Think spiritually, act strategically

Two visions on the future of the American synagogue.

syn (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
The end of 2007 saw the publication of two important documents on the future of the American synagogue, and at first glance they could not appear more different. The first, "Acting Strategically: A Manual for Synagogue Planning" is a product of the Minneapolis-based STAR, or Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal. Written in the language of business consulting, the manual offers a model for an "intensive, 18-month, long-range planning process that is intended to produce a long-range strategic plan." The purposes of long-range planning, it explains, are "to consider demographic, competitive and other challenges facing the congregation" and to "develop measurable objectives that move the congregation from its present state toward more complete fulfillment of its redefined mission." Dry stuff, right? But read between the lines and you can almost hear the desperation of those for whom the manual is intended. We know those democratic and competitive challenges, and they're not pretty: tumbling Jewish affiliation, extensive intermarriage, Saturday morning soccer, and Friday night at the movies. Synagogues need to redefine their missions, we know, because the generation that built them is giving way to one that barely wants to visit them. "Acting Strategically" offers a way of diagnosing what ails the American synagogue. As for the symptoms, you'd have to read the second document, "Emergent Jewish Communities and Their Participants," a study released by Synagogue 3000, another synagogue renewal group. (You know the old joke: one Jewish community, two synagogue renewal groups.) Don't worry if you don't know what an "emergent Jewish community" is - sociologist Steven M. Cohen and his coauthors only recently coined the term to describe a new kind, or kinds, of congregation. The study identifies about 80 "spiritual communities" or "independent minyanim", including Manhattan's Mechon Hadar, the study's co-sponsor. PICTURE A traditional Shabbat morning service in a rented church basement or community center, led by a young person with a day school background. The prayers are melodic and intense, drawing heavily on the Shlomo Carlebach songbook. A flyer may remind you that minyan is not a time for chit-chat, although a disproportionate number of single women may lead to some significant glances. Just before the potluck vegetarian kiddush, someone will announce a rally against sweatshops, a tutoring program at an inner city school, and an evening class on biblical heroines. If this grossly generalized description doesn't give you the picture, consider this, from the report itself: "Emergent communities see themselves as meeting needs not being met elsewhere, by providing experiences and activities that they believe to be unavailable in conventional congregations and other such settings." Chief among these are meaningful, "authentic" prayer and spirituality that is connected to social action. Whether led by rabbis or well-educated lay people, they can be identified by what they insist they are not: neither "synagogues" nor "congregations" nor affiliates of a denomination. The emergent communities are "doing away with conventional forms of congregational membership." AND THAT'S where the STAR and Synagogue 3000 reports begin to intersect. STAR is urging synagogues to form committees and focus groups to determine what it will take for them to survive and thrive into the future. Cohen's report is in effect the minutes of an 80-member focus group on ways in which traditional synagogues don't meet the needs of some of Judaism's best and brightest. Of course, the "emergents" aren't the only population synagogues need to learn from. The study acknowledges that they tend to have higher levels of Jewish education, participation in Jewish cultural activities, and preference for Jews marrying other Jews. The report doesn't say as much, but I suspect the typical "unaffiliated" or "alienated" young Jew would be more than a little intimidated by the intensity and traditionalism of many of these minyanim. But like any niche product, the minyanim offer a model that deserves to be adapted at least in part by the "bigs." The study identifies "two key motivations" among their participants. The first is their search for "warm communities in which they are deeply involved and socially connected, and in which they can see their friends of their own age." Those communities extend beyond the prayer services to Shabbat meals, for instance. Second, their participants seek "meaningful worship experiences," whose hallmarks are appealing music and smart, relevant divrei Torah, or sermons. Synagogues can't pretend to be what they are not to attract those who are turned off by what they are. But many are making room, within their "main" services or in alternative services, to accommodate the kinds of people who might otherwise join, or launch, an independent minyan. STAR has been part of that process, promoting its "Synaplex" model for engaging congregants in a variety of settings and activities. Rabbi Hayyim Herring , STAR's executive director, thinks the synagogue and the minyan can be friends. "I believe that they could benefit from each other," he wrote in response to the Synagogue 3000 report, "for mainstream synagogues have infrastructure that these emergent communities often lack and, conversely, these emergent communities, just by their presence, could supply some energy to mainstream congregations." The writer is editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.