Renewing Our Synagogues As We Renew Ourselves

Throughout the entire Jewish world, synagogues are busy preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. While Passover may be the most widely celebrated Jewish holiday, no religious observance on our Jewish calendar fills our sanctuaries like the services we hold on the High Holy Days.

For these few precious hours, most contemporary Jews interrupt their regular routine and present the synagogue with an unparalleled opportunity to demonstrate that Judaism has relevance and meaning – for the lives of the young and old, the affiliated and unaffiliated, individuals who encounter Judaism through intermarriage, and people seeking community.

Many synagogues are up to this task. Many more, however, are searching for innovative and effective ways to fulfill their traditional responsibilities of transmitting the rich intellectual and spiritual quality of Judaism, teaching Jewish history and values, perpetuating Jewish tradition, and responding to essential human needs. They seek assistance in renewing themselves as true centers of excellence, capable of reaching out to the community and delivering the very best that Jewish life has to offer.

The task will be formidable. The Jewish community as a whole must step forward to provide the means for the synagogue to redefine itself and its role in communicating the essence and excitement of Judaism to the Jewish people. Transformation and renewal efforts such as STAR, Synagogue 2000 and a host of denominationally-based initiatives will produce systemic change only if synagogues are empowered to take risks, to experiment with new ideas and to invest valuable resources to achieve the desired results. We must accept the premise that business as usual is no longer sufficient, ask difficult questions and seriously reconsider the role of the synagogue in contemporary Jewish life. The challenges our synagogues face today remind me very much of the story of Yavneh. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai established his Talmudic academy of Torah study and a new Sanhedrin at Yavneh after the Second Temple was destroyed. It was here that ben Zakkai began to adapt the practices of Judaism to a new reality – a social climate that lacked the centrality of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Today, Judaism is facing a challenge as great as the destruction of the Second Temple. Assimilation and attrition are seriously depleting the ranks of our people in the Diaspora. We are living in an era when every Jew is a Jew by choice, so we must completely rethink how we deliver our faith and culture now that Judaism must compete in the marketplace of ideas. Only through a profound renaissance of Jewish life and Jewish spirit can we hope to curb assimilation and ensure that a critical mass of engaged Jews live Jewish lives in North America in the 21st century and beyond.

It is time for another Yavneh. We need new conversations, open and honest discussions about the future of the synagogue and new plans to realize our visions. I hope that by implementing the STAR action plan, we will help spark serious conversations and innovative experiments needed to accomplish these crucial initiatives. Over the next five years, STAR will offer consortia of Jewish organizations grants to develop innovative new models to reinvigorate the synagogue. We will enhance communications by hosting transdenominational meetings between Jewish leaders, and our technology program will provide synagogues with improved communications and educational opportunities through the Internet. We will introduce consultants into our congregations to offer expert advice and counsel, and by providing synagogues with greater access to resources of all kinds, we hope to propel the synagogue to the forefront of the Jewish communal agenda.

Everyone committed to ensuring the vitality and vibrancy of Jewish life in the years ahead must involve themselves in the effort to strengthen the synagogue and, in turn, North American Judaism as a whole. Synagogue transformation is a communal responsibility, and working collaboratively will be essential. Only by working together, across organizational lines, will we achieve renewal and promote understanding, tolerance and harmony within the Jewish community.

In just a few days, Jews around the country and across the world will enter synagogues in great numbers. May we take advantage of this propitious opportunity, a time of personal reflection and renewal, to direct communal attention towards the importance of reorienting and renewing our synagogues. And may the resources we commit to this effort work in 5761 result in even greater numbers passing through the doors of our synagogues on Rosh Hashanah 5762 and every year thereafter.

Shana tova u’metuka. Wishing you a good and sweet New Year.

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