Posts tagged ‘Synagogue Studies’

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

Volunteer or Indentured Servant?

Congregation Beth-Israel has just finished a successful fundraising campaign. The campaign’s purpose was to purchase playground equipment for the children of residents of a local battered woman’s shelter – a great cause and an example of tikkun olam in action. Not only did Beth-Israel raise enough money to purchase the equipment and its installation, they raised enough to set aside a fund for future maintenance of the playground. The campaign was a success.

The major players in this campaign were four active members – Ruthie, Arlene, Joan and Lizzie. All four women are active sisterhood members. Arlene is chair of the social action committee. They all worked tirelessly for nine months planning and executing this project, often meeting several times a week at the synagogue. The local newspaper writes an article about the new playground noting that the funds were raised entirely through the efforts of Congregation Beth-Israel. The article did not mention by name any of the four women, though the rabbi acknowledged that it was a congregational effort. This is okay for Ruthie, Arlene, Joan and Lizzie. They do this work because that’s what tzedakah is about, seeking justice anonymously without expectation of personal gain. The synagogue proudly posts the article in the entrance foyer with a poster-sized sign saying, “Thanks to all our members who participated in this effort.” The project and newspaper article were the topic of the rabbis newsletter feature for the following month. Again, no one is cited or thanked by name and again, the group members say nothing.

Several months later the city officials ask the rabbi to help plan a citywide, interfaith event renaming a downtown park after a famous local philanthropist. Arlene happened to be in the synagogue office the day after the rabbi agreed to participate in this event. Since she did such a magnificent job with the playground project, the rabbi asked if she would chair this event. He also suggested that she enlist the support of her former fellow committee members. Of course, Arlene agreed – and, so did Ruthie, Joan and Lizzie.

Sound familiar? Synagogues reward successful synagogue volunteers with more opportunities to volunteer. For most volunteers, this cycle lasts a few years until they finally decide, often with personal and private embarrassment, that they can no longer work so hard with so little in return. All they really want is a heartfelt “thank you” and a little recognition for their efforts. Synagogues do not know how to do this and so the cycle repeats itself over and over. People like Ruthie, Arlene, Joan and Lizzie often keep up their service because they innately understand the concept of kol Yisrael arevim ze ba’ze — all the people of Israel are responsible for one another. They also take to heart the notion of tikkun olam — that they are responsible for healing the world. For these women and many other synagogue volunteers, gemilut hasadim are not optional. Acts of loving kindness are requirements of a Jew. And yet our synagogues often fail to practice these same principles.

We need to change our pattern of volunteer engagement. Jill Friedman Fixler of JFFixler and Associates, a nationally recognized expert in the field of volunteer engagement says, “Volunteering is not a life sentence!” One of the first steps in changing our pattern is to think of volunteering proactively rather then reactively. Synagogues generally find or agree to the project first without knowing if they have a pool of willing and able workers from whom they can choose. No other business or non-profit functions this way. Why should synagogues?

A major step in this proactive model is learning about the skills and talents of synagogue members. The church world has embraced this model using terms like gifts discernment or spiritual gifts inventory. In many of these congregations, every member goes through a process of interviews and training to discern their personal gifts. This often happens with new members when they join the congregation. For some this is an intense process of introspection, deciding what their gifts are and how those might best be used for their congregation. For others it is a simple matter of filling out a form that list their interests or hobbies. The next important and vital step is to record the information in a database that makes the information readily accessible.

Here is an example of how the process might work. The synagogue’s teen group is planning a project to clean up a block of one of the city’s neglected neighborhoods. The education director sees this as a great opportunity to recruit new teen group members by recording the teens “in action.” She needs someone to videotape the day and then edit the piece into a promotional and educational video. How would most synagogues handle this project? First, they might solicit someone like one of our congregational stalwarts in the playground scenario. Of course, they would readily agree. While they may own a video camera, the resulting finished video is, shall we say, of questionable quality! The other option often sought is to hire a professional to do the project. The quality is first-rate, but so is the cost.

The final scenario, and the one I suggest here, is to consult your database of volunteers (which of course, you have been collecting for the last many years!). With a few short keystrokes you discover that while Joe now works as an attorney, he worked as a videographer for his college television station while he was an undergraduate. He is still an avid amateur video maven and a prime candidate for your project. Joe has never volunteered for anything in the synagogue before but he quickly agrees after receiving a personal phone call from the committee chair. Up until now, no one has asked him to help the synagogue before and he is thrilled to receive this personal invitation. It is clear that this is a time-limited project. He can complete it in a few days. It will not interfere with his hectic work and family schedule. The final product is polished and professional, cost was minimal, and the congregation has enlisted the support of a new volunteer.

There are tangible benefits for synagogues with this proactive model. Synagogues can increase member engagement and create a culture of service and involvement. Since the synagogue has ready access to the skills that congregants are willing to give, volunteers are more likely to repeat their service to the congregation.  Their initial experience with volunteer service was a great one and they now trust the process.

Synagogues need to begin seeing volunteers as gifts to the congregation. Many congregants want to be more active in the life of their synagogue. Some are afraid of setting a precedent – if I volunteer for this project they’ll never stop calling. Others simply do not know how to become more involved and are embarrassed to ask. Successful volunteerism is a proactive venture, not a passive one.

July 28, 2006 at 10:02 pm Leave a comment

Newer Posts

Top Posts