Posts filed under ‘congregational studies’

For many NY Jews, delis are the ‘secular version of the synagogue’

220px-Carnegie_deli_exterior-195x165Times of Israel article, 5/16/16

We should worry about this! Not because it’s a New York phenomenon but because while many Jews identify themselves as “cultural” Jews, I posit that food and other cultural identities are actually ethnic identifications.

According to Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, ethicity is “…a nostalgic yearning for Jewish folkways that once sustained us as a people apart, but can no longer do so – not, at least, without anti-Semitism to drive it. Ethnicity in this sense is doing what we think Jews have always done, whether they are really what Jews have always done or not, and whether or not they are even authentically Jewish; and doing them by social habit, just because we have grown up with them and feel good doing them. Jewish ethnicity is ‘doing what comes naturally,’ but with no transcendent purpose.”

To distinguish ethnicity from culture, Hoffman writes, “By Jewish culture, I mean the totality of wisdom, practices, folkways and so forth that constitute what we choose to remember of Jewish experience. That experience is simply too massive for anyone to remember it all, so every generation selects part of it (reinterpreting it as necessary), and leaves the rest behind. Leaving behind does not mean losing it forever, however. The parts of Jewish culture that do not get selected in any given generation remain in the cultural reservoir, as it were, to be recovered some day by others.”

And importantly, he contends that culture remains viable and important to Judaism because of, “ … the remarkable fact that Judaism demands study, and not just study of what is relevant, but study of everything Jewish.” I want to emphasize this – Judaism demands study… of everything Jewish.

I don’t think ethnicity or culture can sustain American Judaism in part because most Jews now have no identification with “the old country,” i.e. Eastern Europe. Ask most young Jews and they have no idea that bagels and rye bread are anything more than interesting foods. Add to that the lessening interest in Judaism as a distinct culture (again, Ashkenazik/Eastern European) and what’s left to tie Jews together?

May 16, 2016 at 9:34 am 1 comment

Identity In, Spirituality Out For Jewish Teens

And if synagogues haven’t awakened from their head-in-the-sand slumber this might be what finally does it. Not only are Jewish teens diverging from their slightly older YJA (young Jewish adult) contemporaries, the teen cohort is one that synagogues have had some (perceived) success, though I’ve argued that their success is for those teens who are already engaged.

The other troubling thing is Jewish identity is so tied to ethnic and cultural factors that are largely gone from American life. How will a Jewish teenager from Kansas connect with a culture she’s never known?

May 11, 2016 at 9:31 am Leave a comment

As congregations shrink, cantors become rabbis – and work as both

Lots in this article – the changing role of cantors, the market forcing changes in rabbinical training, and ultimately “With society changing so rapidly, synagogues are desperate to find formulas that will keep them functioning… They want as many options as possible and don’t want rabbinical organizations — effectively labor unions — to dictate to them.” Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan


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Rabbi Julie Jacobs, flanked by former NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels, left, and musician Matisyahu, celebrating her rabbinical installation at Beth David Congregation in 2015. Previously the Miami synagogue’s cantor, she now works as both. (Courtesy of Beth David Congregation)

April 15, 2016 at 10:06 am Leave a comment

6 facts about how American congregations are changing

Synagogues need to know the full American religious landscape not just what’s happening in their own back yards. While some of the findings aren’t directly relevant to synagogues most of it is.
  1. People are increasingly concentrated in very large congregations.
  2. There is growing diversity among and within American congregations.
  3. Many pastors are bi-vocational.
  4. Worship services are becoming more informal and expressive.
  5. People in smaller churches give more money to their churches than do people in larger churches.
  6. Congregations focus more on serving the needy than on trying to effect systemic change.

April 11, 2016 at 10:26 am Leave a comment

Why You Need to Embrace Relationship Based Engagement

reposted from a 5/21/12 guest blog for Darim’s Jew Point O’s series on networks,

Synagogue 3000 just released a report entitled “Reform and Conservative Congregations: Different Strengths, Different Challenges.” The report could just as easily been entitled something like “Synagogues are Fading Into Obscurity,” but that would be a little too provocative. The data is clear; the institution best positioned to provide the full richness of Jewish life is becoming irrelevant for most American Jews. More disturbing is that our research shows some 70% of young Jewish adults, those between the ages of 23 and 39, have no connection to the established Jewish community (synagogues, Federation, JCC’s, etc.). While many in the Jewish world talk about Jewish continuity and protecting the future of American Judaism, most of the proposed solutions have had little effect. The good news is we’ve also learned that this majority of young Jews are very interested in Judaism, just not the way we’re offering it.

While most in the congregational world talk about outreach, Synagogue 3000 learned that this moniker has a negative connotation. Outreach says, albeit subtly, “I’m reaching out to you so you can come to me and have what I want to offer you.” The community, particularly those young, single Jews who are our potential future are saying, “no thanks.” Instead of outreach Synagogue 3000 changed the conversation to engagement. Learning from the church world and community organizing, Synagogue 3000 created Next Dor (dor is Hebrew for generation) – an engagement program. Participating synagogues agree to dedicate a staffer, most often a rabbi, whose primary job is to meet young Jews where they are – physically, spiritually, and emotionally. These engagement workers are charged with finding young Jews, be they in bars, coffee houses, local gyms, etc., and finding ways of engaging them in conversation to create relationships. Relationships create trust, which creates other relationships, which creates opportunity for real engaging conversations about life and what Judaism has to offer. One of the key points is that this engagement and these relationships are l’shma, for their own sake. Synagogue membership is not the goal – connecting Jews to Judaism is.

While the goal is engaging young Jews in Judaism, several of the Next Dor partner synagogues are discovering tangible benefits. Next Dor D.C., a project of Temple Micah was one of the first adopters. Rabbi Danny Zemel, a proponent of this engagement model before Next Dor existed, knew that Temple Micah needed to engage this unaffiliated and disaffected population. As a Next Dor pilot synagogue, Temple Micah hired Rabbi Esther Lederman as their engagement worker. A big part of Esther’s job is having one-on-one meetings with young Jews, usually in coffee shops. Now in its fourth year, Next Dor D.C. has gone from one-on-one meetings to regular Shabbat dinners at Esther’s home to annual free High Holy Day services for young adults, led by Esther and Michelle Citrin. The results – young Jewish adults are joining Temple Micah.

Some have dubbed this approach “relational Judaism” which seems something of an oxymoron. Judaism is at its essence (at least in my opinion) all about relationships. Unfortunately, congregations have focused on other things like supporting infrastructure, b’nai mitzvah training, and programming. More than the first two, the focus on programming is the irrelevance linchpin. Rather than engaging Jews in what’s important in their lives, synagogues program based on anecdotal information. When numbers fall the default synagogue response is to seek better programming rather than forming relationships with members, finding out what’s really important in their lives, and being responsive to their needs. Interestingly enough, while Synagogue 3000 envisioned the relational approach targeting young Jewish adults, the Next Dor communities are discovering it works with everyone.

Is your synagogue willing to form relationships with people who might not become members? Is your rabbi really willing to “be known” by synagogue members? What are your biggest obstacles to moving from a program-based community to relationship-based? Relationships, it’s all about the relationships!

Rabbi Aaron Spiegel is the CEO of Synagogue 3000. The report was the result of Synagogue 3000’s participation in FACT (Faith Communities Today), the largest and most comprehensive surveyor of faith communities in the United States.

September 11, 2012 at 9:39 am Leave a comment

Faithful Finances: When to Adopt New Technology – Tech News

Faithful Finances: When to Adopt New Technology

February 1, 2010 at 9:55 am Leave a comment

Social Networking and Congregations

This article by Center for Congregations Information Technology Director Aaron Spiegel appeared in the Summer 2009 issue of Congregations magazine.

Social Networking and Congregations

by Aaron Spiegel

A recent YouTube video titled “Social Networking in Plain English” claims networks are only as valuable as the people and connections one can see. If I think about real “friends” and connections in my life this makes perfect sense. The piece goes on to assert that social networking sites help us see the real world connections that are hidden. So, by allowing me to see who my friend’s friends are, I can connect with a broader community than the one I can “see.” Simplistic? Yes, but this is really the essence of social networking.

Social networking sites are a phenomenon. Sites like Facebook, My Space, YouTube, LinkedIn, and others are redefining personal social experiences. They have even redefined the use of the term “friend.” The Annenberg Center for the Digital Future’s 2007 report was titled “Online World as Important to Internet Users as Real World?”and the 2008 study reported that membership in online communities has more than doubled in only three years.

These sites are also changing the way people communicate with their congregations. We see more congregations creating Facebook and LinkedIn groups, using YahooGroups as extensions of congregational communications, and even pastors Twittering (microblogging). To find out what congregations are really doing with social networking we conducted a survey. The results are interesting!

Of the congregations surveyed, only 32 percent reported that they had a Facebook or MySpace page for their congregation. When we asked why, some reported suspicion of the medium and a general lack of knowledge about its purpose. Several commented that clergy won’t support it. Some report that they are still trying to get a functional website up and running (an interesting reminder that we can’t assume all congregations are using even basic technology tools). One of my favorite responses was “My church does not see the need to have a website. They still treat the Internet like it is a novelty.” Interesting, since someone from that church saw this survey and thought it important enough to fill it out! Of the 32 percent who answered that they did use Facebook or MySpace, nearly 60 percent affirmed that it enhanced communications between the congregation and its members.

While 32 percent of congregations reported using these tools, almost 50 percent of those surveyed answered “yes” when asked if the pastor or rabbi has a personal Facebook, MySpace, blog, or other such account. So, while almost half of congregational leaders are using social networking, respondents don’t consider this to be part of the congregation’s communication strategy!

When we asked, “Do you think online social networking enhances or worsens congregation/member relationships?” 90 percent responded that it enhances them. While the use of these tools is far from widespread, the perception that they enhance member-congregation communications is resoundingly positive. One respondent said, “Intuitively, I believe it has the potential to enhance it, but we have no experience to back that. We are working toward exploring this.”

We included blogs in social networking strategies and the survey. Only 26 percent of respondents reported using blogs. We expected more. Those who reported using blogs gave some interesting and varied uses: clergy sermons with commentary, building construction updates, podcasting, a sabbatical travelogue, and personal thoughts from clergy and staff. While I don’t mean to pick on anyone, some responses were downright funny. One commented, “No, but I would like to start one. We are forming a committee to explore maximizing the uses of our church website, and a blog makes sense to me…” Great, another committee! And my favorite, “Most folks here are introverts and writing thoughts down seems redundant.”

There seems to be widespread perception that social networking tools target a certain age group. When we asked, “Does social networking target a specific age group (i.e., next-generation twenty- to thirty-somethings)?” 57 percent of the responses were either “definitely” or “we think so.” “Not sure” accounted for another 21 percent. “No” trailed at a mere 6 percent. Recent data shows a different picture: The average age of Twitter users is between thirty and forty-nine. According to comScore in 2007, the average age of social sites like Facebook and MySpace was twenty-five and trending upward. According to Inside Facebook, the number of users over thirty-five has nearly doubled in the last sixty days (dated March 25, 2009). The fastest growing demographic is women over fifty-five. “The biggest growth in terms of absolute new users over the last six months occurred among users thirty-five to forty-four.” The majority of U.S. Facebook users are now over twenty-five.

Clearly these are not tools for young people, at least not anymore.

I understand the reluctance of congregations to venture into the world of social networking. Caution is certainly warranted—but I don’t think we can wait too long. People are spending large amounts of their time in the virtual world. We need to be there to greet them!

Rabbi Aaron Spiegel is the information technology director of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations.

Congregations, 2009-07-01

Summer 2009, Number 3

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July 8, 2009 at 8:26 pm Leave a comment

Best Practices in Internet Ministry

I dislike the term ‘best practices.’ My experience is that most best practices, aren’t. But, there are always exceptions. Dave Bourgeois, Associate Professor of Information Systems at Biola University recently presented a workshop for the Center for Congregations, “God in the Tubes: Developing an Internet Strategy for Your Congregation.” Dave  did some really interesting research on congregations and related non-profits who use the internet as part of their work. I like Dave’s research because it affirms many things I’ve been saying! Here’s a sampling:

  • Only 36% of the respondents felt their Internet ministry was successful
  • 64% of organizations with an annual budget >$10,000 reported success vs 30% or less with budgets under $1000
  • Organizations that integated outside services like Flickr and Youtube reported up to 45% more success than those that didn’t
  • Organizations that integrated social networking tools… Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. reported 24% more success than those that didn’t
  • Organizations who had volunteers build the web site reported success 16% less often than those who did not (that’s a -16% success rate)
  • Collecting data or research in preparation for developing a web ministry, 52% of organizations that answered “yes” reported success, compared to 26% success for those who reported “no”

Check out the rest of Dave’s best practice data at For more information on Dave and his research check out

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March 20, 2009 at 5:44 pm Leave a comment

Analog Thinking in a Digital World

(the following article appeared in the Spring issue of Congregations, the Alban Institute’s quarterly magazine. Reprinted with permission) 

For the past six years, the Center for the Digital Future, housed at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communications, has conducted a longitudinal study on the impact of computers, the Internet, and related technologies on families and society. Each year since 2001, as the impact of technology on societal life changes, the Center updates its findings to reflect these changes.

In 2005 the study noted an impressive if not astounding finding. Respondents reported that Internet users (78.6 percent of all American households in 2005) were more loyal to going online than they were to watching television or using their cell phones. “When asked which technology they would be most willing to give up,” the report stated, “39.4 percent of Internet users choose their cell phone, followed by 32.7 percent who would first give up television. Only 27.8 percent of users say they would be most willing to give up the Internet.” These numbers continue to grow away from television and toward more Internet loyalty even as the number of Internet users levels off.

The 2007 report was entitled “Online World as Important to Internet Users as Real World?” Its focus was the phenomenon of online communities. These include social networking sites (Facebook, MySpace, etc.), blogs, and other online communities. The online encyclopedia site Wikipedia (itself part of the online social phenomenon) has, as of this writing, a list of some 80-plus social networking sites, and I’m sure there are many more that either have yet to be included or will spring up in the near future. In July of 2006, Technorati, a search engine for blogs, tracked its 50 millionth blog.

What does this have to do with congregations? As the most important source for creating meaningful, lasting community in American society, it might behoove congregations to pay attention to these trends. Not that some congregations aren’t already using the Internet to its fullest potential. Some certainly are. But most are not. I frequently check Technorati’s list of top 100 blogs and I have yet to see one that mentions religious communities.

I recently introduced a local pastor to blogging (and an excellent resource, The Blogging Church by Brian Bailey and Terry Storch). He and his church now have two excellent blogs up and running, with an amazing amount of readership and traffic. He recently wrote me, “We’re now trying to put together a network of blogs for the church and the various ministries in it. I’m finding that they are a tool that is ideal for the kind of things our congregation needs to do.” The cost? A mere $19.95 for the book (the blogs are hosted free of charge).

Most congregational Web sites continue to function as glorified online brochures. In 2000, the Hartford Institute for Religion Research stated, “People who use the Internet to ‘shop’ for a church home will likely be turned off by a poorly produced church Web site, while a slick, interactive site could help draw new members in if a church invests the right resources.” Our experience validates this statement. It is true that the first place potential congregants do their “shopping” is online. Churches and synagogues with poorly produced and managed Web sites are less likely to attract visitors. It is sad to see a vibrant congregational community, with much to offer new members, impeded by its poor online presence. It’s even sadder to see our suggestions for improving their Web site rebuffed, often because of financial issues or a lack of internal talent. Both of these are perceived rather than actual problems. The cost of creating and maintaining professional looking Web sites can be as little as $20 per month, and the level of skill necessary to maintain the site is the same as using Microsoft Word.

Congregants are “using” their congregations differently. Instead of getting their “religion fix” once a week, it’s not unusual for an attendee to download the pastor’s sermon to her iPod after church on Sunday. While she’s working out Monday evening, she listens to it again. When she gets home she logs on to the pastor’s blog, where after reading how the sermon impacted others, she offers some feedback. The pastor, who is offering responses to the feedback, offers some resources for further study. The conversation encourages another attendee to post the sermon to another blog and start an entirely different discussion. And the scenario snowballs. The Internet offers us the ability to affect the world in ways we literally cannot imagine.

The 2008 Digital Future survey reports that online community membership has dramatically affected participation in social causes. Several years ago I heard the prolific American religious scholar Martin Marty say that congregations need to lead societal change rather than respond to it. Well, we are way behind in the method and manner in which our congregants (and potential congregants) communicate and interact with their worlds.

June 23, 2008 at 3:24 pm Leave a comment