Posts filed under ‘Synagogue 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


Enter a caption

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


This essay was written for the 2009 Spirit & Place Festival, The original is at

When considering this essay, I figured a rabbi should have religious places that hold special if not sacred value, so I thought of the synagogue of my childhood where I learned (or at least they tried to teach me) the rich traditions of Judaism. I thought of the shul where I davened (prayed) with my grandfather. I thought of the synagogues I have been privileged to serve. I thought of the myriad places in Israel that have historical and religious significance to Jews. And I thought of the synagogue where my children became bar and bat mitzvah.

And while all these places brought fond memories, none felt inspiring. I panicked. How could I write an essay on inspiring places when, while important and meaningful, none jumped out as truly inspiring? Then I realized all had a common trait that was inspiring—people. It wasn’t the synagogue of my childhood that was inspiring; it was Mr. Shapiro who taught me that learning Torah could move me to be a better person. It wasn’t davening in my grandfather’s shul that was inspiring; it was seeing my grandfather’s non-judgmental piety, in the face of so much personal tragedy, that inspired me. It wasn’t leading a congregation that inspired me; it was the privilege of being with people as they experienced the ups and downs of their lives that inspired me. It isn’t the synagogue where my children became full members of the Jewish community that is inspiring, it is their acceptance of their place in the community and the love of friends and family that inspired me.

Jewish tradition holds that there are only two things holy in a synagogue—the Torah and the people. The building, while important, is just a building. Crossing the threshold into the synagogue does not take one from the world of the profane into the world of the sacred any more than crossing the threshold of an office building. What’s really important are the people whom we seek to inspire and who, in turn, will inspire us.

When the second Temple was destroyed in 79 ACE, the community faced a conundrum. How could they maintain a sense of Judaism without this thing, this structure, as the central focus of their faith? In their inimitable wisdom, the rabbis transferred the power of the Beit Hamikdash, house of sanctuary or holiness, to the home—the Mikdash Me’at or little temple. Parents became the new priests and children their charges. While synagogues became and remain important, they are so primarily because they offer a place to congregate, to be together as a community.

In his book Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Places, Lutheran theologian Jon Pahl writes that new institutions have usurped churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques as our revered spaces. For me as a Jew, it’s not that these places compete with synagogues for our souls; it’s that we have forgotten how to be in community. Instead of seeking inspiration from one another, we search for it in experiences. Life has taught me that the experience of inspiration is not found merely in congregating with others, but in forming relationships. Martin Buber was clear that it is when we acknowledge the humanity of others in our relationships that we experience God. Judaism says that it is loyalty to the teachings of the Torah that is the measure of the faith of the Jew, and not loyalty to an institution.

Jewish spirituality centers on being inspired by others. Which is better: the focus on finding the spiritual in the synagogue or in life’s journey? I am not convinced that either is better, but that personal spiritual growth requires both. It is our tradition to explore the Divine in places other than the synagogue, especially in the home. The concept of Mikdash Me’at, the sanctuary of home, is a cornerstone of Jewish spiritual practice. However, it is also our tradition that prayer in a group is more powerful than alone. It is not happenstance that a quorum, minyan, is required to recite certain prayers, particularly those that are most personal. It is not that God hears better in groups, it is that we hear better in groups! Our connection to God is through our connection to each other. Therefore, the synagogue provides the space where the sacred can congregate, where people can come together with Torah and live the experience of Judaism. After all, what are we worshiping? It’s not the building, the chairs, the walls, or the aron ha’kodesh; we are worshiping our aliveness and our connection with the Divine.

Buber also said, “Next to being the children of God our greatest privilege is being the brothers of each other.” That inspires me!

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August 24, 2009 at 3:30 pm Leave a comment

10 Things To Include on Your Synagogue Site – Now!

From the Talance blog, 

  1. Contact information – on the homepage. This includes mailng address, phone number, e-mail address and fax number.
  2. Directions. This includes a map (like a Google map), parking information and public transport options. Do you provide transport services? Include info on this here too.
  3. Service times. keep this up to date with candle-lighting times and special, high holy day services. In text, on the homepage.
  4. Rabbi’s blog. If there are two things rabbis do well, it’s think and write. They should be blogging machines. If you’re thinking, “But I can’t get the rabbi to blog!” have him or her send you an e-mail every week with their thoughts, and you do a cut-and-paste job. Bonus points if you put the most recent blog posts on the homepage.
  5. Extra blog for special projects. This is especially for long-term projects you want to inform your members of, like renovations, new programs or campaigns like Save Darfur. Yes, start a second blog for these things. That way you don’t cloud the focus of the rabbi’s blog.
  6. Pictures – OF PEOPLE. If you have to show a picture of a room, make somebody stand in it. Better if multiple people are standing in it. If you can’t take pictures during services, provide arty shots of architectural highlights.
  7. A calendar. Keep it up to date. Bonus points if you put the week’s events or a date-picker on the homepage.
  8. A way to give. Do not be shy. Do not make it hard for people to figure out how to give. They want to help you out. Let them.
  9. Calls to action. Tell your visitors what they should do when they arrive at your site. if you want donations, say, “Donate now!” If you want them to subscribe to the blog, say, “Subscribe to the blog!” If you want them to come to an event, say, “Sign up for our next event!” Get the picture?
  10. A special section for potential members. Your regular Joes know what you’re all about, but your new people need special guidance. Put all the stuff they need – like directions, membership forms, rabbi’s profile – in one handy spot so they can pick it up when they come. Label it clearly, “Visitors: Click Here.”

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July 22, 2009 at 7:19 pm 2 comments

Social Networking and Congregations Survey

(This survey and article originated at )
Thanks to all who participated in our survey on social networking and congregations. The response was great, and the results are interesting! So, numbers first.We received 175 responses, most of which were from congregations in Indiana. While the survey was open to anyone anywhere, most of the ‘advertising’ was to congregations in our service area. I did solicit feedback from my social networks – Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Some of those folks took the survey as well as provided some interesting observations and feedback. 
Here’s the data:
Does your congregation have a MySpace or Facebook group?
Answer Options Response Frequency
Yes 31.6%
No 68.4%
If ‘no’ to question 1, why not?
Answer Options Response Count
answered question 110
skipped question 65
If ‘yes’ to question 1, does it enhance communications between the congregation and members?
Answer Options Response Frequency
Yes 40.6%
We think so but not sure 17.2%
We don’t think so 3.1%
No 7.8%
We really don’t know yet 31.3%
Does social networking tarket a specific age group (i.e. next generation, 20-30 somethings)?
Answer Options Response Frequency
Definitely 21.3%
We think so 35.5%
Not sure 20.6%
Probably not 6.4%
No 16.3%
Does your congregation use YahooGroups or something similar to host online conversations?
Answer Options Response Frequency
Yes 12.4%
No 87.6%
Does your congregation have a blog(s)?
Answer Options Response Frequency
Yes 25.9%
No 74.1%
Do any congregational leaders (pastor, rabbi, staff, etc.) use their own Facebook, MySpace, YahooGroups, blog, etc. to communicate with the congregation?
Answer Options Response Frequency
Yes 41.7%
No 48.8%
Not sure 9.5%
Other (please specify)
Do you think online social networking enhances or worsens congregation/member relationships?
Answer Options Response Frequency
Enhances 89.7%
Worsens 10.3%

The data is interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the comments. We’ll look at each individually.

Question 1: Does your congregation have a MySpace or Facebook group? Yes – 32%, No – 68%. Most responded no. The comments for this question ranged from ‘the youth group(s) have one’ to ‘lack of technical knowledge’ to ‘we’re thinking about it.’ Several commented they’ve created a Facebook or MySpace group but no one uses it.

Question 2: If ‘no’ to question 1, why not? The reponses for this question were wide ranging. Some report suspicion of the medium and a general lack of knowledge about its purpose or advantage. Several commented that clergy won’t support it. Some report they’re still trying to get a functional website up and running.

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 novelty.” Interesting, since someone from that church saw this survey and thought it important enough and was interested enough to fill it out! Many saw social networking as something to ‘keep up with,’ like maintaining a website. They reported a lack of administrative capacity to do this. One reported, “We’re probably not techie or hip enough.” Finally, several gave age as a barrier – average membership is ‘too old’ to use these tools.

Question 3: If ‘yes’ to question 1, does it enhance communications between the congregation and members? Most of the answers were affirmative – either yes or we think so – 58%. The next highest category was ‘we really don’t know.’ One can presume then that those who use Facebook or MySpace believe it helps with congregational communications.

Question 4: Does social networking target a specific age group (i.e. next generation, 20-30 somethings)? ‘Definitely’ and ‘we think so’ accounted for 57% of the responses – followed by not sure (21%). ‘No’ trailed at a mere 6%. This didn’t surprise me – there’s a general sentiment that social networking is targeted at younger people. However, statistics don’t support this contention.

Comments regarding the range of targeting was all over the place. Many said it targeted college students. Others claim the target audience is high schoolers. Some acknowledged that they have seen a wide range of users on these services – “I’m in my mid 40’s and I’m on Facebook.  I have Facebook friends of all ages.” Another was so specific as to say, “This is by and for 20s and 30s, especially 30s, urban workers in an urban church with a dominant member base of suburbanites. Part of the ‘re-urbanization’ of the church, whose ministries are focused on the downtown area, especially the homeless.”

Question 5: Does your congregation use YahooGroups or something similar to host online conversations? Yes – 12%, No – 88%. Some reported use of listservs and email groups, but by and large reporting followed in line with Facebook and MySpace use.

Question 6: Does your congregation have a blog(s)? Yes – 26%, No – 74%. The ‘yes’ number was higher than I’d expected. While congregations aren’t using secular social networking tools, many have realized that members want more than one-way delivery of information (traditional websites). The blog uses were varied and creative; building construction updates, clergy sermons with commentary, podcasting, sabbatical travelogue, and personal thoughts from clergy and staff.

I don’t mean to pick on anyone but some responses were downright funny. “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.”

More than a few reported blogs were in the works for 2009.

Question 7: Do any congregational leaders (pastor, rabbi, staff, etc.) use their own Facebook, MySpace, YahooGroups, blog, etc. to communicate with the congregation? Yes – 42%, No – 49%, Not sure – 9%. Wow! 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?!

Question 8: Do you think online social networking enhances or worsens congregation/member relationships? Enhances – 90%, worsens – 10%. By far, the answers to this question surprised me the most. Previous responses showed a clear trend against using social networking, either from suspicion, lack of interest or simply inability. However, the overwhelming numbers of respondents clearly believe these tools enhance congregational relationships.

These answers were summed up by one respondent who reported, “Intuitively, I believe it has the potential to enhance it, but we have no experience to back that.  We are working toward exploring this.” Well, so are we! Stay tuned for part 2 of this report where we explore the trends in social networking tools.

Aaron Spiegel

February 3, 2009 at 7:54 pm Leave a comment

Interview with Shofarsites

Check out the podcast of me being interviewed by Tamar Schanfeld of Shofarsites. Also on iTunes (search shofarsites). I don’t think I embarrassed myself – too much?!

July 1, 2008 at 4:38 pm Leave a comment

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