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Taking Synagogues More Seriously

Taking Synagogues More Seriously

Gary Rosenblatt is The NY Jewish Week's editor at large.

Most American Jews don’t take synagogues seriously, according to Rabbi Edward Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif. Even those who are members don’t come to find God in the synagogue and they don’t come to be inspired, he told a group of about 200 leading educators, rabbis, researchers, planners and funders at a leadership conference here last week sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York.The two-day meeting was called Synergy, a UJA-Federation project to work with and strengthen synagogues by using the current research on congregants — why people join and what they get out of the experience — to make the institutions a more vital part of people’s lives.Amy Sales, associate director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, shared her statistical studies that found a small core of activists in synagogues and more than three times as many members who were minimally or not at all involved, and congregational leaders placing more emphasis on governance issues and upkeep of the synagogue than on its spiritual, educational or social aspects.

Those were some of the reasons that contribute to the perception that many synagogues today reflect the structure, rituals and thinking of the past and are not keeping up with the inner needs of 21st century American Jewry.Rabbi Feinstein pinpointed part of the problem, and one possible solution, when he posited that “every generation gets the synagogue its parents dreamed of.”He noted that in the 1960s his parents helped found a synagogue in California that re-created the hierarchical approach of their own parents’ immigrant congregation, where the rabbi and cantor were performers and the congregants were more of an audience than participants.That has changed for some, though, and Rabbi Feinstein said that many synagogues now reflect the participatory style of the baby boomer generation.“God is no longer above us but horizontal and close by, accessible,” he said. “The rabbi is viewed as friend and colleague rather than holy man, and in the synagogue today we seek the new and eclectic and experimental and fresh.”Rabbi Feinstein said synagogues now are “struggling with change. We are birthing the first indigenous synagogue culture with American values,” and the results are still unknown.

The statistics provided by Sales found that synagogues “are not the core organizing principle” of congregants’ lives. Rather, “people try to fit the synagogue — and Judaism — into their lives,” and tend to show up for the High Holy Days, followed by lifecycle events. Only 25 percent said they attended religious services regularly, and far fewer said they seek or find spirituality or Jewish learning in their synagogues.Sales based much of the findings she presented at the conference on her study of 1,300 members of 16 Westchester synagogues, two Orthodox and the rest Conservative or Reform.She found that most members see the synagogue intended primarily for a different age group than their own — the young see it for older members and the retirees view it as primarily for younger people — and only about 5 percent express interest in becoming leaders of the synagogue.

Sales noted that far more time and effort go into the “synagogue” — meaning the business and governance component — than the “congregation,” or social and spiritual piece. Part of her overall goal was to help find and bring out the warmer qualities of the congregational experience.Viewing the synagogue from a business model, Todd Jick, managing partner of the Center for Executive Development in Boston, spoke of how synagogues might benefit from strategies applied to improving businesses. He noted the irony that businesses are striving to become more like synagogues in some way — stressing a higher purpose beyond profits, such as doing good and becoming a community of employees — while synagogues are seeking to become more like businesses, running their operations more professionally.

Both institutions must grapple with issues of how to increase participation and effect change, which is always difficult, said Jick, who noted that as a rabbi’s son he was familiar with the problems facing synagogues though his professional expertise is in helping businesses.He described the need to train and educate people, have role models, rewards and better communication. Just as businesses ask what their customers want, synagogues should be asking what their congregants want, said Jick. And just as businesses measure the engagement level of their employees by asking them if they would recommend the company to friends seeking employment, whether they want to stay with the company, and whether they are inspired to do their best work, synagogues should be asking similar questions of their congregants.

Both institutions must effect change to survive, Jick asserted, while making clear their plans and goals, engaging in extensive dialogue and never underestimating the resistance to change they will encounter.The Synergy conference, part of a major effort by UJA-Federation to work with and bolster synagogues, included a half-day of workshops on the relationship between clergy and lay leaders, building a larger group of synagogue activists, attracting and engaging newcomers, planning for growth, and blending tradition with the need to change. A full day of private meetings among professionals in the field was held as well.While some federations across the country still view synagogues as competing for communal dollars, UJA-Federation is committed to strengthening synagogues as part of its goal to strengthen the Jewish community overall. It has a range of programs and resources in place, from placing social workers in synagogues to providing counseling and other services, to offering leadership development courses for congregations.

For Rabbi Deborah Joselow, managing director of UJA-Federation’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal, under whose auspices the Synergy conference was held, it succeeded in bringing researchers, planners and funders together to recognize the need to address synagogue life in a more professional and strategic way.

“There was a feeling that we have partners and colleagues,” she said, and a more urgent sense of the need for planning.Dru Greenwood, the recently appointed director of Synagogue Renewal at UJA-Federation, said the conference was “one way to unroll the research and a wonderful way to get our finger on the pulse of future needs.”Those needs, experts say, include providing more personnel for synagogues, in the form of education and program directors, and ways to help ease the burden on rabbis, who are expected to be experts on everything from public speaking to counseling to overseeing large budgets.Rabbi Schwarz, author of “Finding A Spiritual Home: How A New Generation of Jews Can Transform The American Synagogue,” says one key to success is not to establish “top-down programs” designed and run by the rabbi but “to challenge and empower congregants” to set up their own programs.Rabbi Schwarz, who was not a participant at the Synergy conference, said when members are asked “to take up the work and not be passive,” they often respond with inspiration and engagement.

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