Monday, September 24, 2012

The Question

My daughter, this morning, asked if I now regret leaving my pulpit of 17 years. I left a comfortable position to try leading different congregations and to return to school to learn new skills to improve my abilities. Instead of looking forward to a 25th anniversary of my work, I chose to take on new pulpits and face new challenges. It has been difficult at times and so my daughter wondered if I considered the decision made seven years ago a mistake. 

I left my pulpit in 2007 not because I had to. In fact, there were some members who were angry that I was leaving. I left a community that had been very good to me, a professional staff that worked together well and I left my own personal comfort zone because I felt that something was missing; that the world was changing and I did not understand what was happening. I thought that a different congregation would offer more opportunities to discover myself and what was changing in the Jewish world.  I did not know that I would be facing an economic downturn and seven years of rabbinic upheaval. It has not been an easy time and I am thankful for the many colleagues and friends who have supported me through the past years. 

But I have no regrets. In spite of the challenges, I found what I was searching for.  I have seen congregations from new and different perspectives. I am no longer the kind of rabbi I once was. I can’t do “typical Conservative services” anymore.  I don’t see congregations the way I was once trained to see them (and now they train new colleagues differently than the way we were once trained). What the Jewish community needs is not more of the same, but a new approach to understanding our faith. From my time of searching, I have matured in my leadership in ways I had never considered before my wanderings.

The first thing I have learned is that Conservative services are in fact changing. There are rabbis and cantors who are still invested in the old style, but there are also colleagues who are making prayer more meaningful and less boring. I know that when a congregation says that services are too long, it means they are not being engaged in the process of prayer; that Jews want to feel that they are a part of prayer and not just spectators. This is not a change rabbis should fear but one we should embrace.
I have learned that the number of people who attend a service is not as important as the number of people who are involved in the service.  A small room, with movable chairs, a low or entirely missing bima, no formal lectern and a mediocre sound system can be a more inspiring service than one in a suburban “cathedral”.  Anyplace where Jews come to be fully engaged, heart, soul and body is a successful community.

I have learned that I am a better rabbi when I am a teacher. There are some who would like me to tell them how to do everything in life, but then they go home and forget everything I said in my sermon. The real work of a rabbi is teaching the congregation how to lead the service without you; congregants can teach a lesson, explain the Torah reading and chant the service without professional help. What they want is to do these things themselves and to do them exceptionally well. They want me/they need me to teach them how to do these things better. My “ego” is stroked when my students do a good job, not when I “do” a good service. They don’t need me to call the page numbers or to tell them to sit down or stand up.

I have learned that the best place for a rabbi sometimes is not out front but at the door, welcoming new faces and old alike. In the same way I meet my personal guests at the door of my home, I should meet those who are coming to synagogue at the door and welcome them in. And not just the adults; I leaned to greet the children when they arrive to school during the week. I learned to get down on my knees and greet even the pre-school children when they come for their Shabbat service on Friday.  Everyone needs to know that they are welcome here.

I have learned that synagogues are imposing buildings and sometimes strangers literally can’t find the door to come in. They don’t know where to park a car. They can’t find the main entrance. They can’t find the office entrance. They can’t find the Rabbi’s office. They don’t know where the daily minyan meets and the special door they often use when the building is closed. Even when they are inside they don’t know their way around and feel very lost. How can they discover their Judaism if they can’t find their way around the building?

I have learned that synagogues have lost their way as an organization. So many synagogue board members think of themselves as fundraising associations and have forgotten why they are raising the money. I have learned to get up each morning and consider how I will change the world and I don’t think about how I will pay for it until after breakfast. Synagogues need to be mission first. We need to envision all we can be and then figure out how to pay for it. We can’t raise money and then later decide how we will spend it. We don’t think of our family finances this way, why should we think of synagogue finances this way.

I have learned that in Judaism as in life, “one size does not fit all”. When we have different models of services and service to the community, we engage more people in all that we do.  What is important is to catch a man or woman with a hot idea and be able to give them the chance to use synagogue resources to make a difference in the community. This is how a shul can connect a family for a lifetime; by helping them live their dreams. Not a dream of all the things they want, but a dream of how they can help others.  When we help people find meaning in their lives, we make the synagogue a meaningful institution. 

Finally, I learned that Judaism has been around for a long time. It has seen many different styles and configurations but it keeps coming back to the basics. Synagogues are about Torah (learning), Avoda (praying) and Gemilut Hasadim (acts of kindness and compassion); everything else is extra. History’s dustbin is filled with those who thought that it should be different. The changes in life are in how we approach learning, how we join together in prayer and how we serve others in need. Successful rabbis and synagogues never forget the fundamentals. 

My life did not stop when I left my pulpit of 17 years. I have grown and changed over the years and I am a better Rabbi for all of it. Would I like to find a home, a synagogue and a community to spend the next 20 years and beyond? Sure! And I have faith that God will get me there at a time when I can do the most good; for my community, for the Jewish People and for God.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Opening the Door

I have been writing about Synagogues and how to fix them now for two years. I have spoken with anyone who will listen to me and I have now a pretty firm group of followers who respond when I write about fixing American Synagogues. . (If you have not read my thoughts on all of this, you can find them on my website using this link:  RevitalizingSynagogues )

What I find astonishing is how synagogues are so resistant to change. I have had members of synagogue boards and even a few synagogue presidents tell me that my assessment of the situation today is spot on and that my ideas about resolving them seem well reasoned and easy to apply. But, then they tell me that it could  never work in their congregation, because of a host of reasons that all boil down to, “This is just too risky for our community, we prefer to keep things as they are and see what happens.” Guess what? When there is no change, the situation remains the same, falling membership, falling income and more wondering why more people don’t join the synagogue.  The more things change the more they stay the same (French proverb). Or maybe Einstein is appropriate here: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result”

Here are some important realizations for those involved in synagogue life who feel that something has to be done.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has said and he may not have been the first to say it; The business of a synagogue is NOT fundraising.  Fundraising is important and even necessary, but it is not the reason that synagogues exist.  We need to stop acting as if it is the most important task we do. It is not. It is at best, a secondary part of synagogue life.  Any entrepreneur can tell you that if you want to succeed in your field, first you have to know what you are selling and then you have to promote what you are selling.  Anyone who only wants to “make a lot of money” is doomed to fail.  Anyone who thinks that people will throw money at them has no business plan.  
In business, they rely on customer surveys to know what is working and what is not. In synagogue life we need to do the same. The first question we need to ask is “Why would any Jew need our congregation?” What reason do they have to come here and join with us? If you don’t know the answer you have to survey your success stories.  Go and ask the most active members why they joined and got active, you will almost always get the same reply: “Someone welcomed us when we first visited, and we felt that this place was so warm and friendly that we thought we would give it a try.” So they came to a couple of events, liked what they saw and joined. Usually the first visit takes place during worship. 

We can learn a lot from this reply:
1.       Welcoming people and being friendly is a crucial part of synagogue life. If someone can attend a function at your congregation, sit down, get up and leave and nobody says “hello”, you are doomed. That is the kiss of death.  

2.       It is everyone’s responsibility to be warm and friendly. Not just the usher, the Rabbi or the staff.
3.       Your programming, from worship thru social events needs to be engaging, every moment is a chance to bring someone in. What kind of programming do you have? Would you invite your best friend to come and be a part of what your synagogue does?

4.       Do you follow through with those who visit your congregation? Do they get on email lists? Do you have printed material to give them if they ask? Does someone give them a call and invite them to a future event?  Or is the first contact also the first time you ask them for money? 

Ask yourself why you go back to the same restaurant over and over. Is there someone on wait staff that you like? Do they make your favorite food the way you like it?  Were they constantly trying to get you to buy something you didn’t want or were their suggestions about the menu helpful? Translating this into synagogue life is not too difficult. Do new members find people they like in shul? Do we do things that people want/like to do? Are we always asking for money or do we show then why the shul is a meaningful part of our life and invite them to join us. The money always follows interest. Are we getting people interested?

The Rabbi and staff don’t need to be “Pied Pipers” and social media is not going to be the salvation of the synagogue.  Success begins with these two ideas: People will attend events where they are made to feel welcome and when you engage them, they will quickly become active and then tell others about what they found in your community.  To be sure, you have to do a lot of things behind the scenes to make sure that there is something to get people interested. But a synagogue is, first of all about relationships, then it is about Torah, Worship and acts of Hesed. Then it is about making a difference in people’s lives. Only then can we begin to ask them to help keep these programs and projects alive. 

So, be honest. How does your congregation compare?