Redefining the Synagogue: Funders Ruffle Rabbinic Feathers at Synagogue Renewal Gathering

The details about North America’s latest Jewish mega-philanthropy unfolded a bit like a mystery drama in which the detective begins the closing scene with, “You’re probably wondering why I’ve brought you all together here tonight.”

Three weeks before Rosh Hashanah, three of American Jewry’s wealthiest donors brought a handpicked group of 150 Jewish leaders to a “summit” in Chicago, put them up in a downtown hotel for a busy 26 hours and waited until the last hour to announce their plans: to invest $18 million during the next five years to “help achieve systemic change of the synagogue.”

The Synagogue Transformation and Renewal triumvirate of businessmen-turned- philanthropists – Edgar Bronfman, Charles Schusterman and Michael Steinhardt – will concentrate their funding on the following:

Awarding $500,000 per year in challenge grants for “innovative approaches” to synagogue issues such as membership, leadership, staffing, education and worship services;

Creating a program to train synagogue consultants;

Convening meetings for congregational leaders from all denominations;

Promoting public awareness of synagogues and advocating Jewish federations and other philanthropies to increase funding for synagogues; and

Using new technology such as videoconferencing and the Internet to offer professional development courses for rabbis.

Founded last December, STAR has held smaller regional conferences and conducted research, but its precise direction had been under wraps until the Sept. 6- 7 event.

The large cash announcement and element of mystery were not the only unusual aspects of the historic gathering. It started off somewhat uncharacteristically by offering participants 10-minute back rubs and, despite its spiritual agenda, shared the hotel with a conference for the more superficially concerned Mary Kay cosmetics.

In the hours between the massages and finale, the participants – most of whom are rabbis or professionals known for their involvement in promoting synagogue change – sat through heavily air-conditioned presentations (conference rooms were kept cold in deference to a medical condition of Schusterman’s) and puzzled among themselves as to just what the three funders had up their sleeves.

It was an ingathering of thinkers from rarely intersecting American Jewish worlds – and not all were the usual suspects. While representatives of the four major streams of Judaism and a handful of federation folks were present, participants also included people used to being relegated to the fringes: gay and lesbian rabbis, Jewish Renewal leaders, proponents of Jewish meditation, people from organizations reaching out to intermarried couples and the president of the alternative seminary, the Academy for Jewish Religion.

Among the more off-beat individuals:

Shmuley Boteach, a young Orthodox rabbi known for cavorting with celebrities and writing provocatively titled books that attempt to bring Jewish values to mainstream culture;

Niles Goldstein, a young Reform rabbi who recently authored “God at the Edge,” a book about finding spirituality while embarking on adventures like dogsledding in the Arctic Circle; and

Gary Schoenberg and Laurie Rutenberg, married rabbis from Portland, Ore., who regularly invite 40 “disconnected” Jews at a time to their home for Shabbat and holiday celebrations.

Despite the diversity, men outnumbered women by a ratio of roughly 2-1, and there were a few glaring absences: cantors and grass-roots synagogue lay leaders.

While many there were advocates for synagogue transformation efforts such as Synagogue 2000, others complained that these efforts focus too much on things like fiddling with liturgy or getting people singing rather than addressing people’s Jewish knowledge or relationship to God.

Rabbi Michael Balinsky, director of professional development at the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School – a two-year program of adult Jewish learning – said the conference focused more on the “liturgical experience of the synagogue – the music, the singing” than the “transformation emerging from education or how synagogues can be transformed through the education experience.”

In a group discussion, Rabbi Zachary Heller of the Wilstein Institute of Jewish Policy Studies said he was “not personally a fan of the ‘happy clappy’ stuff.”

“You can change culture by the melodic and aesthetic aspects, but you won’t ultimately change people’s lives,” he added.

With such a diverse crew assembled, a frequent complaint was that there was too much programming and not enough time for networking.

By the end of the first night many were angered and frustrated by the funders’ blunt – and, according to some, ignorant – criticisms of synagogue life.

“This is some very well-meaning people tripping over every buzzword in the Jewish world without providing any focus or direction,” said Rami Shapiro, a Miami rabbi who runs a Jewish Web site called simplyjewish.com.

Shapiro was on his way out of a session in which Steinhardt had called the Reform and Conservative movements “accidents of history,” and Bronfman – after stating that “rabbis don’t own synagogues” – explained that he finds it more spiritually meaningful to perform the Havdalah ceremony on Sunday nights, when he returns from his country home, than at the actual conclusion of Shabbat.

Some, like Reform Rabbi Balfour Brickner, sharply objected to the philanthropists’ assessment that the liberal denominations may not last, but others predicted a power shift away from denominational loyalties and toward collaboration, both among different denominations and different types of institutions, like synagogues, federations and Jewish community centers.

“People on the outside who are not affiliated are turned off by the squabbling,” said Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, whose suburban Boston congregation is nondenominational.

At the end of the first night, many griped privately about the philanthropists – with several calling the speeches “amorphous” – but hesitated to give their names for publication for fear of jeopardizing their chances of getting funding down the road.

“Part of what we witnessed last night was the inherent danger of having funders set the agenda,” said one Reform rabbi at breakfast the next day. “There was a lot of sophistication in the room but it wasn’t on the stage.”

Later that morning, Steinhardt was offering his version of an olive branch, saying, “I gather that last night we ruffled some feathers,” and then adding, “I’m sorry we didn’t have a chance to argue and share thoughts. I hope there will be such opportunities, not for the sake of argument but for heaven.”

And at the summit’s conclusion, Richard Joel – the president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life – urged participants not to be cynical or put off by the donors’ confrontational styles.

“They want to learn and often say outrageous things to engage people in conversation,” he said of the donors, all of whom are Hillel supporters.

One East Coast rabbi who did not want her name used remained cynical as she left the summit.

“A lot of people feel used,” she said, calling the event a “24-hour press conference” in which the leaders – all of whom were busy with the high holidays approaching – were “props.”

But others were cautiously optimistic, saying they were glad to see their issues talked about and the promise of funding.

Rutenberg, of Portland, described it as “an exceptional Jewish experience,” adding that “it’s important to think big and have vision.”

However, she warned, money isn’t all that is needed.

“Money itself isn’t going to bring us to the Jewish future we want,” she said. “It’s going to come from the best of our teachers inspiring as many people as they can, then people living Jewishly and inspiring others by sharing it in warm, joyous ways.”

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