Feb 12, 2011

Washington Jewish Week: "Shuls have problems, but can succeed"

Washington Jewish Week: "Shuls have problems, but can succeed"
by Rabbi Bill Rudolph


As we read in synagogue this Shabbat about the building of the Mishkan, the portable synagogue used in the wilderness journey, don't be surprised if your rabbi speaks about the future of the synagogue.

The synagogue is an institution with a 2,000-year history. It has played a significant role in the lives of hundreds of millions of Jewish families over the ages. Is it going out of business? No way. It remains a major gateway institution for the Jewish community. In almost any community like ours, 80-90 percent of our families have been members of a synagogue at least at some point.

Still, many experts think the synagogue is in for some rough days, at least in the short run. Some membership decreases have already been felt. Some synagogues have been forced to merge and some may even disappear.

Why so? Some of the concerns relate to the economy and the cost of synagogue membership, especially for members who don't perceive much value to their membership. Other factors are not necessarily temporary. They include simple time pressures that make going to shul a luxury for some.

There is also the sense that this is more and more a "postdenominational" era, where many Jews are "just Jews"; sociologists have commented that many are "self-authenticating" so that what gives them personal meaning is the sole arbiter of Jewish involvement.

For such Jews, affiliation with most shuls, which are affiliated with denominations (for example, Reform, Conservative) and often send out messages about what is expected of members, may seem "old school." And then there is the youngest generation, dubbed Generation F (the "fluid" generation), whose beliefs and practices follow no predictable curves.

I am not sure the average WJW reader fits in these categories of concern. It's the people not reading this column who will be, in many ways, the ones who will determine the future of our synagogues, but readers can have an influence.

The concerns recently brought together more than 40 local rabbis together. Co-sponsored by the Washington Baltimore Rabbinical Assembly and the Washington Board of Rabbis, we met to talk about "the future of the synagogue."

We heard presentations from three colleagues -- Nissan Antine (Beth Sholom and Talmud Torah in Potomac, Orthodox), Leonard Gordon (Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Chestnut Hill, Mass., Conservative) and Jack Luxemburg (Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Reform). They focused on what we can do to capture and recapture today's Jews, with all the pressures above.

What did this rabbi take from the speakers and the discussion among colleagues? Here is the short version, the long will be available in shuls like mine this Shabbat.

Synagogues will be successful going forward if:

�--The focus is on the individual. We can't just put out more programs, we have to build relationships person by person.

�--The programming is creative. "Same old" won't do the trick even for those who are coming already.

�--The rabbis practice tzimtzum. God, the Kabbalists tell us, contracted and limited his/herself to make space for the world. Rabbis have to step back to get members to step up and fill the void. The most successful shuls are those where members feel empowered, their ideas embraced, their peers doing para-rabbi and para-cantor functions. The flourishing of lay-led chavurot and independent minyanim attests to this way of growing. Synagogues and their rabbis can embrace it as well and successful ones have.

�--The members are never taken for granted. New members, especially, have to be cultivated, helped to take root in the life of the congregation, or they may disappear.

�--A sense of community is rediscovered. A synagogue is, most basically, the expression of a desire for community. In today's busy Internet world, we need to reformulate what "community" means and recreate the sense of common destiny that produced synagogues in the first place.

These ideas are a start on the challenge that faces us. From rabbinic seminaries to local shul boards, all who understand the importance of the synagogue need to grapple in a serious way with the changing nature of Jews and Jewish life.

Bill Rudolph is rabbi of Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County, Bethesda, and president of the Washington Baltimore region of the Rabbinical Assembly.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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Chag Sukkot Sameach, dear friends.