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.