Posts tagged ‘Synagogue Studies’

The Jewish People, Inc. Part 2: There’s a goy in the house!

I recently wrote about my experience recommending a church consultant to work with a synagogue. Fortunately, for me and for the synagogue, the experience with this consultant was excellent. He was exactly what they needed.

Afterwards, I had the opportunity to talk with the consultant about his experience. Although he had never worked with a synagogue before, he is one of the most respected change agents in the church world. I asked, “Any quick impressions – church vs. synagogue?” His response was as follows:

There’s a lot of overlap – and a congregation is a congregation… tossing theology aside you’re looking at probably 70% is the same, 30% is very different. I think what’s different, at least in my experience, was how few people actually attend worship or for that matter any other type of event. There’s just not a high level of participation. I’m also surprised to learn about the dues structure, how the financials are managed. In the church world it’s tithing and let’s give to a vision rather than pay the dues and be part of the club. Those were probably the biggest differences – everything else was pretty similar.

I followed with, “Do you think that those contribute to some kind of dysfunction? Particularly the lack of participation?”

Yeah, I think if you’re not participating you don’t have that sense of ownership – what you get is a sense of entitlement. For me I likened it to – I’m a partner in a company and I have a high level of investment and if there’s a problem I’m part of the problem and I also need to be part of the solution. I’m also a member of a country club and I don’t play golf very often and I don’t play tennis very often; I may go there for dinner from time to time and when they send me a bill for the assessment I get pissed off. It’s more along those lines – there’s just not a high level of participation but people are paying dues so it creates a culture of entitlement.

If there’s not a real clear sense of vision or a mission – that we’re actually trying to accomplish something – you’re left with the default mode which is low levels of participation and a dues structure.

Ouch! But sometimes the truth hurts. Admittedly, my first reaction was to explain to him the historic nature of the dues structure, how it harkens back to communal support when Jewish communities were (somewhat) autonomous. I decided not to. Those standards don’t work anymore and what this consultant has pointed out is perceptive and poignant.

Much has been written about synagogues as fee-for-service agencies. Ron Wolfson calls this ‘drive-through’ Judaism – you drive your child to Hebrew or Sunday school and drop them off – and keep driving. Many synagogues even have drop off lanes for this very purpose. You won’t find a parallel to these at churches. When the children are getting religious education, so are the parents. Granted, our education system is much more intense and involved, but Jews are also more secular focused than ever before. Secularity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when it comes to religious participation, many Jews don’t see the synagogue any differently than the JCC, or for that matter, the soccer field or piano lessons.

This isn’t a newly identified problem. Synagogues have wrestled with this for decades. For most, the answer is programming – let’s create new programming that will attract more people. The jury’s in – it doesn’t work. More programs are just that – more programs. Most synagogues have no way to evaluate programs nor do they know how to measure success (or lack thereof). They continue to throw money at programs hoping something will ‘stick.’

So, what is the answer? Truthfully, I don’t know, but taking a hint from this church consultant the key is engaging members rather than attracting them. Churches have been working on ways to engage people into their communities. Some do very careful ‘spiritual inventories’ of each congregant. These interviews seek to discover the interests and gifts of each person. The congregation then tracks these gifts in a database and can then proactively engage members with tasks as needed.

Of course, this requires a level of commitment on the front side. Many churches now require covenantal agreements with each member. These covenants, b’rit kehilloth I’ll call them, outline not only financial commitments but activity commitments as well. Some even have worship attendance commitments.  I had the opportunity to witness one church’s ‘re-up’ ceremony. Each year, congregation’s members recommit to the church in a lovely ceremony. Families come to the front of the sanctuary and actually sign a document outlining their year’s commitments. It reminds me of the title of one of my favorite books, “Rocking the Church Membership Boat: Counting Members or Having Member Who Count” (by Jan G. Linn). The subtitle says it for me – having communities where members are engaged rather than congregations with large roles.

In his book “The Multigenerational Challenge,” Gil Rendle calls the current generation “consumerist” in their focus. He calls them the Burger King, “have it your way” generation. The predominant question for this group, by and large those born since the 1960’s, is “what’s in it for me?” Joining a congregation is much like joining a health club or a country club. “I will shop around and see what each is like and pick the one that gives me the best bang for my buck.” What often happens is they determine that there is no perceived value to joining a congregation. They determine that their money is better spent elsewhere.

For years, synagogues have relied on the b’nai mitzvah cycle. Young parents joined synagogues, whether they perceived value or not, when their children became old enough that bar- or bat- mitzvah loomed on the horizon. That trend no longer sustains synagogues. Alternative religious education venues are forming and not all families have ceremonies in a synagogue. If synagogues were truly market driven, they would adapt to and drive these burgeoning trends.

They are not, nor have they been responsive to the needs of their congregants. What really troubles me is the loss of communal identity, of edah. Our tradition is that support of the Jewish community is not optional – it is a responsibility. Joining or not joining a synagogue is not really a matter of choice – it is a requirement. We have lost that sense of responsibility to each other, our local communities, and the greater Jewish community. We have lost edah, the notion that I am responsible to all Jews everywhere, whether they live in Israel, Buenos Aires or in my own town.  This is a value that synagogues have failed to transmit in the last few generations. The synagogue has value because Judaism has value. By losing the value of synagogues we fail to pass on the value of Judaism.

My maternal grandfather lovingly, and somewhat sacrificially, helped to build a synagogue in the town where my parents grew up. On a 2002 ‘pilgrimage’ to that town, I discovered the schul was now a church. I knew this had happened but it was startling for me non-the-less. My grandfather was an open and respectful man, and I realized that the fate of the building would not have bothered him. I think what would have disturbed him was that the Jews were gone. This neighborhood, once predominately Jewish, was now totally devoid of a Jewish presence. The suburbanization of Judaism is a reality, but this is for me a glaring metaphor for the American Jewish community. We have so acculturated into general society that we no longer have “Jewish” communities. We have been a “mobile” community for ages. But accompanying this with this move to the suburbs has been a distinct shift in attitude. And synagogues are caught in the crossfire – do they lead the community or react to it? I say neither – they need to respond to communal change AND be the pillars of edah.

I often find myself watching with envy the churches with whom I work. Many are obviously focused on their congregational communities. That’s not to say that they can’t or don’t do work for others outside their community. But when a member is sick and needs help with the grocery shopping or housework, there is no question that someone will step in to take care.  When a loved one dies, there is no question that the congregation as a community will support the bereaved – and they know each other well enough to grieve alongside each other. This was the way my grandfather’s schul worked. It’s almost as if we’ve abdicated our communal focus. And churches, who for years have sought to emulate the communal focus of Judaism, now do it better than we do. Martin Buber wrote that the Jewish community has lost its ability to “think Jewishly.” I contend this is a skill we can reclaim by transforming synagogues into the locus of edah. Churches have found ways to make community paramount and, maybe more importantly, relevant. Instead of competing with health clubs, soccer practice and baseball games, they have learned to be OK with what they are – centers of spiritual guidance and tranquility distinct from the mundane world. Kehillath kedoshim – holy communities.

June 3, 2008 at 9:46 pm 4 comments

The Jewish People, Inc.

STAR’s Rabbi Hayim Herring recent blog entry, The Jewish People Inc: A Study On How Synagogues Develop is clever… and brings up an interesting question. Herring likens the development of the Jewish people, to the development of a company or corporation.

We began as a family owned business (Abraham through Jacob). Jacob moves the company because of economic developments. It prospers and spins off into 12 different divisions. We experience a hostile takeover, Egyptian enslavement, which takes us off mission. A few dissenters, Moses and Aaron, try to steer the company back towards its founding mission and a return to the corporate headquarters.

Because of years with lack of corporate focus, Moses ‘hires’ an outside organizational consultant – Jethro. Herring continues the story with great expertise, but I want to stop here. I recently worked with a large synagogue on long term strategic planning and organizational development. I recommended they use a non-Jewish consultant, one who is well-known in the church world but who had never worked with a synagogue. Knowing this consultant and his work well, I knew he would be a perfect match for the synagogue. Fortunately, I was right and the consultation was (and is) working very well. This congregation, which some deemed dysfunctional beyond repair, is well on its way back to health, vitality, and mission focus.

In some respects I was lucky. But I had an ulterior motive in recommending this consultant. I have nothing against synagogue consultants. Many are excellent change facilitators. But the change they facilitate is sometimes shrouded in a ‘business as usual’ paradigm. Many times, synagogue consultants are focused on getting the congregation back to stasis, a state of no change, what Larry Hoffman calls the ‘default’ mode. I think this is, in part, because rabbis and synagogue leaders don’t know what they don’t know. This synagogue was willing to venture outside their comfort zone, the default Jewish world, to see what they didn’t know that might be possible. The consultant recently commented to me, “I had no presuppositions about how synagogues work. I think if I’d been an insider my presuppositions would have clouded the work.”

Might the synagogue world take a lesson from this congregation’s experience? Moses went to his most trusted advisor, his father-in-law, for leadership advice. He didn’t care that Jethro was not part of the tribe. He was the best resource to address the issue. Synagogues might consider this model.

Stay tuned for part 2 – what the consultant discovered about synagogues!

May 15, 2008 at 4:59 pm 2 comments

10 Easy Ways to Keep Me from Visiting Your Church Because I Visited Your Website

Just replace ‘church’ with ‘synagogue’ – these rules apply! Kudos to Tony Morgan of New Spring Church in Anderson, SC wrote this post on his blog. It’s so nice when someone else confirms what I say. Thanks Tony! 

  1. Avoid telling me what’s going to happen at your church this weekend. I found churches that had weather reports but nothing about their upcoming weekend service. I found two churches that had prominent information about upcoming golf scrambles (which I appreciated as a golfer), but nothing about this weekend’s service. Why would I come if I don’t know what I’m going to experience?
  2. Put a picture of your building on the main page. After all, ministry is all about the buildings.
  3. Use lots of purple and pink and add pictures of flowers. Really. Are you expecting any men to show up? And, for my benefit, please don’t put any doves on your website. Doves scare me.
  4. Make me click a “skip intro” or “enter site” link. I don’t have time for that and it’s very annoying. If I have to wait for something to load or have to click around intro pages to get to the real information, I’m probably going to skip your church service.
  5. Add as many pictures and graphics as you can to the main page. My life is already complicated. I don’t have time to figure out what’s important at your church. If you dump everything on the main page, I’m assuming you don’t know what’s important either.
  6. Use amateur photography. And, for the record, it would be helpful to have at least one normal looking person on your site. Do us all a favor and hire a graphic designer, a professional photographer or purchase some stock photography.
  7. List every single ministry you have at your church. Frankly, I don’t care what ministries you have. I just want to know whether or not I should visit your church this weekend. My first step isn’t the men’s Bible study or joining your church’s prayer partners ministry.
  8. Make it as difficult as possible for me to get directions, services times, or find information about what will happen with my kids. It’s important that my kids have a great experience. If you can’t convince me that that will happen, I’m probably not going to risk visiting your service.
  9. Put a picture of your pastor with his wife on the main page. That tells me it’s all about a personality, and I see enough of those people on television. I actually found one church that had not one but two pictures of the senior pastor on the main page. He was looking mighty dapper, though, in his fancy suit.
  10. Try to sell your church rather than telling me how I will benefit from the experience. I don’t care how great your church is. I just want to know if visiting your church will help me and my unchurched friends take our next steps toward Christ.

March 21, 2008 at 8:18 pm 1 comment

Counting Members OR Having Members Who Count

 My friend Rabbi Hayim Herring recently wrote a piece on the Co-STAR blog entitled “Real Leaders Are Not Loved By All.” Hayim reminds us that the final sentence of the book of Esther says,

For Mordecai the Jew ranked next to King Ahasuerus and was highly regarded by the Jews and popular with the multitude of his brethren; he sought the good of his people and interceded for the welfare of all his kindred.

It’s pretty clear that the Torah is inferring that while Mordecai was popular with some in the community, he wasn’t so with everyone. Hayim’s commentary reminded me of one of my favorite books. It’s a small book written for churches, entitled Rocking The Church Membership Boat: Counting Members OR Having Members Who Count.” Author Jan G. Linn posits that strong congregations are those who have a clear sense of who they are and attract congregants of a like mind.

These mission-focused congregations have requirements of members – and not just monetary ones. Members come into covenantal agreements with the congregation to be vital and viable members. This may include a certain number of service hours, teaching, committee and governance work. And if they don’t fulfill their end of the agreement, the congregation has the prerogative to ask them to leave. Can you imagine a synagogue asking a member to leave because they’d consistently failed to fulfill an agreement?! I can’t, and that’s an indication of part of our community’s problem. We’ve become ‘fee-for-service’ institutions that both cater to the whims of a select few and fail to be sensitive to the needs of the many. What would it mean if we stopped counting members and began creating kehillath kedoshim, sacred communities of members who count?

March 12, 2008 at 7:31 pm 1 comment

Synagogue websites

There is a website resource I often recommend to congregations looking to develop their own sites. It’s called Web Pages That Suck, As the name implies (not so subtly), it is a review of websites that don’t quite measure up to Vincent Flanders’ (and the world’s) idea of decent websites. Flanders includes some great tools to analyze ones own site.

In the spirit of avoiding lashon harah, and without getting too judgemental, you can guess why I recommend it to congregations. There are a lot of bad church websites. Proportionally, there are even more bad synagogue websites.

This post was spurred by a recent email to me from Monique Cuvelier of Talance. Talance is a web development company and Monique has taken on the daunting task of working to improve synagogue sites. Her email asked if I had any exemplory synagogue sites to recommend. My reply was that I didn’t even have any really good sites to recommend. Sure, there are some nice, slick looking synagogue sites out there, all of which are based on Web 1.0 – ‘here’s my information, come look at it.’ While much of the church world has embraced Web 2.0 philosophy (see my post on Cyberculture,, I’ve yet to see a synagogue use web technology as a way to elicit or solicit information from readers.

I’m encouraged to see that many rabbis are now blogging. That’s a start! Let’s all encourage Monique by reading her blog and taking her suggestions,!

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March 4, 2008 at 4:55 pm 5 comments


This is a word that I throw around casually. But if viewed critically, it’s almost an oxymoron. Cyber: of, relating to, or involving computers or computer networks (as the Internet), Culture: the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations b: the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group (both definitions from

 It’s not hard to see that all things cyber have become part of our culture. If I take a step back though, this wasn’t the case even 5 years ago. What happened to move technology past efficiency tools to becoming integrated into culture? This isn’t a rhetorical question – I really want to know the answer! Well, OK – I do have one theory. Web 2.0.

Wikipedia says (at least as of this writing) “Web 2.0 is a trend in World Wide Web technology, and web design, a second generation of web-based communities and hosted services such as social-networking sites, wikis, blogs, and folksonomies, which aim to facilitate creativity, collaboration, and sharing among users.” They key is facilitating creativity, collaboration, and sharing. For me, when we stopped using computers as passive ‘users’ and started using them to create, cyber began influencing our culture.

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, but was led to write about it today because of a Facebook group I just discovered. It’s called “I love cutting edge Judaism” and rather than being a religion, culture, or society group it’s listed under “Type: Internet & Technology – Cyberculture.” As one who works with congregations and technology, I’m somewhat sheepish to admit I missed this transition. I’ve been focused (and writing about) technology as a tool for congregations with little to say about how technology is redefining congregational culture. It is obviously redefining religious culture.

The group has a YouTube video listed that I think may be the best explanation of Web 2.0 I’ve seen (heard, read, listened to, etc.). Kudos to Michael Wesch at Kansas State University!

February 16, 2008 at 9:16 pm 3 comments

New resources for synagogues

Kudos to Rabbi Hayim Herring and the folks at STAR, Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal, for their new series of reports for and about synagogues.

Acting Strategically: A Manual for Synagogue Planning is an excellent manual for synagogues (and other congregations) to use for long range, strategic planning. This report contains more inforamtion about synagogue planning than many books on the topic! Consulting in American Synagogues: A Report on the State of the Field is just what the name implies – a review of what synagogue consultants do. The report also includes very important information about how to assess a synagogue’s readiness for using an outside consultant. STAR follows that up with a list of practitioners in Preliminary Annotated List of Synagogue Consultants.

Congregational consulting is a very new field. The church world has been doing it for less than 30 years and synagogues even less. While it’s a burgeoning, somewhat immature field!

Join the conversations on these reports at the Co-Star blog or Synablog

December 18, 2007 at 9:04 pm Leave a comment

Challenging Tradition, Young Jews Worship on Their Terms


Kudos to Shawn Landres and Steven Cohen!

WASHINGTON, Nov. 27 — There are no pews at Tikkun Leil Shabbat, no rabbis, no one with children or gray hair.

Instead, one rainy Friday night, the young worshipers sat in concentric circles in the basement of an office building, damp stragglers four deep against the walls. In the middle, Megan Brudney and Rob Levy played guitar, drums and sang, leading about 120 people through the full Shabbat liturgy in Hebrew.

Without a building and budget, Tikkun Leil Shabbat is one of the independent prayer groups, or minyanim, that Jews in their 20s and 30s have organized in the last five years in at least 27 cities around the country. They are challenging traditional Jewish notions of prayer, community and identity.

In places like Atlanta; Brookline, Mass.; Chico, Calif.; and Manhattan the minyanim have shrugged off what many participants see as the passive, rabbi-led worship of their parents’ generation to join services led by their peers, with music sung by all, and where the full Hebrew liturgy and full inclusion of men and women, gay or straight, seem to be equal priorities.

Members of the minyanim are looking for “redemptive, transformative experiences that give rhythm to their days and weeks and give meaning to their lives,” said Joelle Novey, 28, a founder of Tikkun Leil Shabbat, whose name alludes to the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world. It is an experience they are not finding in traditional Jewish institutions, she said.

Many synagogues feel threatened by the minyanim, and in some cases have tried to adopt their approach, but with only limited success.

“Established synagogues are worrying about how to attract and engage younger people, and younger people are looking for a sense of sacred community, and they are going elsewhere,” said J. Shawn Landres, director of research at Synagogue 3000, an institute for congregational leadership and synagogue studies. “For a lot of people, it’s like two ships passing in the night.”

Younger Jews have spearheaded changes before in American Jewish life, including forming small fellowship groups in the 1960s and 1970s called havurot. Havurot were lay-led communities like the minyanim, but they were more countercultural, said Sherry Israel, chairwoman of the board of the National Havurah Committee. The minyanim are largely urban. They range from the 200 people who show up at the 9 a.m. Saturday service at Kehilat Hadar on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to the 30 or so who attend Na’aleh’s Friday night worship in Denver. Kehilat Hadar’s e-mail list, however, has about 2,800 addresses, a sign of the transience of the young Jewish population in the city and the high level of interest.

Couples have met at the minyanim, but their leaders say the worship services are not singles’ socials. Music permeates the services, everyone is encouraged to sing and the melodies change frequently to keep things fresh.

“I felt it was hard for me to find a Jewish community that has the spiritual and communal things I was looking for,” said Vicki Kaplan, 24, who was raised in a Conservative family in Los Angeles, explaining why she does not attend a synagogue. “There were no instruments, no young people. At Tikkun Leil Shabbat, there’s a joyfulness to the singing, the community, the breaking of bread together.”

Ms. Kaplan said seeing her peers lead worship made her faith seem more accessible. “My friends who I play football with and have beers with are leading service here. I feel like if I wanted to lead a service, I could, too.”

The fact that women at the minyanim can lead prayers and read the Torah is central to their popularity, including among those raised in the Orthodox tradition, which limits women’s participation in services.

“The primary reason I am here is because of gender equality,” said Rebecca Israel, 25, who was raised in an Orthodox family. Ms. Israel attended D.C. Minyan and Tikkun Leil Shabbat, which she visited one recent Friday, until she moved a year ago to New York, where she goes to Kehilat Hadar. “If Judaism is central to my morality, then its practices needed to reflect the morality that I learned from it. In religious practices that limit women’s participation, Orthodox shuls were not living up to that equality that is important to me.”

The minyanim have attracted young people who are well schooled in Judaism. A flowering of Jewish day schools in the 1980s produced a generation with a strong Jewish education and “the cultural wherewithal to create their own institutions,” said Steven M. Cohen, a professor of sociology at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Many realized they could lead their own services after doing so through their college Hillel programs. Tikkun Leil Shabbat draws Reconstructionist Jews, Orthodox Jews and everyone in between, so it, like other minyanim, developed practices that respect people’s traditions.

For instance, its once-in-three-weeks services alternate between one with circular seating and a more traditional service, in which the chairs face east and the singing is a cappella.

The biggest challenge, minyanim leaders said, involves getting lots of people to participate, while ensuring that the liturgy is celebrated competently. Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, who co-founded Kehilat Hadar when he was a layman, started an intensive eight-week course this year in New York, Mechon Hadar, to train those who want to lead or better participate in minyanim. D.C. Minyan has undertaken a campaign to equip more people to be able to read the Torah at services. Many minyanim offer tutoring to those who want to learn to lead services.

The first time she led morning prayers at D.C. Minyan, Lilah Pomerance said, she shook like a leaf.

“There was this disbelief that I was actually doing this,” Ms. Pomerance said of leading worship, “and the other piece was very spiritual, that I was leading the community in prayer and in communication with God.”

A survey that Mr. Landres has undertaken with Mr. Cohen and Rabbi Kaunfer indicates that rather than taking young Jews out of the synagogue pews, they are taking them out of their beds on Saturday mornings.

Rabbi Edward Feinstein is one leader of a traditional synagogue who applauds the development of the minyanim.

“If we were to say, ‘We are sticking to one institutional form or go away,’ then we would die as a people,” said Rabbi Feinstein, who is at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., a Conservative synagogue. “Is it going to take young Jews that synagogues are counting on? Yes, unless you offer something better. Or better yet, invite the emergents in and make common cause.”

Some synagogues have created programs to draw young people, but they are often poorly done, underfinanced and come across as big singles’ mixers, Mr. Landres said.

The minyanim are noticing that some of their worshipers are getting older, and it is unclear how they might evolve as participants have children and move to the suburbs, said members and experts on the movement.

The answer may be found in the likes of Shabbat in the Hood, a minyan that draws 55 to 70 worshipers to peoples’ homes once a month in Leawood, Kan., a suburb of Kansas City, Mo. Worshipers belong to local synagogues. This is “the soccer mom set,” with lots of children around, many of them encouraged to lead prayers, said Marla Brockman, the lay coordinator of the minyan.

“It has been a spiritual hit for our families,” Ms. Brockman said. “We were all looking to go back to Jewish summer camp — the ease of community, this feeling of ‘go ahead and try it, try a reading’ — and we found it.”

November 28, 2007 at 6:33 pm 3 comments

Larry Hoffman ruined my Holy Days!

Now that’s an attention getter! I have to admit it’s only partly true – well maybe not true at all. To be honest, it’s something that Hoffman wrote that ruined my holy days. While referring to ethnic Judaism in his recent book “Re-Thinking Synagogues,” he writes, “Jewish ethnicity is ‘doing what comes naturally,’ but with no transcendent purpose.” The phrase “no transcendent purpose” has haunted me and caused a serious review of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This year I judged all my actions based on the question of whether or not there was some transcendent purpose. Was the action somehow connecting me with God? I was surprised by how often the answer was – no.

It’s time for the family service. I ponder, “does that mean that the regular service is not for families?” All of my children have been in the “special” class for advanced Sunday school learners. This means they’ve all participated in leading the family services over the years. I’m thrilled that this is the last one of these I have to endure – my youngest serves his last year in the “special” class. The service is the same as in years past – some of the High Holy day liturgy sprinkled with kid-friendly songs, most of which are loathed by the kids who have heard them more than once. The rabbi tells some stories. I look up on the bima to see my youngest son struggling to stay focused and participatory. He knows it’s important for him to participate – but he really hates it.

In a recent conversation with a friend (who happens to be an eighty-year young retired cantor and spiritual guru), he commented that it appeared that I did many things based on “shoulds” and “supposed-to’s.” Without psychologizing myself too much, he’s right. I remarked back to him, “isn’t that what Jews do?” With regard to the High Holy days, I think the answer is a
resounding yes.

People often remark that High Holy Day services are too long, too boring, irrelevant, without meaning, etc. Shimon Apisdorf even wrote a book called the “Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit.” With all due respect to Rabbi Apisdorf, why do we have to “survive” the holy days? Why aren’t we reveling in them? I’ve heard these remarks for years, sometimes from rabbis. But, other than a handful of innovators on the coasts, I’ve not seen anyone do much about it. What is it that has us convinced that we cannot change? And particularly, what is it about the High Holy Days that makes the rituals sacrosanct?

I’m not a sociologist or trained observer (although I was an anthropology major in college!). I do love to watch people and what better place to watch Jews than in synagogue. Like all “good” Jews, I went to synagogue for the High Holy Days. While I think the High Holy Days liturgy is wonderful and the machzor is filled with some magnificent poetry, I was bored. So I watched.

The rabbi announces a page number and states that “now we’ll recite a beautiful medieval poem that’s arranged in reverse, Hebrew acrostic. “Wonderful” I said to myself – no one understands the Hebrew and it sounds just like the forward acrostic poem we just chanted, and like the one that will follow this one. Isn’t one beautiful poem enough – why do we have to do a full day’s worth?

I remember my days of leading services, looking out over the congregation as the cantor was chanting, and thinking to (convincing) myself that inattentiveness is just human nature. Now being a part of the congregation and experiencing the distraction and downright boredom I believe I was rationalizing. It’s amazing how few people really pay attention for any extended period. I respect and appreciate those who are in fervent prayer. Most attendees seem desperate to find something else to do. The hallways are forever filled with people chatting and socializing. This used to drive me crazy – how dare they come to the synagogue, on the most holy days of the year no less, and kibbutz with their friends. In truth, we drive them to it. Maybe there in the hallways are where the transcendent moments occurring – where, in Buberesque manner, people are connecting with each other and with God?

It’s Kol Nidre, the beginning of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. The hazan has just finished chanting Kol Nidre three times, the Torah scrolls are returned to the ark. The rabbi continues with the Maariv service. Then he announces the synagogue president will now address the congregation. The topic of her speech – why the congregants need to give more money. I’ve heard the same speech from different people at different synagogues. She pauses as the ushers go through the sanctuary collecting pledge cards. My daughter leans over and whispers to me, “It seems like a church collection.” What a way to kill the
spirit of the evening!

Several times, both before and after the holydays I mentioned, somewhat provocatively, that I don’t like the High Holy Days. OK I admit it, I was fishing for startled reactions and I got them. What usually followed my ‘invitation to speak candidly’ were streams of criticism of the High Holy Day experience. Some admitted that while they attend and follow the “rules” of the period they neither understand much of the meaning nor find the traditions uplifting or spiritual. In good Jewish-guilt fashion though, they trudge on doing what they always do, in many cases what their parents did and their parents before them. Sadly, one converse to those attending synagogue are those who have given up – they refuse to attend. One young woman commented that she just doesn’t get it anymore and while she identifies herself as a committed Jew, she will neither fast nor attend services this year. The one ritual that still has meaning for her is tashlich, because it’s simple, tangible, and makes sense to her.

During one of my Yom Kippur hallway wandering times I stop by the teen service in the chapel. I hear the din even before I get down the hallway. At first glance I think they must be taking a break. They’re actually reading the Torah, or at least the guest cantor and her gabbaim are reading the Torah. Everyone else seems totally disengaged. The cantor glances up periodically to throw evil-eye glances at the congregation. I don’t think any of them catch these – at least they don’t react to them.

What do we do? I find myself in the same predicament as many Jews who want, need, something new and different. This year I gave myself permission to try something new. That in itself was no easy feat. To deviate from “tradition” is difficult for Jews. We think we find meaning in tradition but as Rabbi Hoffman reminds us, tradition is often confused for ethnic longing, a “nostalgic yearning for Jewish folkways.” Ethnicity is “doing what comes naturally, but with no transcendent purpose.” I don’t find this sustaining and posit most Jews don’t either. The rabbis of the Talmud created a concept called hilkheta k’vatraei, the law follows the latest generation of authorities. It’s time to empower new authorities!

This year I decided I needed meaningful ritual – something I could share with my family. After discussing it with my wife, we decided to focus the holy days on our family relationships. While I thought it might be contrived or hokey, the results were wonderful. We began erev Rosh Hashanah with “services” at home. Anyone with a machzor can do this. We went through the evening’s liturgy, passing readings from person to person, discussing them while we read them. Instead of two hours in schul it took about twenty minutes! Then everyone got four sheets of paper. On each, we wrote at the top, “If I’ve harmed you in any way this year I’m sorry.” Each of us then came up with at least one specific thing for which we wanted to offer an apology. While it lasted only a few short minutes, the silence was deep and tangible. Each of my children (16, 13 and 12) studiously followed the instructions. We gave the paper apologies to each respective person with the idea that the receiver would accept or not accept the apology by Yom Kippur. I can’t say that all were 100% diligent about this but it led to a week’s worth of communication with my children and my wife that I will remember for a long time. I hope they do too. And I hope this is a new tradition for our family. While it was a small step, all my children commented that they got more out of the few hours we spent together in prayer and connecting with each other than they did at synagogue. I’m not sure if this is a testament to our new family ritual or the remoteness of synagogue!

I wish I could say we were as innovative for Yom Kippur, but the “shoulds” prevailed. We attended Kol Nidre, which I still find moving and meaningful. But this year at our pre- Yom Kippur meal we talked about the meaning of Kol Nidre. The conversation was deep, fun and moving.

If it sounds like I’m advocating the end of High Holy Days services, I’m not. For some people I believe there is enduring meaning in following the paths of our predecessors (even if those paths only go back a few hundred years). I am advocating that Judaism needs to offer choices. While I don’t like the idea that religion has to be consumer driven, The High Holy Days has to meet people where they are. We need to give ourselves permission to experiment and innovate – and sometimes fail. If we don’t offer new choices, many Jews will make the choice for us by choosing not to – not to attend, not to question, not to seek a meaningful expression of their Judaism. That’s a failure I cannot endure.

This post also appears on Synablog

September 28, 2007 at 5:53 pm Leave a comment

Is There A Jewish Mainline?

Yesterday’s USA Today included an article entitled, “Some Protestant churches feeling ‘mainline’ again,” contending that it’s not just conservative, evangelical churches that are thriving but that many mainline Protestant congregations are alive and well. The “mainline” here refers to the Episcopal, Presbyterian, Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ, United Methodist, and Lutheran denominations. Most of the press around these denominations has predicted the slow demise of the mainline from the religious landscape of American Christianity.

Not so, says Diana Butler-Bass in her new book, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith. Along with her two previous books, The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church and From Nomads to Pilgrims: Stories from Practicing Congregations, her research found that there are mainline churches that are doing well, and many are thriving and growing.

So, what does this have to do with American Judaism? We could learn a lot from Diana’s research. Bass makes a distinction between programs and practices. The congregations she studied are able to identify those things they do that were irrelevant or lost their meaning. Instead of throwing these away, Bass talks of “retraditionalizing” these practices. I’m reminded of Larry Hoffman’s distinction between ritual and ritualization in The Art of Public Prayer. Bass’s research found that mainline churchgoers crave ritual and ancient practice. But, they also want these presented in ways that are relevant and meaningful to their contemporary lives. So while one Episcopal church chants Gregorian melodies, they also offer Café St. Mark – a free breakfast buffet for all, member and visitor, as a way of offering hospitality and forming community.

One Lutheran official stated of mainline Protestantism, “We got lazy…” Sociologist of religion Barry Kosmin says, “The mainline is never going to be the dominant cultural group again.”

Where is American “mainline” Judaism in comparison? There is already talk that Judaism is in a post denomination/movement period. Steven M. Cohen’s forthcoming S3K Report for the S3K Synagogue Studies Institute on movement affiliation may say otherwise. Larry Hoffman says that “post-denominationalism is a ‘myth’ and that denominations are still very important.” I would contend that the movements are not important themselves; it’s the identity that synagogues derive from their affiliation. However, I think we’re in the midst of our “lazy period.” If synagogues (and the movements) don’t start the process of retraditionalizing, we will have our own version of mainline decline.

Bass says of these practicing, revitalized churches, they “have a beautiful world where they are enacting service, doing justice, learning to pray and caring for one another.” Isn’t it interesting how this parallels the edict in Pirke Avoth, “The world rests on three foundations: study, service, and benevolence”? Judaism offers the prescription for vital synagogue communities. Maybe it’s time for us to borrow it back from our Christian brothers and sisters?!

(this post also appears at

November 2, 2006 at 9:55 pm Leave a comment

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