Monday, March 31, 2008

S.O.S.: Saving Our Synagogues

Review essay for, 2003

The concept of synagogue renewal has been around for as long as there have been synagogues. Liturgical reform might well have been invented by Abraham, who decided that his father's idols didn't fit in with his generation's cutting-edge modes of spirituality, so he applied his own "cutting edge" to the idols themselves. The Torah is replete with examples of places of worship being knocked over and altars destroyed. Relatively speaking, today's efforts at synagogue renewal are rather mild.

The contemporary synagogue-renewal effort can easily be traced back to the beginnings of the Havurah movement of the late 1960's. Within a few years, that old/new model of communal intimacy in worship and study infiltrated the large amorphous edifices of post-war suburbia, thanks to visionary rabbis like Harold Schulweis and the enormous popularity of the Jewish Catalog series. It was in the third volume of the Catalog (JPS, 1980) that Lawrence Kushner, Arnold Jacob Wolf and Everett Gendler addressed the issue most directly: "The synagogue is the only institution claiming as its reason for existence the perpetuation of religious Judaism in America. For all but a very few Jews, the synagogue is the sole vehicle for religious life and response...And despite this, few would disagree that most synagogues are irrelevant, boring and probably secular."

In fact, back then, few might have disagreed with that statement, but far fewer would have admitted it openly. That was because a generation of American Jews was not completely lost yet. Twenty years ago, those afflicted with boredom and irrelevance had not yet defected in droves into the arms of then many alternative gods awaiting them and their new-found freedom. Synagogues were boring, but we had no choice but to eat our peas and sit in muffled acquiescence. Few enjoyed the non-participatory music and dusty irrelevant sermons given from distant, stratospheric pulpits, not to mention the rectangular gridiron seating configuration, but there was no compulsion to change things.

No longer. Now we in synagogue life fully understand that our children have choices and that we must compete for their attention. We must provide a nurturing and energizing oasis for their journeys. When I was in rabbinical school twenty years ago, we were told that services didn't need to compete with the cultural offerings at Lincoln Center and Broadway, because they couldn't possibly measure up to those levels of entertainment and pathos. Now, belatedly, we are realizing that what Jewish prayer has to offer can be just as moving, revitalizing and spiritually gratifying as anything else out there. Bold new models have emerged that have proven that we can compete with anyone, and actually attract younger people to venture through the doors.

Coming to shul can be "cool" again.

The Jewish world has come to understand that synagogues are still the best possible place for renewal to occur, so even staunch secularists have come to the rescue. Federations are looking to nurture synagogue life--a once-unthinkable notion. And private foundation dollars are pouring into this effort, creating new think-tank organizations like STAR (Synagogue Transformation and Renewal) and Synagogue 2000.

One of the co-founders of Synagogue 2000 (who might now wish to rename) is Lawrence Hoffman, a professor at Hebrew Union College. Hoffman's recent writings on liturgy and renewal are becoming required reading for clergy, and they have inspired other books on the subject. Three books of note are Hoffman's own The Art of Public Prayer: Not for Clergy Only, Sidney Schwarz's Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of American Jews Can Transform the Synagogue, (for which Hoffman contributed a glowing endorsement), and Isa Aron's Becoming a Congregation of Learners, which is part of the Synagogue 2000 "Revitalizing Synagogue Life" series and contains a forward by Hoffman. Collectively, these three fine books can help us to understand what are the primary aims of contemporary synagogue reform and how they might differ from those that came before.

One thing is clear. Boredom will no longer be tolerated. Mediocrity is unacceptable, and those synagogues that refuse to ride the new wave will ultimately sink under the weight of their excessive ballast. And in order to overcome the boredom, change tends to be more revolutionary than evolutionary. Whereas the Havurah movement toyed with neo-hasidism but basically hung close to tradition and emphasized community and fellowship most of all, the moderns are far more eclectic and open to spiritual experimentation. B'nai Jeshrun in New York, for example, is one of the four model congregations profiled in Schwarz' book. This is the model "Conservative" congregation, although neither it, nor the models selected from the other movements, remotely resembles what the mainstream of their movements have been doing. B.J.'s selection of music has gone far beyond the basic Eastern European niggunim tunes of its Havurah forbears, to feature an eclectic blend of American, Sephardic and Israeli contemporary melodies.

We find in these books conflicting prescriptions for effective leadership. While the trend is clearly toward democratization (i.e. the empowerment of the congregant and the less-central role of the rabbi--with the role of the cantor in even greater danger), the model institutions presented by Schwarz all have rabbis who have achieved nearly iconic status. Somehow, it seems, we have to find the perfect blend of charisma and passivity among religious leaders, allowing congregations the chance to grow organically without coercion from above. The "shepherd" model of a pastor tending his passion-less mindless flock appears, thankfully and most certainly, to be dead. Dynamic congregations have learned not to depend on the rabbi's healing powers alone, but to take on the responsibility, and the joy, of caring for one another and creating community. The rabbi as visionary is very much alive, with the caveat that the congregation has to be ready to share and develop the vision as a partner.

Hoffman's Not for Clergy book is in fact must reading for clergy, for he exposes clearly some of the subtleties that make the worship experience dysfunctional, and how we can change them. When people say they are unable to pray, or that they don't need to pray, Hoffman tells us, "they are unknowingly scapegoating themselves, mistakenly blaming themselves for a system failure." He goes on to discuss matters ranging from choice of music to the selection and arrangement of sacred space, which have been central to the mission of Synagogue 2000.

Aron looks away from the sanctuary service as a key to revitalizing the synagogue, but applies many of the same goals of massive transformation and shared vision. Most recognize that the post-War Hebrew School model, as practiced for two generations, has essentially failed. Jewish education, like worship, like Judaism itself, no longer can be compartmentalized. When education isn't just confined to the Hebrew School, but makes its way into the boardroom, sanctuary and home, it can imbue the congregation's visioning process with Jewish authenticity as well as spirituality. Aron gives us a number of success stories. Utilizing personal testimonies and citing congregations of excellence, she, like Schwarz, provides needed motivation for other clergy and lay leadership.

After reading the Schwarz book, I bought copies for my entire board and arranged for a field trip to one of the congregations described, knowing that it wasn't enough for me to want change, they needed to want it too. I now wonder if the Aron book might have been of greater use. While less dramatic in presentation, she offers a cogent, step-by-step approach, using her skills as an educator to lead congregations on the path toward transformation. Schwarz is less able to get the average congregation from "here" to "there"--he just gives us a glowing sense of where "there" is. That in itself is valuable, but unless your congregation has a hyper-dynamic rabbi (preferably a venerated founding rabbi) whose vision is automatically accepted by a rousing consensus of lay leaders eager for experimentation, you will have to travel far even to begin the process of transformation described here.

Schwarz admits that the utopias he describes are diametrically opposed to the norm: "Unfortunately," he writes, "the corporate organizational structure of most synagogues is inhospitable, if not antagonistic, to the kind of singular rabbinical leadership that characterizes our four featured synagogues...The rabbi may have some success in changing the tone of religious services and will have relative freedom to speak and teach as they wish, but changing the organizational culture is next to impossible."

I'm not sure I agree that it is next to impossible. I've managed to achieve it in my own congregation, to some degree, but only over the course of many years. Changing the culture is in fact the easy part. The hard part is to get the congregation to want to change. That means chopping off the head of Terach's idol--and Terach, after all, is our father. Terach is the 90-year old macher who sits in the second row every week, or the past-president and department-store owner who wants nothing to change so that he won't be tempted to leave golf course each Saturday, or the Holocaust survivor who has had enough turmoil in his life who does want anymore change.

However, when people can read of success stories such as these via Schwarz, and then through Hoffman (with liturgy) and Aron (with education), they find a road map toward achieving similar success. When the synagogue comes alive, I've found that even Terach wants to come along for the ride to the Promised Land.

Books Discussed in Night Reading

The Art of Public Prayer: Not for Clergy Only by Lawrence Hoffman. Skylight Paths. $17.95
Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of American Jews Can Transform the Synagogue by Sidney Schwarz. Jossey-Bass. $24.00
Becoming a Congregation of Learners by Isa Aron. Jewish Lights. $19.95

No comments: