Free Range Synagogues

Joel Lurie Grishaver

Joel Lurie GrishavThe New York Times published an article by Michael Paulson last week, The ‘Pay What You Want’ Experiment at Synagogues. It puts together two things we know (a) that synagogues are losing members, and (b) that synagogues are expensive (if costly to operate). Its news is that more than 30 synagogues are trying to build membership by allowing members to set their own dues level. It suggested (as lots of people–including me–often do) that money is the problem.

Within a week, Nina Badzin responded on Kveller, Expensive Dues Aren’t the Only Reason People Don’t Go to Synagogues , “Changing the financial requirement for membership without addressing the deeper disinterest in attending synagogue is going to yield more of the same long term: low participation and apathy.”

In exploring the issue she comments, “If rabbis do not have relationships with their members that are personal enough to help those members grow in their Judaism or to introduce members to the idea that Judaism has the potential to improve their lives, then after the lifecycle events or in the long years between them, it’s no wonder the value of a membership becomes a pressing question.”

To prove her point she quotes Rabbi Avi Olitzky, from his new book with his father Rabbi Kerry Olitzky “New Membership & Financial Alternatives for the American Synagogue,” “There has to be harmony between the synagogue’s mission and its agenda. A synagogue cannot just be in the business of being in business.”

Her simple solution is the single word “community.” “The challenge for synagogues will be that members–and those not even considering joining–will find that community (and have found that community) in any number of places from yoga studios to the racquetball court to their careers, or their kids’ schools and sports teams. If we can’t give people a reason to infuse that circle with Judaism (not just with Jews, but with Judaism) then sadly I don’t see a future for synagogues whether they cost money to belong or not.”

Now life gets interesting. We have just finished two decades of synagogue renewal where S3K, STAR, REIMAGINE and a dozen other organizations work in the area of reconcepualizing the synagogue and lobbying for its rebirth. Perhaps the only tangible outcome of the entire movement is a few dozen articles, a couple of books and Ron Wolfson’s Relational Judaism. “What really matters is that we care about the people we seek to engage. When we genuinely care about people, we will not only welcome them; we will listen to their stories, we will share ours, and we will join together to build a Jewish community that enriches our lives.”

Todd Rudgrent once wrote a song called “Love is the Answer,”  which seemed kind of useless after the Beatles recorded “All You Need is Love,” But the truth of the 60s and 70s and all that followed was that we needed as many love songs as can be produced, “Love is all you need,” the answer that we can’t manage to live.

Saying “Jewish Community” is the answer is likewise overstated, but real. The New York Times article and the Kveller response talked a lot about the role of the rabbi in personalizing experiences via life-cycle events. Wolfson was smart enough to say that every contact matters.

Here are some simple truths.

  • School enrollment is shrinking along with or ahead of synagogue membership. Families (that are counted as a single member unit often have multiple children who are enrolled in the school as students).
  • Schools are often where we have our longest and most intimate contacts with families but have rarely been seen as the target location for building the synagogue into Jewish community (even though this is an obvious role).
  • The short-lived family-education burst (that was reduced from a movement to a program list) shared much of the origins of synagogue renewal, yet North American Jewry is not convinced that “Hebrew” schools are the best way to connect families and build communities.
  • There is still way too much belief that the Bar/t Mitzvah, rather than all the years of preparation are the most powerful way for the synagogue to intervene in family lives,
  • Jewish teachers, whose training is far down the priority list, are the community’s most frequent and long term connection with families and could have (if utilized and informed) the greatest impact on community building. It is a standing truth that Kametz plus Aleph can equal “awe.”

By all means make synagogues cheaper. By all means believe that “community” is the answer. We can tool a Jewish education that works on this issue—and all the focus on informal education and project based learning is an attempt in this direction. But never forget that contact with, engagement with, listening to, and building with Jewish parents is the solid path to the future.

There is a deep-moan in the soul of most Jewish educators that parents and their involvement with soccer involve the greatest danger to Jewish life. We need to step past that, and celebrate every child who is presented for Jewish learning and see them as an opportunity to build the Jewish future. The answer does not lie in the death of textbooks or the rise of tablets, it does not lie in renaming our schools as camps, but in being schools that enter into deep partnerships with our parents. Lots of things work. There is no one right way forward. No magic pill, but the secret handshake will go a long way towards engaging and connecting with families.

Do not let the critics make the school into the problem, the part of Judaism that needs to be fixed. The school is not the problem child, but the key to the future. It is the one place where we spend enough time with clients to learn their names and what they take in their coffee.

Jewish life is going to shrink. I believe firmly that truth can be seen and predicted. The question that remains is a simple one. In shrinking, is it going to fragment or condense? I believe in condensation. Most of Judaism’s transformative moments have come from condensation and not from growth. With the rich possibilities of small but committed come lots of opportunities. The future can still be bright and shiny.