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