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.