Writings from the Rabbis

Investing in Futures: Synagogues are Nimble Institutions
May 15th 2013

Universities are not usually interested in the future of religious institutions, and large synagogues are not usually the places where conversations about transformative change for religious communities take place. Yet the two largest congregations in Canada, Beth Tzedec and Holy Blossom, joined with the Centre for Jewish Studies of the University of Toronto to present a two-part series to initiate discussion and debate about the future of North American synagogues. The partnership was unusual, the theme challenging and the programs stimulating.

Each evening was introduced by Prof. Jeffrey Kopstein of the University and consisted of a distinguished thinker discussing “The End of the Synagogue as We Know It?” followed by responses from two rabbis serving small Toronto-based congregations. The programs drew guests from various synagogues interested in renewing or creating vibrant spiritual communities. The informal post-program discussions enabled leaders from synagogues—Reform and Orthodox, Conservative and Reconstructionist—to share concerns, hopes and ideas for the future.

In December, Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University, the noted historian of American Jewry, initiated the conversation at Beth Tzedec. He pointed to serious financial, demographic and cultural issues that have contributed to a decline in synagogue affiliation and membership. The economic slowdown in the United States resulted in congregations losing members and revenue. Late marriage, increased intermarriage and fewer children being born have caused a demographic downturn with fewer Jews to connect to congregations. Social media have made it possible to meet friends on Facebook and Skype, “so they have no particular need to meet them in synagogue.”

Despite these challenges, Sarna optimistically stated that “synagogues are nimble institutions” which will find new ways to continue the religious heritage of Judaism. Synagogues will have to “focus on the value added by real connections over virtual ones”, drawing upon shared food and good music to bring people together. Finding ways to lower operating costs by sharing space and emphasizing voluntary giving may help synagogues. With fewer young Jews, non-Orthodox congregations will have to reach out more effectively to singles, unaffiliated Jews and “the disaffected children of the Orthodox”.

The two respondents grew up at Beth Tzedec, and I am blessed to have a close relationship with each of them. Rabbi Miriam Margles of the Danforth Jewish Circle said that alternative congregations attract people who seek meaningful Jewish experiences but are reluctant to enter mainstream synagogue life. “Indie minyanim” are more welcoming to Jews who seek serious spiritual exploration, but are politically, socially or sexually outside the usual community consensus. “If we want people to come to shul, they have to feel welcome, wanted and valued.” Rabbi Martin Lockshin of the Toronto Partnership Minyan spoke of trying to “stir the pot and expand the roles of women” within Orthodoxy. He believes that established synagogues should create a place within their walls for independent minyanim, an arrangement that can be mutually beneficial.

During an April snowstorm, the paper prepared by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman of Hebrew Union College was presented at Holy Blossom by Kopstein. Hoffman shifted the discussion from economics and demographics to purpose and spirituality. Claiming that non-Orthodox synagogues have been primarily ethnic communities with some religious trappings, he challenged them to “wrestle with God” and re-envision themselves as “sacred and vital centres of Jewish life”.

Hoffman argued that European churches have enjoyed state support while, in the United States, religious institutions compete in a free market. “As goes the church, so goes the synagogue.” The future for religious life in countries that privilege Orthodoxy, such as Britain, France or Israel, is bleak as the official religion loses real contact with people while non- Orthodox synagogues find it hard to break in.

In North America, synagogues constantly redefined their mission: fighting anti-Semitism, advocating for civil rights, saving Soviet Jews, supporting Israel, always with life-cycle events, “ritualized demonstrations that family ties still bind”. With fewer causes and more competition for life-cycle events, synagogues are challenged to adapt. To respond, synagogues must become communities that go beyond a “pediatric religion that doesn’t have anything to offer adults.” To reach young adults, synagogues must become “communities of meaning” providing “busy people [with] transcendent meaning and spirituality”.

Two local rabbis continued the conversation. Rabbi Aaron Levy of Makom: Creative Downtown Judaism, spoke about reaching younger Jews disinterested in the perpetuation of Jewish peoplehood with “unabashed Jewish spirituality”. Rabbi Michal Shekel, of Or ˙Hadash in Newmarket and Executive Director of the Toronto Board of Rabbis, said that synagogues have a core agenda: “Torah, tefillah, kehillah.” Serious study, prayer and programs of justice and compassion are essential to the creation of sustainable communities.

Rabbi Yael Splansky and I added some comments about how our large congregations are trying to meet these challenges. She mentioned that synagogues strive to be economically inclusive while appreciating the support of financial elites. I explained that I became convinced that “If Jewish life is going to succeed in North America, we have to make it succeed in these large communities.”

These programs paralleled discussions that I have had with other rabbis and synagogue leaders at the Kellogg School at Northwestern, the Hartman Institute, think-tanks at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the United Synagogue and the Rabbinical Assembly, and private conversations with thought-leaders at the Alban Institute, Synagogue 3000 and other organizations devoted to the future of congregational life.

A spate of books has been written over the past decade on the subject. In 2003, Sidney Schwarz published Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews Can Transform the American Synagogue. He argued that the suburban, child-centered, program-oriented "synagogue-center" fails to provide the connectedness, belonging, intimacy and inclusiveness that Jews of all ages (particularly young adults) are seeking. He called for congregations to follow the vision of their rabbis to become participatory and welcoming "synagogue-communities".

In Self Renewing Congregation and Becoming a Congregation of Learners, Isa Aron suggests that successful congregations are open to new ideas, flexible in their outlook, thoughtful in their policies, and able to adapt to their changing environments. A self renewing congregation engages in cyclical learning that develop four paradoxical capacities: (1) Thinking back and thinking ahead: being both reflective and proactive; (2) enabling leaders to follow, and followers to lead: practicing collaborative leadership; (3) seeing both the forest and the trees: creating community among diverse individuals; (4) honoring the past while anticipating the future: balancing tradition and change.

Rabbi Hoffman, originally from Canada, is an important thought-leader in this field. He and Ron Wolfson of the America Jewish University created Synagogue 3000 and Next Dor to help spiritual communities to “get it” and connect to congregants in deep and meaningful ways. In 2006, Hoffman wrote Rethinking Synagogues: A New Vocabulary for Congregational Life. As in his presentation at Holy Blossom, Hoffman calls for reframing synagogue life to preserve Judaism as a serious system of belief and action, rather than as vestigial “ethnic nostalgia with trimmings of outward demonstrations and ritual observance”.

Sacred Strategies (2010) is about congregations that have gone from ˙ hol to kodesh, commonplace to extraordinary. Isa Aron, Steven Cohen, Larry Hoffman and Ari Kelman identified six middot (qualities) that amazing congregations exhibit: sacred purpose, holistic ethos, participatory culture, meaningful engagement, innovation disposition, and reflective leadership and governance. These characteristics come into play in the central aspects of synagogue life: worship, study, community and social justice.

Visionary congregations are entrepreneurial, experimental and committed to something better than simply responding to the maintenance needs of their members. They offer a religious vision, serious prayer, learning opportunities and a means to engage in acts of kindness.

Hayim Herring was the Executive Director of STAR (Synagogue Transformation and Renewal). In Tomorrow's Synagogue Today: Creating Vibrant Centres of Jewish Life (2012), he calls for synagogues to go beyond incremental change to really transform the lives of people. He discusses collaboration with other congregations, other Jewish institutions (locally and globally), and with organizations outside of the Jewish community to forge new models of synagogue mission, governance and organization. Speaking to people who care about the Jewish future, he urges them to make significant investments so that synagogues will continue to benefit and enrich the Jewish community.

There is a lot to talk about and much more to do. Rather than getting caught up in small issues, these programs and books remind us that congregations must initiate big conversations about meaningful issues. As we study Pirkei Avot, the Wisdom of the Founders, over the summer, I am constantly reminded of the teaching of Rabbi Tarfon: "You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (2:21).