Posts tagged ‘Synagogue’

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

Bluffer’s Guide To Going To Shul

I don’t know who wrote this, but it’s hilarious!
UPDATE: I do know who wrote this, NW Jew, see comment below… it’s still hilarious!

Worried about looking like a shlemiel in shul?  Finding the shul service impossible to follow?  Many people suffer from what is known in religious circles as “Mainstream Judaism.”

No need to worry, however. Our team of spiritual healers have devised a cure and we are making it available to you exclusively today.  Please pass it on to anyone you know who may be suffering in silence.

“Shul Rules”  is your ten step guide to synagogue confidence.

  1. If you arrive after the start, don’t sit down right away, but instead open the book near the beginning and spend 2 or 3 minutes turning slowly through the pages while mumbling under your breath. If you recognize any of the Hebrew words, say one or two of them a little louder so those around you can hear.
  2. Find a seat just behind someone who looks like they know what’s going on (you can tell this person because they are likely to be mumbling to themselves under their breath).  Make sure this person is using the same prayer book as you.  Keep a note of what page they are on by glancing casually over their shoulder every now and again.  A pair of strong magnification glasses may help here.
  3.  When putting on the tallit, wrap it around your head for a few seconds while mumbling under your breath.
  4. Liberally sprinkle your time in shul with more barely audible mumbles as you look intently at the pages of your siddur. Again, the odd word, phrase, or line spoken accurately and a little louder than the rest goes down very well.
  5. Don’t jump up whenever the person in front does.  He may be stretching his legs.  Instead, wait a moment until a significant proportion of the congregation is standing. In this way, even if they are all stretching their legs, you won’t look conspicuous.
  6. See those guys near the front that are wandering around with an air of assurance?  These are the members of the service committee.  AVOID EYE CONTACT WITH THESE PEOPLE or you may find yourself being asked to do something strange, like opening the doors of the Aron Kodesh or, heaven forbid, saying something in Hebrew out loud to everyone.

The easiest way to look the part is to shockel.  I have met people who have won international shockelling competitions without having a clue about where in the service they were.  Advanced shockellers will even shockel

 Schockelling is an entire lesson in itself but there are two basic forms. The “lateral swing” is usually seen in ultra-orthodox congregations.  Here the practitioner is perfectly still from the waist down (feet together, naturally), while the top half of  the body repeatedly twists at a steady speed.  The “hammerhead” is more prevalent in mainstream orthodox shuls and, as the name suggests, the congregants look as if they are trying to bang a nail into the floor with their heads (I say “his” because women prefer to use this time for kibitzing or kvelling over the way their grandsons shockel).

 Shockelling mainly takes place during the silent Amidah. This is about 10 pages during which you have no idea where everyone else is.  All you do know is that if the others were really reading all the prayers involved, they would be contenders for the world speed-reading record.  You know when it starts because everyone  puts their feet together, dip at the knees, and bows. This is your cue to start shockelling while turning the pages of your prayer book approximately every 15 seconds. The end of the silent Amidah is signaled by everyone taking three short steps back, bowing to the left, the right and the centre and then looking round to see if they won.

7.  Is the Rabbi speaking in English and yet you can’t understand what he’s going on about?  If so, this is the      sermon and it’s your job to look alive.  Paying attention to the sermon is a skill that may take many years to master rather in the way that one learns how to complete diagramless crosswords.  

The formula for this particular puzzle is fairly simple. The narrative of Torah portion you have just heard plus something from local or national news equals “you should go to shul more regularly” or “your home isn’t kosher enough.”

8.  Feel free to talk to people near you at any time. Business and football are particularly appropriate topics of conversation. Seeking kavanah and listening to the sermon will be regarded with suspicion in most communities.

10.  If you can keep your cool until the end of the service, you will be rewarded.  At last something that is familiar, and a chance to clear your throat and give it some as you bash out Ein Kelohaynu and Adon Olam, just like you did at cheder all those years ago.

One final word of warning.  If it goes well and you feel confident enough to go back for a second week running, you will be classified as a regular.  This means there is a very good chance you will be asked to be the next synagogue president.

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November 18, 2009 at 1:33 am 2 comments


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

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