Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Chapter 3; Part One: Study

Chapter Three: Responding to Demographic Changes:

The solutions to all these issues are not secret. Both scholars and those working “in the field” have written extensively on the issues and the solutions are available to anyone who wants to look for them. I include a bibliography at the end of this book. Any of them will prove my points and add the authors' own experiences to those that I will share. There are books, online resources and actual congregations who have put these kinds of practices into use and have met with great success.

Responding To Demographic Changes: Part One - Study
We live in an age of vast entertainment resources. Just sixty years ago, most towns had only one or two movie theaters, television had limited programming on just three networks, and radio stations played music mostly to get people to buy the artists' records. We have come a LOOOOONG way. Movie theaters can have anywhere from 4 to 20 screens showing a wide variety of first run movies. On almost any given week, there will be one movie that has been just released and others still running strong. Each week groups of movies will be released on DVD or Blu Ray for home viewing. A vast library of old movies are available online and by mail for less than the price of a movie ticket. Television is now viewed on Home Theaters where there are hundreds of programs, including a vast array of sporting events, that can be watched at any given moment. DVR boxes insure that even if you can't watch the program at a given time, you can watch it whenever you wish. Cable companies and the internet feature television programming on demand, starting and stopping the programs as the viewer sees fit. Records became CDs and now even the CD is giving way to MP3 players where one can buy only the songs one prefers, put them in the order one wishes (or play them in a random order) and watch music videos on demand. Finally, downtown venues have been restored with shops, restaurants and pubs that offer a wide variety of cuisines and entertainment every night of the week. Why in the world would anyone want to attend a social event at a synagogue?

Yet this vast entertainment network is, in the end, a rather vapid place to spend time. From time to time there are important films, documentaries and anthems that spur increased thought and may inspire us to change some of our behaviors. For the most part, serious discussions of important ideas are not part of “entertainment” that sells. This leaves an opening for synagogues and other religious institutions to reach out on matters of importance to individual lives. There are eternal questions that still haunt the human mind: What is the meaning of life? What do our lives mean? How can I make my life more meaningful? What are the real core values in life? How can I apply them in my own life? What does it mean to have a spiritual life? How can I make my life more spiritual? How does God fit into my life? Does God care at all about the things that I do? Can I talk to God and would God talk to me? Why do my friends get sick? Why did he die? What will happen when I die? How can I be a better parent to my children? How can I be a better child to my parents? What is real love about? Does my belief in God change the way I live my life? Why or why not? Is there a direction for my life? How can I find it? Why am I so insecure and where does inner strength come from? These are just some of the questions that, in spite of the vast information networks that we have at our disposal, we just can't seem to find the answers.

We often forget the reason why there is religion in the world. It is not, as Marx would have us believe, that religion is the way we keep the masses docile and controlled. If this were so, religion would have disappeared long ago. The reason people keep coming back to religious questions is because these questions speak to the very essence of what it means to be human. When we can't find answers to these important questions, we feel our lives are empty. To bring meaning and direction to life by helping people to answer these questions is one of the most vital roles that religion plays. Synagogues are in decline at the time when Jews need them the most. Jews are reaching out to synagogues and are distressed when they stop in and don't find the answers they seek. When they come looking for the meaning of life they find instead outdated social programming, educational seminars for children or at the level of children and worship services that do nothing to address their needs. It is time for synagogues to stop focusing on Religious School and pre-school and get on with a new agenda to meet the needs of a vast component of the Jewish community in America.

I begin with one of the most neglected parts of synagogue programming, Adult Education. It is usually the poor afterthought of the Education Committee. It has little or no budget. It is taught by the Rabbi and seems to be eternally for beginners. It customarily starts out with a dozen students but eventually attrition brings that down to about eight or fewer. Very few of the synagogue “insiders” ever attend Adult Education courses.

The evidence around us,however, is that adult studies is one of the core reasons people get involved in Judaism. Jewish education is not solely about educating children, it is also about educating adults. The Talmud asks: if one does not have the money to afford a teacher for both the parent and the child, who should get the teacher? We might think that the children need the education but the Talmud insists that the parent should be given the education and then that parent, can turn and instruct his/her child. One reason after school religious training never produced long lasting learning, is because parents and children saw it as something only for children. When children did not see their parents engaged in Jewish learning, they quickly understood that Jewish education could not be very important. One of the best ways to get our children interested in Jewish education, is to have them see their parents engaged in serious Jewish learning.

I can point to many examples of how serious Jewish education is now making a difference in the Jewish community. There is “Limmud,” the week long learning fest in Great Britain, that is making inroads here in the United States, advanced teachers teaching adults by the hundreds. Hadar, the congregation of young professionals in New York City has started a Yeshiva that attracts young adult students, some of whom have given up a year's worth of time to study full time. The Drisha Institute of Jewish Studies was one of the early groups attracting adults to serious Jewish studies. The Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, open to those willing to take a year off and study for the sake of study, now has a program that is close to full every year and a popular summer program as well. Pardes Yeshiva and the Shalom Hartman Institute also are riding this wave, (perhaps were the earliest forerunners of this phenomenon). These programs are not rabbinical school nor are they directed to future rabbinical school students. These programs have created a wave of young students looking for advanced Jewish learning (although, I might add that some of these students have indeed gone on to rabbinical school). Ikar, the successful congregation in Los Angeles, CA requires members to get involved with Jewish education and their membership continues to grow. The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, has started a “Mitzvah Initiative” training educators how to teach Mitzvot to adults.

Take this example given by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner from the book, “Making Prayer Real” [ed. by Rabbi Mike Comins, Jewish Lights Press, 2010, p. 172] “We announced here at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco that we're going to do a class in how to read the Hebrew Bible in Hebrew. We're going to go word by word with verses from the weekly portion and analyze them from the viewpoint of syntax and grammar with a little theology. Thirty sessions; the whole year. Students would have to buy an Alcalay dictionary for 120 dollars, a Hebrew Bible without English, a grammar book – 200 dollars, all told. We figured we'd get maybe a dozen people. One hundred fifteen people signed up. I think that if we tell Jews , “...We're going to stop treating you like dummies,” they will respond. Reform Judaism, alas, is close to going down in history as the preschool of Judaism. It's one thing to have to have a low entry threshold; it's another to dumb it so down there's nothing left.”

Rabbi Eli Kaunfer in his book, “Empowered Judaism” [Jewish Lights Press, 2010; p.152-3]writes; “In my own journey with Jewish study as an adult, I have come to appreciate the ways in which an unfiltered encounter with Jewish texts is a form of spiritual practice. As I became an Empowered Jewish learner, I spent many hours talking about this with my teachers.... Torah study opens us up to the notion that there is something larger than ourselves in the universe. Part of the daunting task of learning Torah is recognizing just how much there is to learn. The more we learn, the more we feel there is to learn: we cannot know it all; we cannot control it all; there will always be worlds we have no access to. This is a serious corrective to a contemporary culture that makes claims to being able to access every scrap of information. The Internet confers the illusion that everything is knowable, that it is all available for searching. But Torah study is a regular exercise in humility, a reminder that we are not able to grasp the overwhelming complexity of God's world.”

There are congregations that offer extensive lecture series on interesting topics. These lectures are important and the information they bring to the community is worthwhile. But ongoing serious learning is still far from the conscience of most American synagogues. This has to change. Serious study of traditional Jewish texts should be one of the most crucial parts of synagogue life. One of the names for a synagogue in Hebrew is “Beit Midrash” a house of study, a school; not a school for children but a place where adults can go to learn.

An opportunity to invest more of our resources into adult education presents itself with the development of Hebrew Language Charter Schools. Many congregations are fearful of these new enterprises, fearful that these schools will undermine the basic reasons for the after school religious training that has been the backbone of synagogue life for so long. It is my opinion that synagogues should take charge of the after school programs at these Charter Schools, adding the specifically Jewish content (customs and ceremonies, holidays and rituals) that can't be taught legally during school hours. This would free the congregations (and their budgets) to work to improve what is offered to adults.

The yeshiva model has met with a great deal of success. The style is called “hevruta learning” and it involves engaging a text directly with one or more study partners (usually no more than four in a group) who grapple with the text, who share ideas, thoughts and experience with each other to gain a better understanding of what the text is about. This is followed by the “shiur” the lecture by the teacher who teaches the principles and practices that can help the students find a deeper understanding of the text. This dynamic, between students and then between the students and the teacher, insures that the studies are kept at a very high level.

Sometimes a teacher is not needed. When adults from various backgrounds in both secular and Jewish education gather to read a text, they may find that the discussion as they read together and seek to understand the text is all that is needed to discover meanings deeper than would come from reading Torah or Rabbinic literature alone. If a passage should come to the attention of the group that they cannot make sense of at all, they can then seek the guidance of a more advanced teacher or professor to help them over the hump and to share with them whatever information may be missing that would unlock the meaning from the text.

We need to make this learning available to our adult students 24/6 (let's give the computer one day off!). These classes should be recorded as MP3 files or video of the class should be recorded as MP4 files and posted to the education page of the synagogue website. Audio recordings could then be downloaded and played back during commutes to work, errands around town or while working out at the gym. Video can be watched while on the treadmill at home or when evening television is more vapid than usual. The “recordings” could be watched on a laptop at the airport or downloaded and watched during a flight. It can also be shared with friends, and links could be sent to anyone who may have an interest. We have to think beyond the classroom to make Jewish learning as easy as using an iPod. With the new cell phone technology, both audio and video can be played on a smart phone; and questions about the lesson can be emailed back to the teacher using the link on the web page.

Successful synagogues are those where adults can gather to grow in their religious learning. It is not about current events or news analysis; these are done better every day by the pundits on cable TV and the internet. But when it comes to finding personal meaning in sacred texts, the synagogue is the place Jews will go. If we offer what they are looking for, they will make their home in our congregations. If we don't, they will go wherever they need to go to find the place where serious study is applied to serious spiritual questions. The age of the participants and their backgrounds are not important. I believe that this kind of adult study will help bind a congregation together in a common bond of learning, and that the stratification of ages that seems to be an eternal part of synagogue life, can be broken down as students of all ages study together. Adult students will do the work needed to keep up with the class. Would you like to attend a study group like this? It is time our congregations started offering up advanced Jewish Text classes. The sooner the better.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Chapter 2 Part Five: Demographic Challenges

The Problem Part Five: Demographic Challenges

We can see that the problems I have listed have their roots in many different places. In some cases they began with decisions made by community leaders over 50 years ago. In other cases different events were caused by challenges that remain beyond the control of leadership. Let me summarize the the issues so far.

Young Jews - The Jewish community is changing in many different ways. Young Jews are moving from the suburbs back into inner cities. While it is true that as they have children, the cost of housing in the city makes it hard for them to find appropriate living space at reasonable costs, but instead of going out to familiar suburbs, they are moving to homes closer to the cities to keep commuting costs down and they are not interested in the larger, “McMansions” that their parents once aspired to own. They prefer living in neighborhoods with local shopping and short walks to provide for the needs of their families without increasing their “carbon footprint”.

Baby Boomers - In addition as the Baby Boom generation aged, they were looking for something very different than what their parents had required. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, as Baby Boomers began to retire, what these new empty nesters and retirees were looking for was very different from what their parents and grandparents desired. Just twenty or thirty years ago, Senior adults were younger (retiring around age 65) and wanting to live with other seniors their own age. These large senior communities are now filled with residents in their 80's and 90's. Baby Boomers had no interest in these large senior communities. In spite of the low cost of these condominiums, Today's retirees are looking to live in communities of mixed ages. They do not see themselves as “old” and they are not ready for a life of tennis and golf. Retirees today go on adventure tours, travel all over the world, and may still be scuba diving, mountain hiking and have extended workout routines at the gym. They are older, retiring from their work after age 70 even if they can retire earlier. In fact, some retire younger, and then start a new career, working another ten or 15 years before retiring for good.

Large condominiums that once catered to Jewish retirees, now have half the number of Jews they once held and Jews are not moving in to replace those who move away to be closer to children or who go to assisted living. In Florida, large senior only congregations are shrinking fast and closing their doors because the same boomer retirees that won't live in 55+ communities, won't join a 55+ congregation. Since new communities are mixed ages, these senior congregations without religious schools and programming only for seniors, are failing at a faster rate then the mixed age congregations. The need for senior congregations as completely disappeared.

American Families - Sixty years ago, the core membership of American, non-Orthodox congregations was mostly families where the parents were married in their early twenties and were having children by age 25 or so. This demographic has also disappeared. More and more Jewish families are waiting much longer to get married. Some wait until they are finished with Graduate school at age 26 or 27, other wait until their career is on track, waiting to get married until they are well into their thirties. Many young Jews don't see any reason at all to marry, choosing to live together with their partner for anywhere from 5-9 years. Some Rabbis have reported that young Jews who marry, only marry their partner when they decide to have children. Thus we see many couples returning from their honeymoon pregnant. If they are in their late thirties when they finally marry, they will only be entering their children into preschool when they are over forty. If a synagogue only offered programs and schools for parents with children, they now have to wait an additional 20 years for the family to join. Cost conscious parents in their forties wonder why they have to join a synagogue for religious training when they have lived without the synagogue in their life for so many years already.

Religious Denominations - Denominations in American Jewish Life are also in decline. While there are significant philosophical differences between Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, American Jews today particularly young Jews, really don't care very much about these differences. Young Jews are not concerned with “labels”. Jews today will join a synagogue of any denomination as long as it has a program that is of interest to them, an educational program that stimulates them and makes them feel welcome. In fact, many Jews would even join an Orthodox congregation if these conditions were met. While the leadership of synagogues and national organizations can point to what they consider to be real differences between the denominations, the public just does not care. The amount of Jewish law required, egalitarian issues, personal responsibility for practice, and creative prayer, that represent the practical side of denominational issues, these are not issues for Jews anymore. They will follow whatever course a synagogue requires, but only if it meets their needs in other ways. These Jews take what they need from their synagogue and then decide how much more they want to be involved in other aspects of synagogue life.

Inertia - In spite of all these changes, American synagogues refuse to change. Most of the problem is inertia, the people who are in charge, the lay leadership and the clergy, are happy with the programming just as it is and do not want to make any changes. Often they have spent years getting things just the way they want them and fail to see that the challenges that they were facing long ago, are not the challenges today. They continue to fight yesterday's wars, when the needs and challenges today are vastly different. Synagogues remain school centered in spite of evidence that there are fewer children and they are reaching them much later. Synagogues remain focused on married couples in spite of evidence that they are not reaching the coveted younger demographic because they are mostly single. The programming of a synagogue is still built on social programs that are of little interest to Jews of all ages. For all these reasons, synagogues are in decline.

It doesn't have to be this way at all. There are many ways congregations can meet the challenges of the Jewish community in the twenty-first century. It is time to examine the solutions.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Chapter 2 Part Four: Of Cliques and Fiefdoms

The Problem:  Part Four - Of Cliques and Fiefdoms

There is a kind of cycle in the time-lines of not for profit organizations. Founders get things started. A second round of leaders take the vision of the founders and grow the organization. When the vision is finally fulfilled, instead of re-visioning the program, the leadership holds the line thinking that the vision of the founders will be carried forever into the future. These leaders become entrenched in their roles in the organization; they resist any effort to change or update the vision in response to the changing needs around them, and so the organization goes into decline until it is forced to close or is revitalized when a new group with a new vision finally takes over. I often point to the March of Dimes, an organization dedicated to ending the scourge of polio in this country,as an example of having to regenerate the goals of an organization. The March of Dimes was founded as an organization dedicated to ending the scourge of polio. After many years, it was blessed with having met its goal. Polio was defeated through a vaccine and a great killer of children was no more. The March of Dimes no longer had a cause. It had a choice to close up and congratulate itself on a job well done, or revision itself. It chose to revision the organization and now it is a prominent organization working to eliminate birth defects in children.

Synagogues (and other houses of worship) are not exceptions to this time-line. With the right leaders and vision, a religious organization can experience great growth and success. When these leaders fail to pass on the baton to the next generation of leadership, when they become more interested in keeping their duties and protecting their “fiefdoms” the organization gets stale and goes into decline. New leadership will either have to work hard to break up these fiefdoms, or they will go elsewhere and start their own organization. Either way it is bad news for synagogues. These leadership cliques will eventually tire of the work and wonder why nobody is helping them in their duties anymore. Without the ability to work their way up in the organization and without any input in re-visioning the organization, young leadership just goes where they are appreciated and the remaining leadership eventually gets older and unable to meet new challenges.

Insiders and Outsiders, Veterans and Newbies
Synagogues, like many other houses of worship, have insiders and outsiders. The insiders are the “regulars” who attend almost every social and religious function and usually are the ones doing the planning and work to get the programs going. They are usually angry at the outsiders who never support the synagogue with the same level of commitment that the insiders have.

The issue here is less about not wanting to give up “turf” and more about being “welcoming”. The insiders share history, experiences and friendship and those who are outside are left in the cold. Insiders come to events, sit together, know when and where “the good stuff” (the better cake, books, seats etc.) can be found and make sure it is all reserved for them. Outsiders stand around looking and wondering if they will be welcomed into the inside or if they will be forever on the outside.

I once was in a community, looking for a rabbinic position when I was told that the real insiders in this synagogue were those who have lived in the city for three generations or more. I realized that as their rabbi, even I would remain an outsider! I decided to take a position elsewhere.

Without, what my friend Dr Ron Wolfson of the American Jewish University calls a, “culture of welcoming”, a synagogue is doomed to fail. We live in times where everyone has many choices as to how to spend their “spare” time. More and more, Jews do not waste time trying to “break in” to a group of insiders. They go instead to the congregation that makes them feel welcome.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Chapter 2 Part 3: Buildings and Locations

The Problem Part 3: Buildings and Locations

In the 1920's most synagogues were in urban areas where the working class Jews could be found. Large U.S. cities had large Jewish populations centered in inner city housing. After World War II, Jews joined the rest of the American population in the move to the suburbs. Inner cities remained slums inhabited by new immigrants and poverty stricken minorities. For the Jewish community, for the next 40 - 50 years, the suburbs were the place where Jews lived and where synagogues were built.

And some of the most amazing synagogues were built at the beginning of this period. While urban synagogues decayed, suburban synagogues were being designed by some of our country's greatest architects; extraordinary cathedrals of glass and stone able to accommodate thousands of Jews who would attend annually for the High Holy Days as well as for somewhat smaller groups for Shabbat and holidays. High bimas and fixed pews were the style. Fuel was cheap so heating and lighting were extravagant.

When the fuel shortages of the 1970's hit, congregations began to realize the problems with these high maintenance buildings. Heating and air conditioning became costly. The fancy architecture was expensive to repair and replace. Falling memberships meant that large parts of the building would be unoccupied most of the day but the large halls made it difficult to just close off one part of the building to save on costs. Large sanctuaries that held hundreds of people were now holding services with 200 or fewer worshipers on a regular basis. Since these sanctuaries were furnished with pews bolted to the floor, it was impossible to use the large room for anything other than a large formal religious service. When the room was in use, the whole room had to be illuminated and heated/cooled. The cavernous halls only highlighted the small number of people in attendance. When a family celebrated a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or a wedding, the number of people could fill the hall, but on a regular Shabbat, the numbers were shrinking and the sanctuary was looking sadly empty.

As the number of children became smaller, due to the decrease in the size of Jewish families, there were also empty classrooms and meetings rooms. As staff positions were cut, the number of empty offices began to rise. But the worst was yet to come.

At the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, large sections of the inner city began to gentrify. Old neighborhoods were rebuilt and young Jews began moving into the apartments and condominiums to shorten their commute to and from work and to reinvent the urban lifestyle. Old inner city synagogues began to see some revival and some actually were able to renovate and take advantage of this new urban community. Since this revitalization was being organized by young Jews, many of whom were professionals, the revitalized congregations did not look at all like their suburban counterparts. This has proven to be the testing ground for what the new synagogue of the twenty-first century would look like. And later we will examine some of these congregations in detail.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Chapter 2 Part 2: Finances

      The Problem: Part Two - Finances
The school was considered a kind of “loss leader” in the normal synagogue budget, in that it was heavily subsidized by all the membership, even those without children or those with grown children. Educating children was seen as the basic purpose of a congregation. Since virtually all congregations had this kind of a policy, we created a community where the vast majority of Jews, at least at some point in their lives, had been a member of a congregation. The average membership for a family lasted, on average, about seven years, which would give these families time to celebrate the rites of passage with their two children and then, if the children did not get involved in a youth group, or the parents did not become involved in synagogue leadership, they would quit the congregation and move on to other things in their lives. Most formal Jewish education stopped at age thirteen and youth groups settled on a more informal kind of learning for those who stayed on.

The decisions regarding membership insured that the financial health of a non-Orthodox congregation depended upon the religious school. In the 1950's, during the height of the baby boom, there were more than enough children to fill the schools. But as that baby boom passed through to college and beyond, the birth rate of the American Jewish community began to fall. Jewish parents waited longer to have fewer children. As we stated before, today, many mainstream congregations still think that parents of children join the synagogue only to provide a Bar or Bat Mitzvah for their children. But as parents wait longer to have children, there is now a delay of some 20 years before these parents who still wish to join a mainstream congregation, find a need to join. Where once dues could be collected from parents in their twenties, now the parents are in their forties and after living 20 years without needing a synagogue, they are looking for new ways to avoid joining altogether. With the decline in membership, the decline in finances is inevitable. Since the balance of synagogue financing depends a great deal upon donations, without a membership, donations are also in decline. Thus, my colleagues at the JTSA forum I mentioned above, still were looking for parents to join their schools and then join their congregation. But the very young Jews they covet so much, are not parents, and are not even married! It is a demographic that has disappeared! As synagogue membership continues to age, the drop in donations and support gets more and more acute. Synagogues today struggle to cut budgets and staffing as their membership declines, but this only accelerates the drop in membership since without the funding for new programs and the volunteers and staff to run them, they get stuck in a downward spiral. Less funding for programs, less programs to reach out to the community, less members to the congregation, more budget cuts, less programs, less members etc. etc. The actual costs of running a synagogue are not all that flexible. Most of the real costs are fixed. This financial problem is a challenge that cannot be solved by merely cutting the budget. Synagogues should be enhancing the income by getting more members to join, but the congregations don't change their culture to attract the singles and families without children that they need. The financial crisis is so great in some communities that what may be needed is an infusion of “venture capital” to turn the spiral around.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Chapter 2 Part 1: The Problem

    Chapter Two The Problem – not just for synagogues
I am a Rabbi and I write from the perspective of the synagogue. I am a Conservative Rabbi and so my experience is in Conservative congregations. But this does not mean that those of other denominations will not learn anything of interest in this book. The fact is that organized religion all over the United States is in decline and there are many churches, mosques, ashrams, temples and meeting halls that can read their own issues into what I am trying to identify and the best ways to meet the challenges that we all face. I know that each religion has its own parameters that restrict its reactions to changes in the world. Some faiths have difficulty with the expanded role of women in the world. Some religions do not accept members of different races or sexual orientation. Some are able to ask their members for money directly; others rely on free will offerings and are forbidden to ask for money at all. Some Jewish denominations have different rules regarding changes in the service and the use of musical instruments on Shabbat. I only hope that each person reading this will find something that they can apply to their own house of worship, understanding the issues better and gaining insight as to where the answers to their problems may be found. Just taking notes and presenting them at a board meeting will not bring about the kind of changes I think the religious world needs. Each group will have to examine the issues for themselves and decide which course will be the best course for who they are and for their particular denomination. The issue, to me, is to get our best minds working on solving the problems rather then wringing our hands over what we have lost.

What are the problems that synagogues face? To some extent they are the same problems that we have always faced. Issues of membership, finances, caring for our facilities, helping new families feel welcome and older leadership that does not make room for new leaders. While the problems may be old, there are some new twists that make dealing with these issues more crucial than ever. We will take them on, one at a time.

      The Problem: Part One - Membership
Finding and retaining members in a synagogue is always a full time job. For synagogue board members and executive directors, membership dues are one of the most important sources of income for an American synagogue, an income line that could represent over half the income in the congregational budget. Membership rolls, therefore are not just for bragging rights; it is one of the most important financial issues that a congregation faces. For most of the twentieth century, the thinking about membership was to offer what families needed and then require them to be members in order to access these programs. In most non-Orthodox synagogues in the 1950's, this meant providing a place for a Bar (and later a Bat) Mitzvah for the families with children at age thirteen. Synagogues responded to this need by creating afternoon religious schools (as a supplement to public schools) to provide the training necessary to prepare the boys ( and later the girls) for this life cycle event. Congregations required membership in the synagogue (a “residency” requirement) to attend the school and required no less than five years of school to “graduate” into the Bar/Bat Mitzvah class. Those who did not meet these educational and “residential” requirements were not permitted to have the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony in the synagogue.

Eventually synagogues began to establish preschools to get families involved longer on the front end and the youth groups joined national organizations to get children involved longer after the Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Jewish summer camps and youth trips to Israel were also created to increase a student's commitment to Judaism and through the children, the commitment of their parents. The problem always was that the children would not take their studies seriously unless the parents made Jewish studies a priority in the life of the family. Since many families were members only because they wanted the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony in the synagogue, they had many excuses not to support the Jewish education of their children other than the minimum needed for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony.

To be fair, Bar/Bat Mitzvah was not the only reason to join a synagogue. Most congregations were social hubs of the community. There were not just organizational meetings but social events, educational events and community forums that were part of the programming. There were classes in Adult Education for those who may not have had a good Jewish education as a child. (Women were a big part of these classes since the early European Jewish immigrants did not believe in a religious education for girls. As the United States moved toward rights for women, American Jews began to follow suit. Girls soon were accepted into religious schools but the mothers who had been denied the education, were in need of Adult Jewish studies and eventually were prepared for a Bat Mitzvah as adults.) Non-Orthodox congregations were measured by the size of their membership, the larger the membership, the “better” the synagogue. Some people did prefer smaller congregations but the larger ones also built large beautiful buildings and offered more benefits for the family looking for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah for their children.

Orthodox congregations did not start religious schools. They relied on a loose network of private Jewish day schools to educate their children, schools that incorporated Jewish learning into the general studies curriculum. Since this was a much bigger financial burden to families, Orthodox congregations stayed small for quite some time.

That was then, but this is now. Children, with their time seriously overbooked, spent less and less time in their after school religious programs and slowly synagogues began to decrease the amount of time required for classes from three, to two and finally one day a week, and from six to three to two hours a week. As the divorce rate went up, the amount of time children spent shuttling between parents meant that parents were less interested in losing their precious time with their children to an after school program. Sunday School programs were moved to Saturday. Shabbaton weekend “marathons” were developed to add more hours to the religious school year. Eventually parents began to ask why they needed to have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah service at all (their own Jewish education being rather limited and not seen as something that was responsible for their success) and they began to have parties without the service. Synagogue membership was in decline.

Orthodox congregations, however, began to grow. Populated by those who had a day school Jewish education, they touted their “traditional” approach to Judaism and a more participatory service. The service was not just a Bar/Bat Mitzvah event, but the rite of passage was just one small part of a community spiritual service. Some newly ultra-Orthodox groups began to offer free religious training and Bar/Bat Mitzvah without the educational or “residential” requirements, accepting only donations for their services. The families accepting this “deal” had to accept also that women played little or no role in the Orthodox service and a Bat Mitzvah for girls was out of the question.

As the twenty-first century began, a new wave of demographic changes became apparent. Jews in their twenties were postponing marriage until their late thirties. Sometimes they were living together for more than five years; others were just plain single. There was also an increasing number of divorced parents who found that the congregations they had been a part of for many years, suddenly had nothing for them as singles. Non-Orthodox synagogues were set up for families. None of the programming was suitable for these unmarried young Jews and the older divorced Jews. Synagogue preschools suddenly were seeing parents in their forties. Families were not interested in synagogues until almost 20 years later than families in the 1950's.

It was a demographic perfect storm. The twenty year old parents had turned into forty year old parents, who had already spent almost 20 years outside the synagogue that had no programming at all for these young single Jews. After living 20 years without a synagogue what could a synagogue offer them now? They had lived so long without becoming a member of a synagogue they had no need for dues, or other programs. Even if they wanted a Bar/Bat Mitzvah service they did not see the necessity of five years of dues and five years of religious school. These parents were often willing to have a family service and private tutoring and cut out the synagogue altogether. Synagogues that had built their financial base on young families and the afternoon religious school suddenly saw their membership base get smaller and older and no longer in need of the basic services synagogues were offering. Young Jews who were single and Jews without children had no reason to join a synagogue offering nothing to serve their spiritual and social needs. These young Jews began to look for alternative places where they could pursue these spiritual, educational and social needs.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Preface - Why Is My Shul Broken

1. Preface

When I was a teenager, there was an essay by an anonymous author that we would discuss as part of our Jewish education on the theme of assimilation; it was called

The Last Jew

My name? My name is not important.

Who am I? I am the last Jew. The year is 2124, the place is the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. I am in this museum, in a cage on exhibit. People pass my way, day in and out, staring, pointing, and even sometimes laughing. On the walls surrounding my exhibit are the remnants of a Jewish culture; a talit, a Torah, the books of the Talmud. Each day, as I sit here watching the people pass, I wonder to myself how six and a half million people who existed as Jews a little over a century ago could have possibly vanished. My father and grandfather used to talk with me about the Jewish communities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; about the large populations in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and world-wide organizations like United Synagogue, B'nai B'rith and so many others. I recall my father telling me how successful and prosperous the Jews in America were. And about a land called Israel. And yet, all this has vanished--all this has disappeared. I contemplate the reasons, I recall the events, and I search for an answer. I now believe that I know how the Jews in America and in the world disappeared. Small things at first, things that happened gradually. Jewish families stopped attending Shabbat services, the parents stopped sending their children to religious schools, Hebrew High School, day schools and Bar Mitzvah classes. The Shabbat candles were never lit. My grandfather told me that they were still good Jews--some of them spoke Yiddish, they attended Yom Kippur services, they held a Passover Seder each year. Some of them were Jewish by heart; others by tradition and others by stomach. However, the books tell me that in time, this too, ended. To attend a Kol Nidre service became a chore, not an honor--to hold a Seder became a task, not a joy. The rituals and observances of Judaism began to vanish, and this I believe was the first step. Intermarriage was in order. The Rabbi became a businessman, not a teacher. Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform were quarreling. I was reading of a Rabbi, Mordecai Rosenberg, who demanded that Jews fight for emancipation between the American community and the Jewish community, to put aside all differences. In time, the Jew did become equal. He attained material success, and he achieved sustained equality. The Jew was at the same level socially as any Christian. Hatred toward the Jew soon died off, and nowhere was there heard a shout of bigotry towards the Jew. And with this fight for equality, all differences were put aside, including religious differences. Jews stopped hanging mezuzot on their doors, as it merely proved them different. Jews when asked if they were Jewish, would either give a brisk "no" or no answer at all. They were Americans first. A non-religious Judaism was established in America. Why didn't these people see that a non-religious Judaism couldn't exist? Judaism obviously needs Jews, but also, Jews need Judaism. Without one, the other is dead. Why didn't those people see it? Why did Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews fight?

And then, the final blow to the Jew came. It occurred about 50 years ago, and so I can recall it vividly. The Arab nations around the Jewish State of Israel grew restless and strong. As they have since the beginning of recorded history, the Arab nations wanted Israel destroyed. And they acted. With two nuclear pellets, three and a half million Israelis were obliterated, and the land that had once flowed with milk and honey was now charred beyond fertility. When the news of the incident flashed across the globe, the Jew in America turned his head, denied concern and replied, "Really, what could I have done?" Yet, little over 150 years ago, a man in World War II was supposed to have slaughtered six million Jews in Germany, and my father told me that people swore they would never forget. They promised that they would always support the Jews across the continents. They pledged their donations towards the development of Israel,and they vowed their allegiance for the progress of all

Jews. However, in time the allegiances were forgotten. Any responsibility of the American Jew to Israel was ignored. How forgetful a people can be! When the people lost their pride in themselves, their religion, and their Israel, they lost everything. As it was once said, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" I am the last American Jew. In less than twenty years, I too, will die. And never again will another Jew set foot on this planet.

My G-d, my G-d, where did we forsake you?

A lot has happened in the past half century.

The assimilation that was once such a vital concern for Jews has morphed into a resurgence of Judaism in America. Israel has made peace with two of its most significant neighbors and the world has mostly stepped away from the possibility of a nuclear nightmare. Jewish ritual, especially home rituals are becoming more important and American Jews no longer really see Jews as an “Ever Dying People” (from the essay by Simon Rawidowicz ). In fact, it has become more and more likely that Judaism is going to be around for a long, long time.

But that does not mean that it will continue in exactly the form in which it has always existed. Just as the religion of Biblical Israel, the religion of sacrifices and a hereditary priesthood that is recorded in the Bible, gave way for historical reasons to Rabbinic Judaism, the religion of the Talmud; and just as Rabbinic Judaism made room for Halachic Judaism, born of the Mishna Torah and the Shulchan Aruch; so too we are living in a world where Judaism is going through a great change, one that reflects the changing demographics and vision of the Jewish People.

This does not mean that the Torah, Talmud and the great codes of Jewish Law will no longer govern Jewish life. Nor does it mean that we are ready to give up on Shabbat, Kashrut and Jewish morality. These continue to be, to the surprise of many, the core around which Judaism still is centered. But Judaism is changing. This time it is not persecution or exile that is driving the change. This time change is coming because the world has changed in some fundamental ways that have never really been seen before. Further, these changes are now happening at an unprecedented rate.

The Jewish community, its organizations and institutions, unfortunately, have been slow to keep up and catch up with all the changes that are happening. The result of this failure to progress is that the familiar institutions of the Jewish community, organizations that once guided most aspects of Jewish life in America, are slowly losing their following and there are new institutions and (as we shall see) “non-institutions” that are beginning to take the place of all these organizations that have failed to change. Jewish Community Centers, Jewish Federation, B'nai Brith, are just some of the old school organizations that are struggling to find a role in a new Jewish world.

I am a Rabbi. My world is the synagogue. For over 2000 years, the synagogue has been the central institution of Judaism. It was the school, the religious center and the meeting place for all that was Jewish. Over the last 50 years, however, synagogues in America have been in decline. Membership is falling, budgets are not able to be balanced and denominations, the backbone of synagogue life, are becoming meaningless. The role that synagogues play in American Jewish life is declining. The national synagogue offices are struggling to serve their member organizations and seminaries find themselves wondering what should and should not be included in the curriculum for training the clergy and staff for the synagogue of the future. All of this is happening while more and more Jews are looking for a place to learn and pray in numbers we could never imagine. What is going on? What do Jews today, not just young Jews, but Jews of all ages, what do they want from their faith and why can't they find it at their local synagogue?

All over the United States the clergy and lay leadership of synagogues are asking these questions. And yet, synagogues have been slow to change, slow to keep up and , from where I sit, they keep trying to do “more of the same” figuring that eventually, American Jews will come to their senses and come back to their synagogue.

I recently attended a forum, sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, moderated by the Chancellor that featured four rabbis from the community. Two rabbis were from large, wealthy and influential synagogues. The other two rabbis were young and upcoming influences in the community. There was far more than just an age gap between the two groups. The elder Rabbis kept insisting that if Jews would just put their children into religious school and take that school seriously, then all would be fine with synagogues. The younger colleagues claimed that home rituals and home study would be the wave of the future and synagogues needed to get on board. As I listened to both groups explain their positions, I realized how much my own thinking had changed. I am friends with both of my colleagues who had started their careers just a few years before I was ordained. I once agreed with their position. After spending a year with younger colleagues I began to pay attention to a growing body of research that told me that the old way was gone and it was not going to come back. There is a new kind of Judaism that is growing right under our noses and I began to pay attention to it, and to point out the issues to those who insisted that Judaism would not change.

I wrote in my synagogue bulletin in October of 2010: “A woman came up to me after Selichot services this year and said, “When I saw the new book for Selichot, I was upset that the traditional book would not be used. I was used to that book and didn't want to change. But now that I have used the new book, I just wanted to tell you that I think it is wonderful.” I thanked her for the compliment.

A colleague of mine took a class toward his doctorate and, just before Rosh Hashana, accidentally erased all his notes from his laptop computer. He needed to use those notes to write a paper for the class and in the waning minutes before the High Holy Days, he realized that the notes were gone and he would have to rely on his recordings of the class and the notes of others to finish his paper. He told the story to his congregation and then added, “What happened to my notes is in fact, what happens to each of us regarding life. We stand here on the cusp of a new year, 5771, and everything, every moment of year 5770 is gone, passed by, never to be experienced again. There is nothing we can do to bring those moments back. Oh, there are impressions and memories, just like I, of course, remember some of the points made in class. Like my lost notes, we cannot hold on to time.”

There are still members of Temple Emeth who believe that if we do everything like we used to do, then we will grow and become, again, as successful as we used to be. I don't blame anyone for thinking this way; Jews in congregations all over this country are trying like crazy to re-create the way synagogues used to be. The problem is that Jews are not the way they used to be. The Jewish community is not the way it used to be. America has come a long way since 1950 and is not the way it used to be either. Anyone who has run their own business knows, that you can't live off what used to be. If you don't innovate, update and/or supplement past successes, you begin to fall behind the competition. This does not mean we have to throw away all that came before, but we need to make it new, improved and better for new people to create their own memories around it.”

Recently I attended a screening of the movie, 100 Voices, where Cantors visiting Poland admitted that the music of the liturgy that they were bringing back to Poland, no longer resonated with congregations today. The changes are real and important to lay leadership, clergy and common “Jews in the pews”. The changes cover almost every aspect of synagogue and organizational life, but they remain true to the core of what Judaism has stood for since the time of the Torah and the Rabbis who interpreted it. Just as the sages of antiquity tailored Judaism to the needs of Jews after the destruction of the Temple, we need to reinterpret Judaism to suit the needs of of Jews in the face of extraordinary demographic and social change.

I have stopped being frightened and have started to be open to the new possibilities. I now preach and prod my colleagues, my national organization and lay leadership to pay attention and embrace the new expressions of faith that are now growing so quickly. But I have come to realize that there is too much information to put in one lecture, one sermon or one seminar. It is time to organize the entire process; to see what is changing, why it is changing and how synagogues can change to meet the challenges and opportunities that the future is presenting.

I want to be clear. There is nothing in this book that is original to me. I have built on the experiences of colleagues, professors and teachers who have been working on this for at least the past ten years and who have shown, without a doubt, the need for a different kind of synagogue for a new and different age. I thank these teachers for their work and hope I will do them honor through my writing. I will reference their work and the influence they have had on my thinking. With this book, I hope to make clear to Rabbis, Synagogue professionals and lay leadership the direction we all need to take if we are to create a synagogue for the world in which we live rather than the world of the 1950's.

One final point. This is not an indictment against Rabbis, Cantors, Synagogue Presidents, Synagogue Boards of Directors nor Ritual Committees. Nobody, as far as I can tell, has gone out of their way to undermine and destroy the structure of the Synagogue. In fact, everyone has worked very hard to preserve and promote all the synagogues represent in Judaism. The world has changed in ways that nobody predicted. We are all working hard, doing our best serving the Jewish Community. It is my hope that this book will help Synagogue lay leadership and Clergy rethink their response to the changing needs and perhaps find a path to the future that will not only insure a future for the Jewish Community in the United States, but will be a future that they too will want to live in. I hope I will bring hope and light to the issues and will have a positive impact on Jewish Life.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

My Sweet Lord


One of my favorite Religion writers is Lisa Miller of Newsweek magazine. In the double issue of Newsweek (May 24& May 31, 2010) she wrote an article about Yoga and its Hindu roots. ( ) I do recommend the entire article but I warn any Jew who reads it that it might make you think that if Yoga is a Hindu practice, that may make it too pagan for Jews to participate in any way. Judaism is vehemently anti pagan, we are forbidden to take part in any activity that is connected to paganism, so if you love Yoga, you might want to stay ignorant of its Hindu roots. Hinduism clearly falls under Judaism's definition of paganism.

The question that Ms. Miller asks however, is an important question. Can we co-opt rituals from other faiths and use them in our own way for our own purposes? In fact, Judaism has done this many times in our lengthy history. Clearly the Lulav and Etrog have been borrowed from pagan rituals. Much of biblical sacrifices was taken from the rituals of the people who lived around the People of Israel. Circumcision may have been borrowed from Egypt and much of our laws in relation to conversion seem to come from Roman common law.

The article then quotes a professor of religion at Boston University, Stephen Prothero, the author of a new book “God is Not One” who has this quote, “The American creative, materialistic, pluralistic impulse allows religion here to grow and change, taking on new and unimagined shapes.” It got me thinking about how American Judaism has been received in Israel. It is a topic that is never far from my mind, especially after reading the news stories coming from Israel over the past weeks: about how non-fundamentalist Judaism is being walked on by a bill in the Knesset, about a Conservative/Massorti woman in Israel assaulted for having the marks from tephillin still on her arm, and the latest example of harassment by the Haredi toward women wanting to pray at the Western Wall in a non-fundamentalist fashion.

I began to see why these ultra Orthodox Jews are so angry at what we have made of our Judaism in America and have now exported to the rest of the world. It is an example of the “American creative, materialistic, pluralistic impulse” at work in Judaism. What Conservative Judaism has added to the Jewish faith is something that is a unique addition, one that requires American Jews to bring it to the Jewish table.

I am sure that there are those who would see these additions to Judaism; egalitarianism, liberalism in ritual and in Halacha (Jewish Law) and the establishment of homosexuality as no longer being an “abomination” in Judaism, as examples of how American Jews have “watered down” what Judaism stands for and have breached Jewish Law in ways that have severed any connection to what “real” Judaism is all about. And yet, it does not take a very sophisticated examination of the last 2000 years of Jewish history to see that in every place that Jews have lived, they have brought something from the local culture into Judaism. The next time you see a Haredi Jew who says that Judaism never changes, ask him where Judaism picked up the long black coat, the fur hat, and the belt he is wearing. I can promise you that they are not indigenous clothing worn by the Sages of the Talmud. (who probably dressed like Romans, who are also not a Jewish sect).

There is a story of a man in Krakaw that dreams of a treasure buried near a bridge in Budapest. He goes to Budapest and finds the bridge but it is guarded by soldiers. He tells the captain of the guard that he had this dream about a treasure buried under the bridge. The captain laughs at him and says that he does not believe in dreams, if so he would be in Krakaw looking under a stove for treasure. The man thanks him, goes home and finds the treasure under his own stove. The moral of the story is that the treasure is in Krakaw but knowledge of the treasure is in Budapest. Sometimes we have to go far afield to find the information we need to move ahead in life. The same applies to faith. Sometimes we have to go into exile to find the knowledge we need to keep our faith growing and meaningful, and not stagnant and irrelevant for modern living. American Jews have added, in our own unique way, a new dimension to world Jewry. I don't think that this is a bad thing at all, and the “purists” who think that by holding at bay any changes at all are making our faith poorer and less relevant.

A Judaism that continues to struggle with modernity, from America, from Europe or in Israel is a living, vibrant faith.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Turn! Turn! Turn!

A season for everything, a time for every experience under heaven...
A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted...
A time for tearing down and a time for building up …
A time for keeping and a time for discarding...
A time for silence and a time for speaking... [Ecclesiastes 3:1-8]

All across the country, synagogues are finding themselves in trouble. In these economic hard times, it is no surprise that donations to religious organizations are down and that synagogues are facing an economic squeeze. But it is not the economy that is creating the bulk of this problem. The real trouble that congregations are finding is a drop in membership and a lack of concern by the larger Jewish community.

It is not a problem unique in the Jewish community to synagogues. Federations and Jewish communal organizations that rely on donations are also feeling pressure. Without a credible number of volunteers to assist any Jewish organization, all of our communal institutions are at risk.

The reason for this drop in interest in synagogues and in the Jewish community, is the result of our collective inability to acknowledge a demographic and the spiritual shift that has been going on for the past decade or more. We have closed our eyes to the situation, usually assuming that if we work harder we can win back those who have left us. I am reminded of a story about a fly trying to get through a glass window by trying harder and harder to break through. There is a door open about ten yards in the other direction but the fly does not see the open door and the easy path to all the fly desires. He only hears the voice, “try harder” and so he tries and tries to break through the glass, and he will die on the window sill.

We see the goal clearly, to serve and lift up the Jewish community of America. We seek nothing less than addressing their spiritual, emotional and educational needs. And if they don't know what they need, we will tell them. But they do know what they need, and they are telling us, but we are not listening. Instead of paying attention to their needs we are working harder than ever to give them what they don't want and we are surprised that our efforts do not bear fruit. We are dying in plain view of the goal that we seek but for some reason, we don't change direction or our approach.

What has changed that we don't see? First of all there is the demographic shift. The young, professional Jews today are not similar to those that lived just twenty years ago. Synagogues for the past fifty years have been built on the backs of their schools, with the assumption that if we bring in the children, we will bring in their parents as well. It never really worked right, but it did work. Seventy percent of Jews at any given moment were not members of any synagogue but almost all of them had been part of a synagogue at one point or another in their lives. We took that as a given; that we could not hold onto a member for life, so we tried replacing those who left us with new younger families just starting out. Each family was good, on average, for seven years, about the time it took to have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah for two children. After that, maybe a youth group could keep a family around for a few more years, and if we got lucky and the parents did get involved in the culture of the synagogue, we might have a few more years until they burned out or moved away.

But a funny thing began to happen. Jews who used to marry and have children in their early twenties began to wait, and wait and wait. Suddenly 20 and 30 year old Jews were mostly single or just living together. Marriage was held off until they were in their late thirties and forty year old Jews were parents of preschool age children. Synagogues that relied on their school found that they had to wait an additional decade to attract young families to replace those who were leaving. But ten years of living without a synagogue indicated to these families, that they really didn't need a synagogue at all in their lives. After all, where was the synagogue when they were single? It is a good question. We never reached out to young Jewish singles. Synagogue programming was always for children and families.

Then there is the technological revolution. Jewish communal institutions fell behind as technology surged ahead. Only a handful of synagogues set up websites and those that did, often never took the time to keep them updated. Shining on the home page was a picture of the synagogue building. Followed by information about last year's Purim party. But buildings don't draw in people, nor does an out of date web page. What was minimally needed were pictures of people having fun and a list of things that are happening they would want to attend. But even as new Jewish web pages open, synagogues still find themselves behind the technology curve.

New congregations have been starting out by going viral. Minyanim in Los Angeles, Manhattan and many other cities started out merely by setting up a web page and announcing on the internet that those interested should come to a service. Social networking, Facebook and Twitter quickly gathered an interested crowd. Rather than publishing a Shabbat announcement brochure, most information in these new congregations is spread by website. And yet many established congregations do not invest even minimally in technology and continue to hire personnel who have little or no internet experience. To almost everyone under 50, if something is not on the internet, it does not exist. They don't go to restaurants that don't have an online menu, they don't go to stores that don't have a web page and they have little interest in a synagogue that does not list its activities on the internet.

The Jews we are seeking have needs that are vastly different than the needs of Jews just two decades ago. It is not just about singles vs. married Jews. Young Jews today do not need synagogues or Jewish organizations for their social life. Young and mid-life Jews already have sophisticated networks of friends and favorite things to do. These Jews do not feel limited in life by antisemitism or prejudice. The entire social network of a synagogue, and the networking that used to be such an important part of synagogue life is no longer needed. The internet connects them to friends and entertainment. Cable television offers hundreds of channels to keep them home and movie theaters offer 16 or more screens so that there is always something to do. Young single Jews today live in gentrified sections of downtown, where they are near work and near trendy bars and restaurants. They live in apartment buildings that have fitness centers. There is no way for a synagogue to be the center of their social life.

Jews today wait longer to have children. This means that a Religious school can no longer be the center of synagogue life. For too long our Religious school was the reason a synagogue existed. We wanted to train young Jews figuring that some day they would grow up to be involved in the Jewish community. The Jewish population surveys tell a different story. Religious school did not help raise up a new generation of committed Jews. Many Jews today feel that Religious schools actually drove them away from synagogues. They learned that Jewish education was only for children and when they became an adult, they had no need for Jewish learning. Many times the curriculum of Religious schools never developed beyond fifth grade and the students only learned how to game the system until a Bar or Bat Mitzvah and then they were done. Population surveys tell us that Jewish summer camps and Israel experiences were far more influential to a child's Jewish education than Religious school. Our education of teens was almost non existent, and we have learned that teens and young twenty somethings are at the most critical time in their Jewish education. And we offer them next to nothing.

If these are the problems, what are the solutions. There are three areas that need to become the core mission of a synagogue if it wishes to thrive and grow.

First, we need to actively invite adults into meaningful programs of Adult Jewish Education. Young and mid-life Jewish adults are looking to be engaged by their Judaism. They are looking for teachers who will let them grapple with texts, will encourage them to engage in discussions on how Judaism speaks to the moral, ethical and spiritual life they are seeking. They want to read source texts on how Judaism wants them to act in family, business and social situations. They want to know that Judaism is a living religion that has something to say about what is going on in their lives. Surveys, overviews and beginners' lessons can not be all that we offer. These classes need to be followed up with more advanced level classes. We are all guilty of not providing the advanced level of Judaica that these Jews are requesting. In 1950, many Jewish adults had skipped college to provide for their family during the depression or had joined the U.S. Army to serve in WWII. Today, our population has multiple advanced degrees and has little patience for beginners' classes. We need to provide for them the serious education they require. We need to heavily invest in teachers and materials for advanced Jewish learning. The Melton program has shown us that money is not the deterrent to Jewish learning. If we offer high level classes and clear parameters for learning, we can attract Jews to Jewish learning. Melton does it without synagogues; I believe the learning could even be more significant if it was done under the auspices of synagogues.

Second, Jews today want to pray. For many years, synagogues often acted as if we did not want people to pray; we thought Jews were looking to be an audience. Cantors and Rabbis for years ran the show from an elevated bima at the front of the room. The congregation just watched or followed along in the siddur. Today, Jews want to lead the service and are willing to learn what they need to know so that they have this skill. They look to Rabbis and Cantors to be their teachers and guides. Jews today prefer services led from the center of a circle or from a stand in the middle of the congregation so that they feel like they are an important part of what prayer is all about. A modern synagogue must understand that the days of “one size fits all” services are over. There needs to be multiple minyanim; one for those who like to sing, one for those who like traditional melodies, and one for those who are looking to pray in a learning environment. Some may want quick davening and some may want more singing. Some may look for a teacher to give a D'var Torah; others may want to lead the teaching themselves. We need to have a big enough tent to include everyone in our buildings.

Additionally,I believe that we are also experiencing a new golden age in Jewish music. There seems to be little interest among young Jews who want to pray to listen to a Cantor sing. Jews today are interested in melodies that are easy to learn, upbeat and with enough repetition so that, if you don't know the tune at the beginning of the prayer, you are singing along at the end. They would rather chant a wordless niggun then to listen to a Hazzan lead a service. I know of Cantors that have embraced this new music and have had much success in guiding others how to use it to lead a service. I have also seen Cantors who belittle this music and insist that the only “real” cantorial music is that from the beginning of the last century. While there is still a following for this kind of music among seniors, and this music may have some life yet on the concert circuit, old style cantorial music is quickly becoming a liability for congregations seeking new, younger members. The issue is not about using musical instruments on Shabbat. I don't think that younger Jews really care at all about the pros and cons of this discussion. It is all about if the music itself is engaging and uplifting. The rest is merely a matter of personal preference. If the music is right, whether or not there is a guitar, flute, piano or if it is all acapella, just is not an issue.

Finally, Jews today, young and mid-life Jews, want to know that they have made a difference in the world. Many of them were responsible for service projects in high school and took social action spring breaks in college. Now they are successful in business but they look out the windows of their corner offices and wonder if their lives have made any difference to the world at all. Social Action/Political Action (SA/PA) is missing in their lives and synagogues are in a unique position to provide guidance in this area. Certainly there are some standard projects that need to continue. Services to the elderly, to the homeless and hungry are all important. Giving to Federation and other Jewish causes is also part of this mix. But these Jews want to get their hands dirty. I have seen synagogues start food co-ops to provide local grown food for their members, organizing farmers' markets in their parking lots. A bus load of Jews has gone way out of town to help an organic farmer weed his garden. Picking up litter from the highway, mentoring at risk students, writing to legislators and lobbying for Jewish causes, writing letters to the editor and opinion columns for newspapers and blogs are other possible projects. Party politics may not be the best course for a synagogue but there are a host of issues that are non-partisan and even issues of interest for interfaith dialogue that all can be part of a congregational SA/PA program.

To do all of this, a synagogue needs to be connected to the world. Sections of the synagogue should have a wireless connection to the internet so meetings can be enhanced with video conferencing and so that questions can be quickly answered. Information should be distributed through websites and social networking sites. Synagogues should make sure that almost all office transactions can be performed on the internet even if the synagogue office is closed. (We find that parents often are online late at night and this is when they decide to attend a synagogue event.) In our 24/7 world, it is important for synagogues to at least be open 24/6. Should the daily minyan be able to text a call for the tenth person?

There are still issues with synagogues that remain unresolved. There is a great question about whether or not a synagogue needs a big building anymore. In an age where everything can be outsourced, we may not need to maintain expensive buildings. Meetings can be held in a multipurpose room or in the homes of members. Sanctuaries may need movable seating rather then fixed pews so that the room can be flexible for when there are more or less people praying and so that the room can be used for more than one or two days a week. Clearly when there are multiple minyanim sharing the space, a larger building with many prayer/meeting spaces can work. It may be better for everyone if smaller groups can come together to share space and responsibilities and maybe share volunteers so that empowered Jews can pray and be involved in different activities as their personal/family situation evolves over time.

Dues are another difficult issue. Should there be membership in the community or should it all be a la carte? Do we need large staffs to do the work or should we go small and rely on volunteers to carry much of the heavy lifting at the synagogue? Can we raise enough from the sale of holiday tickets and donations to keep synagogue doors open? Should we look to a “community organizing” model where people who are served pay to keep the service going? Does a synagogue need to provide food after every service or should we rely on our members to sponsor a kiddush by actually bringing food rather than just making a donation?

There is a difficult issue of Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Can we continue to turn an entire service over to the family of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah for their “event” or is it even possible to limit the celebration to just one small part of a Shabbat Service? Does a synagogue have control over the services or can families create their own service that takes place under the synagogue “umbrella” but not necessarily in the “main” service\?. Should there be celebrations in the “auxiliary” minyanim or do all life cycle celebrations have to be a part of the “main” service? There may not be one answer to all of these questions.

We need to stop arguing the details of Halacha. Other than Rabbis and synagogue officers, Jews today do not care at all about the things we are arguing. They don't care about the length of the service, they don't care about musical instruments. They are not concerned with the details of Kashrut. They are not concerned with riding on Shabbat. Once they are a part of a community/synagogue that meets their educational and spiritual needs, they will follow along the halachic path that comes with it. After all, Chabad does not seem to have a problem with their Orthodoxy once they have attracted the many Jews who came looking for serious learning and prayer. How much more so will modern Jews be comfortable in an egalitarian synagogue that welcomes mixed marriages and gay singles and families?

Clearly there are more questions than answers but these are the parameters of the directions we need to address. Synagogues can not act like General Motors and assume that people will always want to buy whatever it is that we are selling. That proved to the be short path to bankruptcy. To grow and flourish, we need to rethink the primary mission of a congregation. Synagogues can no longer be a Beit Tefillah, Beit Sefer and Beit Kenesset, a house of prayer, study and assembly. We need to establish our mission around actions: Torah, Avoda and Gemilut Hasadim; Study, Prayer and Acts of Kindness/Tzedakah. We need to listen more to the needs of Jews today and retool our most basic institutions to serve our community.

Rabbi Tarfon teaches: The day is short, the task is great, the workers are indolent but the reward is great and the Master is insistent. [Pirke Avot 2:20]

Let us move forward together.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Letter

 This is an exchange about issues in Conservative Judaism from the Shefa Network . The issues raised are important and I have added my reply to the end. I have changed the names of the writers to protect their privacy. It began with the link to the article in the Boston Globe. You can find it at this link:

This is how it started:
 On Wed, Mar 31, 2010 at 10:47 PM, Gary G wrote:   Thank you very much for distributing this profoundly important article.
The Conservative movement needs to wake up quickly and recognize that there are some fundamental issues that are effectively shutting young singles and couples out of existing Conservative congregations.
Besides not offering spiritual and educational experiences that create a draw for this demographic, there is the problem of the economic status of many younger Jews making it difficult for them to purchase homes that are within walking distance of most Conservative synagogues, and how, in general, it is an incredibly expensive proposition to establish an actively participating Conservative Jewish household which, in the end, creates a huge and often insurmountable disincentive for young people to get involved at a point in their life when their incomes are limited in comparison to the expenses they face.
I forwarded this article to my 29-year-old daughter who is an accomplished software engineer and manager in a small high-tech firm and her main comment was the incredible frustration that she feels with the fact that in her community, in order to live within walking distance of a Conservative synagogue and own a home in that neighborhood (never mind the costs of sending children to religious school or day school), one needed to be able to afford a home in a market whose bottom end is well above what she could reasonably afford.  So she has chosen to be a home owner over being located close to the Conservative synagogue and lives in a comfortable home in a decent working-class generally non-Jewish neighborhood that is across town from where the Conservative synagogues are located.  But it means making a significant effort to travel across town to the upper class neighborhood where the synagogue is located, and knowing that it will not be possible to honor the Sabbath by not walking to shul because of the fact that she can only afford to live in a neighborhood that is several miles away from the synagogue.  And she is a Jewishly identified young woman who celebrates Shabbat and the holidays and went to a community day school through the junior grades.
And I don't think that her circumstances are unique.
This is a problem that really needs to be addressed in a creative way by the Conservative movement.
Wishing all a Chag Sameach and hope that your Seders were enjoyable and memorable.

Kol Tuv,


Then came this response
On Thu, Apr 1, 2010 at 11:33 AM, Darcy F. wrote:  
       Thank you very much to those who opened the discussion of factors that may exclude young Jewish adults from active participation in Conservative Judaism.  I would like to add a few more observations from the perspective of someone who's 35 and still more or less fits into the "young adult" rubric.
      The residential geography issue that Gary Goldberg addressed is important.  The dilemma of whether to live within walking distance of shul or buy a home in an affordable neighborhood far away from shul is a common one, but sometimes the choices are even starker than that.  When I was on the academic job market several years ago, I went to six on-campus (i.e., final-round) job interviews.  Three of the six institution were located in towns with no Conservative synagogue.  One town had a Reconstructionist synagogue, which wasn't exactly what I wanted but probably would have sufficed; the other two institutions were each located 50-80 miles away from the nearest synagogue I would have been willing to attend, meaning that there was simply no way I could work at either of these institutions and also go to shul on a regular basis.  A close friend of mine recently took a job at a small college in a small town that is over an hour's drive from the nearest synagogue of any stripe.  Her geographic isolation, combined with a demanding work schedule, is so acute that she wasn't even able to attend (or host) a Passover seder this year.  She was heartbroken.  Before you judge Jews who knowingly choose to live in towns with little or no Jewish community, remember that they're facing limited job choices within an unpredictable economic landscape.  They have spent years preparing to practice their professions, and they want to take the job offers that will allow them to serve their fellow men in the ways in which they are prepared to do so.  This, no less than shul attendance, is a form of tikkun olam.  Being obliged to choose between practicing your religion and doing the work you care about, believe in, and can do well is going to be heart-breaking, whichever choice you ultimately make.
      Another practical problem that some young Jews face is pressure to work on Shabbat and chag.  In recent decades, the concept of the weekend has fallen by the wayside in many professions.  Some employers simply assume that young professionals are available to work six or seven days a week; some combine the standard five-day week with an extensive program of weekend conferences, training programs, and other extras.  Getting time off for holidays that fall on weekdays can be tricky.  U.S. law requires companies with more than fifteen employees to "reasonably accommodate" their employees' religious observances unless doing so would cause the employer "undue hardship."  This rather vague law leaves observant Jews dependent on the good will of their employers and colleagues.  In cities with large Jewish populations and in companies and institutions that have considerable experience with observant Jewish employees, this often works out just fine.  In other settings, Jews can easily be pressured-- or required-- to work on major holidays.  This pressure falls most heavily on younger Jews, who are less established in their communities and careers and have less collegial good will to draw on.  Even in superficially hospitable settings, there may be friction beneath the surface.  An Ivy League Hillel rabbi once told me that he fielded multiple telephone calls every autumn from professors who wanted to know whether Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah were "real" holidays.  The professors explained that they were under the impression that certain Jewish students were simply inventing holidays in order to get out of class.  When attitudes like this are prevalent among non-Jews-- even very highly educated ones-- it's not surprising that many young Jews cave to social pressure to go to school or work on Jewish holidays.  They do not wish to be cast as lazybones or liars.
     A third issue is diversity.  The American Jewish community is very, very white and, even at this late date, a trifle xenophobic in some quarters.  To those of us who were raised a generation after the Civil Rights Movement, who attended genuinely integrated schools and colleges, who live in racially integrated neighborhoods and spend most of our days in integrated workplaces, it can feel strange to walk into a lily-white synagogue community.  It's less noticeable in a congregation of twenty or thirty, but when, on the High Holidays, I walk into a room of 200-300 daveners and see not a single person of color, I sometimes feel disconcerted.  Though Conservative synagogues tend to be more socially liberal than Orthodox ones, some congregants are still rather quick to comment on any sort of physical difference.  Even I (fair skin, brown hair, blue eyes) have sometimes been subjected to speculative disquistions about how I "don't look Jewish."  I imagine that Jews who have fairer hair or darker skin hear these comments more often than I do.  I recoil-- not just because such comments make me feel uncomfortable around the particular person who made the remark, but also because they make me ashamed of the social environment that tolerates such commentary.
    In the long run, being appropriately welcoming towards Jews of color, prospective converts, non-Jewish spouses of Jews, and interested spectators will probably go a long way towards making not just Jews of color but also younger white Jews who are accustomed to function in "diverse" settings feel more at home in the synagogue.  I have two specific suggestions that might help.  In the last couple years, the JCC of Manhattan has run a series of programs under the banner of "Jewish multiculturalism": an Ethiopian Shabbat dinner, an Indian Jewish Purim celebration, and so forth.  I find it tremendously moving and comforting to celebrate Shabbat with a room full of people who exhibit varied complexions and accents and who, as a bonus, are eating food that is not kugel.  I would also encourage Conservative synagogues to partner more with churches, mosques, and community organizations to conduct basic tikkun olam projects like food drives and blood drives.  The goal of this would be to establish that the synagogue is a community institution that engages and serves the surrounding community, not just the Jews.  Non-Jews should feel comfortable coming to their local synagogue for a food drive, a class, or a community event.  The more open, inclusive, and engaged with the local community a synagogue is, the more likely young Jews are to feel proud of it and to want to affiliate. 
    Needless to say, these issues are tricky.  It's inevitable, I think, that living Jewishly will constrain where one can live and what work one can do to a certain extent, and that's not all bad.  As Frasier once observed on the eponymous sitcom, tough choices can be good for us because they teach us about who we are.  But some of the choices facing young Jews today are so tough that they're unwholesome, both for the individual and for the community.  A Jew should not have to give up hope of owning a home or of doing the work he wants to do in order to live near a synagogue and remain Shabbat and holiday-observant.  There has to be a middle way.  Part of the solution might involve reaching out in innovative ways to underserved neighborhoods and underserved towns; part of it might involve publicizing the nature of Shabbat and holiday observance and lobbying for public policies that are more respectful of such observance; part of it might involve actively encouraging conversion to Judaism in the hope of fostering a larger and more engaged population of young American Jews, who would eventually sustain a critical mass of involved Jews in a larger number of communities.  I realize that all of these suggestions are likely to be controversial.  Thank you to those who read so far!

My Reply:

You and Gary bring up some very important points about Conservative Judaism basing your remarks on the article from the Boston Globe. The issue of falling membership in our movement has a great deal to do with changes in where Jews are living. Remember, that Conservative synagogues over 50 years old, were probably founded in "inner city" settings and, as Jews moved out to affordable housing, the synagogues moved with them. Now, as cities gentrify, will we see synagogues migrate back to the city? Perhaps but I think the independent minyan movement shows us that the young Jews moving back into the renovated apartments downtown will find their own spiritual home, creating in the process their own synagogues.

It was the Conservative Movement however, that first declared (rightly or wrongly depending on who you ask) that riding to synagogue on Shabbat does not make a person a "sinner". This "heter" may be horribly abused in the suburbs but that does not make it inoperable for those who wish to have a Shabbat in places where there is affordable housing but no synagogue. Riding to synagogue (but not other places) is only one aspect of Shabbat observance and the need to ride to synagogue and find a Shabbat Community there, does not make a Jew a "Shabbat desecrater". We all make allowances in our Shabbat observances when there are other issues pressing on us and we work hard our whole life to increase our Shabbat observance until we are happy in balancing Shabbat and the rest of our life.

When I was in rural Connecticut, there was an old synagogue there, founded in 1909 that had only a few Jewish families left. One year, they decided to put in the local paper that they were sponsoring a "corn party" at the end of the Summer. To their surprise, over 100 local Jews showed up, Jews who had no idea that there was a synagogue nearby. I suspect that even in far flung places there are more Jews than we imagine, only waiting for someone to convene a minyan. That is how almost every synagogue has gotten its start.

It many surprise you but your parents and grandparents, when they were starting their working life, also had to make the difficult decisions between work and Shabbat/Hag. You can find a great essay on it in Hermann Wolk's book, "This is My God" (first published in 1959) That is the lot of those of us who live in the diaspora. In Israel, Jewish holidays are national holidays. So we ask if we can have off from work/school, and we work on Sundays and late into the night to make up our lost hours. We rely on the good feelings of our supervisors and bosses to understand that if they can accommodate our religious needs, then we will be happy to help with other staffing problems, like working on Christmas or during Christian Holy Week etc.

As for the diversity issue, that is something we need to teach our congregations. Conservative synagogues have only recently decided to get into the "social action" world, and partner with other congregations and other faiths and denominations. You are correct, Darcy, we have not done very well in this area and I do believe, like  you, it is a key ingredient in attracting young members to our failing congregations. Social action, serious Jewish education (another of our failings) and, as the Boston Globe article mentions, multiple services to meet the many different kinds of Jews out there, these three will go a long way to helping you, Gary and others find their way to a meaningful, spiritual Judaism that is sponsored by the Conservative movement.

Nothing in Judaism is handed to us on a silver platter. If you really seek the kind of community you describe, then put it out there with our social network and see which friends are also looking. That is the first step to finding what you want from Judaism. You can build it  yourself, join with a group an existing congregation and work together to get it to evolve toward you needs and goals, or you can compromise your observances for a short time, sighing like Franz Rosenzweig "Not Yet!" (a quote also widely abused) If you really intend to increase your observance over your lifetime, then, like everything else in life, if you really want it, it will eventually become possible, often sooner then one might think. ("If you will it, it will not [for long] be a dream")

Darcy, you ask all the right questions and you instinctively know the answers. But you will have to do the work needed to make your spiritual dreams come true. And that will make them all the sweeter in the end.

Randy Konigsburg,
Delray Beach, FL