Covenantal Commitments: Rethinking the Synagogue and the Rabbinate

October 2, 2012
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Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi

The sages of the Mishnah were the first rabbinic leaders to understand that what may at first seem to be only a tragedy may also lead to extraordinary opportunities. They knew that the loss of the sacrificial cult and even the physical structure of the Temple did not mean the end of prayer or ritual but rather the strengthening of other forms of worship and leadership and the development of new schools of thought to nourish the Jewish people in a new context. The covenantal commitment wasn’t shattered; it was made anew.

Today, many North American rabbinic leaders also know that historical watersheds demand historically minded, creative, and large-scale thinking about core values, methodology, institutional structure and leadership. Such grappling also often demands the renegotiation of faith in the necessity and potential of those same foundations.

While the radically changing nature of the Jewish community and affiliation in North American synagogues might be far from the dramatic paradigm shift of the first century, it certainly poses significant questions about the nature of institutional Judaism. The data show that for many, if not most of the active Jewish community, the familiar model of synagogue and membership will continue to provide the most significant, deep, and consistent context for their Jewish communal life. But what about others who seek Jewish contexts and meaning but not membership or institutional structures? What about Jewish communal life and learning opportunities for those who don’t and will likely never affiliate with a synagogue?

The Roundtable of rabbinic leaders including Rabbis Sharon Brous, Lizzi Heydemann, Darren Levine, Rachel Nussbaum, and Zushe Greenberg demonstrates the many dynamic and inspired projects that have already changed the way in which Jewish life can be imagined. Beyond movements, beyond buildings, and playfully experimenting at the center of the largest Jewish communities, these leaders are simultaneously engaging large numbers of those Jews otherwise thought to be at the periphery of Jewish life. I am struck by this ironic reversal of the early 20th century German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig’s call for a return from the periphery to the center. While he meant it figuratively, in many ways these leaders model a kind of leadership moving the community from centralized authority and structures to the dynamic periphery of more decentralized leadership and fluid structure.

Each of the leaders in our discussion envisions a way in which many synagogues, old and new, might continue to reinvent themselves for a new era, for a new set of needs, and in many ways for a newly defined Jew — one with a multilayered identity, living out a complex set of connections to the Jewish and non-Jewish world. Each focuses on the ways in which rabbis need to be trained differently, and trained over a life-time. Taken together, the remarks of Rabbis Rick Jacobs and Steven Wernick as well as those of David Cooper and Shawn Zevit underscore the urgency and proportions of the current challenge and demonstrate how, when the needs of the hour are responded to with honesty and creativity, new possibilities can emerge.

This discussion is radical because these leaders are not simply maintaining their covenantal commitments but are boldly rethinking even the most fundamental aspects of their institutions. Each of the participants in this Roundtable display a willingness to reimagine the organizational structure, vision, and mission as well as the changes in rabbinic training necessary to meet the new challenges.

With this kind of openness and brave spirit we can envision many new possibilities and many more initiatives like those described here. We should soon see more cross-denominational conversations that reevaluate synagogue structure and rabbinic training; we should nurture more experimentation and more collaborative projects. The implications of these ventures should lead to the expansion of more intensive leadership study and training programs that intellectually and spiritually challenge and nourish leaders so that they can deepen their thinking and practice. Every rabbi, not just a small minority, should engage in what HUC Vice President Michael Marmur calls a “60-year curriculum,” one that begins but doesn’t end with rabbinic school.

The implementation of all of these grander visions, however, will require sustaining the communal discomfort of uncertainty while paradigms shift toward the future and while, at the same time, age-old covenants are renewed.

Further Reading

Texts on Jewish Emergent

Avedon, Joshua. 2008. “Where Would Darwin Daven?Forward, December 4. (accessed April 21, 2009).

Belzer, Tobin. “Fluid Identification: San Francisco’s Mission Minyan.”  2011. Sh’ma 42/685 (December), pp.5-6.’s-mission-minyan/

Belzer, Tobin. “The Independent Minyan and Havurah Phenomena: Everything Old is New Again.” 2009.

Belzer, Tobin, and Donald E. Miller. 2007. “Synagogues That Get It: How Jewish Congregations are Engaging Young Adults.” S3K Report 2, (Spring). Los Angeles and New York: Synagogue 3000, 2007.

Bronznick, Shifra. 2010. “D.I.Y. Judaism: A Roundtable on Independent Minyanim. Zeek: A Journal of Jewish Thought and Culture (Spring), pp. 22-32

Cohen, Steven M., and Ari Y. Kelman. 2007. The Continuity of Discontinuity: How Young Jews Are Connecting, Creating, and Organizing Their Own Jewish Lives. New York: Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.

Cohen, Steven M., and Lawrence A. Hoffman. 2011. A. Different Growth for Different Folks: The ND [Next Dor] Pilot Sites in Action. S3K Report 10 (April). Los Angeles and New York: Synagogue 3000, 2011.

Cohen, Steven M., J. Shawn Landres, Elie Kaunfer, and Michelle Shain, “Emergent Jewish Communities and Their Participants: Preliminary Findings from the 2007 National Spiritual Communities Study,” Synagogue 3000 and Mechon Hadar, November 2007,

Dreyfus, Ben. Hilchot Pluralism series.  Mah Rabu (blog).

Jumpstart, The Natan Fund, and The Samuel Bronfman Foundation. 2009. The Innovation Ecosystem: Emergence of a New Jewish Landscape. Los Angeles and New York: Jumpstart, The Natan Fund, and The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.

Jumpstart, The Natan Fund, and The Samuel Bronfman Foundation. 2011. The Jewish Innovation Economy: An Emerging Market for Knowledge and Social Capital. Los Angeles and New York: Jumpstart, The Natan Fund, and The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.

Kaunfer, Elie. Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2010.

Landres, Shawn. 2008. “Recentering the Kehilah: Gender and Sexual Identity in Jewish Emerging Communities.” Sh’ma 38/647 (January), pp.10-11.

Landres, Shawn, and Ryan K. Bolger. 2007. “Evangelical-Jewish Dialogue: An Emerging Conversation.” Sh’ma 37/638 (May), pp. 11-12.

Landres, J. Shawn, and Ryan K. Bolger. 2007. “Emerging Patterns of Interreligious Conversation: a ChristianJewish Experiment.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 612:1, pp. 225239.

Nussbaum, Rachel. 2010. “Demanding More of Community.” Sh’ma 40/666, pp. ??-??.

Nussbaum, Rachel. 2011. “Building Jewish Community With Intentionality: The Cooperative Model.” Journal of Jewish Communal Service. 86:1-2 (Spring), pp. 102-109.

Nussbaum, Rachel. 2012. “A Horizontal Table.” Sh’ma 42/688, pp. 3-4.

Tucker, Ethan. 2007. Tucker, Ethan. 2007.  “What Independent Minyanim Teach us about the Next Generation of Jewish Communities. “ Zeek (Spring/Summer), pp.39-47.

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Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and coordinator of the Christian Leadership Initiative, also teaches at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. For nearly two decades,
she directed national and international leadership study programs for rabbis and lay leaders of all denominations both at the Hartman Institute and at CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning
and Leadership. Sabath Beit-Halachmi earned a doctorate at the Jewish Theological Seminary and served the pluralistic Congregation Shirat HaYam on Nantucket Island for thirteen years.

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