Transforming’ the synagogue
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Transforming’ the synagogue

NEW YORK, Jan. 9 (JTA) — Will “synagogue transformation” join “Jewish renaissance” in replacing “continuity” as the communal buzzwords of the next century?

The powerhouse philanthropy triumvirate of Edgar Bronfman, Charles Schusterman and Michael Steinhardt intends to make it so with a new endeavor they have named STAR: Synagogue Transformation and Renewal.

The threesome is planning to ante up several million dollars — and attract other megadonors as well — for the project. The effort is the latest in a series of endeavors by major philanthropists, such as Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, which provides substantial funding to new Jewish elementary and middle schools, and Birthright Israel, which provides free trips to Israel for young adults.

They think a new organization, independent of any of the Jewish denominations or federations, is the best way to effect “systemic change” in the way synagogues work, STAR President Charles Schusterman said in a telephone interview from his office in Tulsa, Okla.

“The synagogue needs to serve the central role for Jewish renewal in the Diaspora,” Schusterman said. “To create a continuing number of Jews we must focus on our religion. Being a cultural Jew is not adequate if we want to provide continuity to our children and grandchildren.”

STAR is not the first effort to make synagogues more meaningful as a way of enhancing Jewish life. Those already involved in such endeavors are welcoming the new initiative.

Synagogues have been roundly criticized recently as ineffective and uninspiring, even by leaders of the major synagogue movements.

At the same time, they are viewed as the source of Jewish communal salvation — because they are the largest gateway into Jewish involvement, according to the findings of the 1990 National Jewish Population Study.

Eighty percent of American Jews belong to a congregation at some point in their adult lives, according to the study, but in 1990 only one-third of families with a Jew in them were synagogue members — which means that while synagogues reach almost everyone, they don’t succeed in keeping people involved.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, called for a “re-engineering of the synagogue” in a major address at his group’s convention in November in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said in a major address at his organization’s convention in Orlando, Fla., in December, that “too often, services are tedious, predictable and dull. Far too often, our members pray without fervor or concentration. Too often, our music is dirge- like and our Torah readings lifeless, and we are unable to trigger true emotion and ascent.”

Officials of the liberal movements and some Orthodox rabbis were invited to participate in STAR’s planning process, but the largest Orthodox synagogue organization, the Orthodox Union,was not.

Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the O.U., said that “we don’t need transformation from that group,” but noted that his organization has, for the last three years, been aiding its own member-synagogues in transforming the way they operate.

A growing number of O.U. synagogues are interested in doing long-range planning because “now seems like a good time to evaluate where they are and where they want to go,” said Rabbi Moshe Krupka, national director of synagogue services for the O.U.

“There are generational issues here, a new generation of leaders coming up through the ranks who want to put their own stamp on the synagogue. You can’t do business in synagogues the way you did in 1950 and 1970. We have to address the new needs on the spiritual and business levels.”

Jewish federations, whose divide from synagogues was historically considered to be as sacrosanct as the separation between church and state in American civic life, are also taking a new approach.

John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, addressed the subject recently in a major address delivered at the federation’s annual meeting.

“Many, if not most, appear to be incapable of responding to the growing hunger of Jews for community and intellectual and spiritual engagement,” he said of synagogues.

“In this new era, it is time to develop an ongoing structured partnership with our synagogues,” he said, “because our fates” are “inextricably linked..”

Across the country, federations are backing up that sentiment with funding.

The New York federation, for example, has for several years been providing “continuity” grants to different projects, some of which are synagogue-based.

In Denver, the local federation has shouldered part of the cost of a community-wide synagogue transformation project being run in the area’s 11 non-Orthodox congregations by Synagogue 2000.

Launched four years ago in the wake of the 1990 population study, Synagogue 2000 — or S2K, as its founders now like it to be known — has, to date, been the major synagogue transformation project for Judaism’s liberal denominations.

Started by Rabbi Larry Hoffman, a professor of liturgy at the Reform movement’s seminary in New York, and Ron Wolfson, director of the Whizin Center for the Jewish Future at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, it began working with 16 congregations around the country.

Since then, it has expanded to work regionally with five synagogues in the Washington area, and with 11 non-Orthodox synagogues in the Denver-Boulder area of Colorado. It also will shortly roll out a plan to work closely with 15 congregations in each of the liberal movements — Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform.

Interest among Reform synagogues was clear at the recent UAHC convention, where about 400 Reform temple lay leaders and 65 rabbis came to informational meetings run by the S2K founders.

Awarded $1.4 million in foundation grants over the summer, S2K is transforming itself as well — from a project into a permanent organization with a consulting arm backed by a $2 million annual operating budget, according to its principals.

The way S2K works is this: Its leaders developed a “best practices” model that they take to their client synagogues, helping them to learn how to do such things as station welcomers to receive congregants and guests to the services and weave more music into the worship service.

Their focus has been, primarily, on the worship experience.

In the Reform movement, a project emphasizing both adult and youth education began in 1992. The Experiment in Congregational Education works with 14 Reform congregations around the country to help them each become “a congregation of learners and a learning congregation,” said Isa Aron, director of the program.

That project, which is based at the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, has an annual budget of about $80,000.

It is unclear how the STAR approach will differ from these previous efforts.

After spending the past year consulting with leading figures in American Jewish life — including the heads of each of the liberal synagogue movements and seminaries, modern Orthodox rabbis and those already involved in synagogue transformation — STAR has opened an office in Chicago and plans to hold a national conference next September.

Through the end of next summer, STAR will focus on commissioning research to discover what’s working at the most effective synagogues, and on regional roundtable meetings.

STAR will focus attention “on some of the people who are doing exciting, innovative things in their communities outside of the mainstream,” said Sanford Cardin, executive director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman family foundation. “We want to introduce fresh ideas and thinkers into the national debate and discussion.”

Schusterman said the founders want to branch out beyond education and worship.

“We may be interested in a bolder approach that would be supporting renewal activities that may be outside the activities of the established institutions,” he said. “We may see something exciting and provide it funding, disseminate the information about what they’re doing so that other synagogues can be stimulated by other ideas.”

So far, no turf battles are in evidence. Even the organization which has to date been best known for promulgating change in synagogues is welcoming STAR’s creation.

Because STAR’s founding funders “are so well known, they will convince other people that synagogues are important, and the more people who believe that, the better it is for synagogues and the better it is for us,” said Hoffman.

“There’s enough work out there for everybody, God knows.”