requires something of one. Call it community-building, or call it esprit de corps. But anything which is turned into a commodity for the Least Common Denominator, and is increasingly packaged to be sold to wealthy dabblers with minimal inclination to active participation will never be seen as truly valuable, something to inspire commitment and dedication.

We are supposed to be the People of the Book, not the People of the High Holiday Ticket. We need to start reorganizing ourselves to act accordingly.

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1 Comment

  1. Amen! When we are no longer in a panic over bricks and mortar, exciting things can happen. We have never been a People of the Building; our cathedrals have always been built in Time (b’shem om’ro A.J.Heschel).

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