Synagogues try to satisfy hunger for spirituality


NEW YORK, Aug. 14 (JTA) — At Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, N.J., more than 100 members gather twice a month to talk about their “spiritual journey.”

They break off into groups of 25 people, gather in members’ homes and discuss things like family peace and caring for the ill, using Jewish texts and their personal lives as springboards.

This is definitely not your parents’ synagogue.

Derided as too touchy-feely for some tastes, programs like “spiritual journey” are promoted by their advocates as a way to keep Jews interested and active in their synagogues.

“It ties members to the synagogue when you have intense experiences with a small group of congregation members,” says Amy Lipsey, 40, a self- described “seeker” who says the group inspired her to pursue a master’s degree at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Agudath Israel’s “spiritual journey” group is one of several innovations growing out of this Conservative synagogue’s transformation project. The congregation was one of the first to participate in an effort called Synagogue 2000. Scores of congregations have launched similar efforts.

With many Jewish leaders criticizing synagogues for being uninspiring, synagogue transformation is becoming something of a buzzword in American Jewish life.

In the past decade, two national synagogue-change efforts — Synagogue 2000 and the Experiment in Congregational Education — have guided a number of congregations hungry for transformation, and both are expanding their reach.

Change is necessary, say the Synagogue 2000 and ECE proponents, because too many synagogues remain stuck in old patterns that do not resonate with contemporary American Jews. While earlier generations joined synagogues as “ethnic hangouts,” they say, younger Jews are often on spiritual quests that could be answered — but usually aren’t — in a synagogue.

“American Buddhism is flourishing because of what synagogues have done wrong,” says Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, founding leader of a suburban Washington congregation and author of a new book calling for synagogue change.

“Jews are fueling it because they’re looking for spirituality that exists within Judaism but has been successfully masked.”

In most congregations, writes Schwarz, liturgy is not accessible or engaging and most members are only marginally involved, joining simply so their children can attend Hebrew school and have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

Like Synagogue 2000 and ECE proponents, Schwarz calls for synagogues to make their services more participatory, to develop healthy lay- clergy partnerships, to focus on the education needs of adults and not just children and to take on serious spiritual issues like the nature of God and purpose of life.

Also toward this goal, a triumvirate of mega-philanthropists — Charles Schusterman, Michael Steinhardt and Edgar Bronfman — created an organization called Synagogue Transformation and Renewal (STAR) this winter that will announce its plans in September. Those familiar with the planning say the new group will not work directly with individual synagogues, but will likely serve as a sort of think tank on synagogue renewal efforts and may offer professional development workshops for rabbis.

But transformation and renewal can be difficult concepts to get your hands around.

Proponents say it can create trusting atmospheres and spur long-term discussions that might not have otherwise occurred.

But skeptics wonder if those who are attempting institutional change are simply holding a lot of meetings to decide on common-sense practices.

Rabbi Larry Hoffman, who founded Synagogue 2000 in 1996 with University of Judaism professor Ron Wolfson, frequently compares the whole process to therapy in that “you discover how to live so life has purpose and meaning, then you filter all that you do through a lens of purpose.”

Rabbi Danny Zemel, whose Washington congregation was among Synagogue 2000’s first cohorts, described the process as “the most energizing, enlivening process I’ve ever been involved in as a rabbi.”

He said he frequently gets calls from other temples wanting to know “what’s changed” as a result of the process, but “it’s not like that.”

“It’s about studying, it’s a process and things happen, or might even change but it’s not like dominos, one thing falling after the next. It’s because the congregation’s involved in a process, all of a sudden it occurs to you to do certain things.”

Nonetheless, the transformation processes do spawn projects and initiatives, like Agudath Israel’s spiritual journey group.

Zemel’s Temple Micah now invites congregants observing a loved one’s yahrzeit to give a short memorial speech before the synagogue includes that person in the Kaddish prayer.

Temple Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Calif., which was involved in the ECE project, made such changes as offering a family Shabbat school and hiring a full-time staff person to coordinate adult education.

At Temple Emanu-El, an ECE congregation in Dallas, members teach — and learn in — a range of adult-level classes that coincide with Sunday school classes, and a cadre of members is being trained to teach in the Hebrew school.

The Reform congregation, which a board member, Jane Saginaw, says was once “lovely, but staid” is now constantly experimenting with new services and programs, such as a twice-monthly Friday night family service that uses a congregant-created prayer book and consists primarily of singing.

Synagogue 2000 centers its work around “PISGAH,” an acronym that is not only the Hebrew word for “heights,” but stands for six “spokes” of synagogue life: prayer, institutionalizing change, study, good deeds, ambiance and healing.

Formed four years earlier than Synagogue 2000, the ECE has a similar approach and has worked with 14 Reform temples. A project of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, ECE encourages congregations to make education central to all synagogue activities rather than simply a function of the religious school.

It is not clear whether transformation efforts affect membership numbers, and — although proponents says if they are successful they ultimately should attract new people — most involved in the processes say their primary focus is on intensifying the experiences of people who are already members.

“I’m sure Synagogue 2000 didn’t hurt us, but we didn’t promote it as outreach,” said Silverstein, noting that his synagogue’s membership has tripled from approximately 300 to 900 families over the past 20 years. “It’s more inreach, to intensify the involvement of those that are members.”

Not everyone is an advocate of change on the institutional level, though.

And even some champions of transformation efforts, like Agudath Israel’s Rabbi Alan Silverstein, question whether Hoffman’s therapy metaphor is appropriate.

While Synagogue 2000 “can elevate the synagogue to another level,” says Silverstein, “Larry really believes the synagogue is more ill as an institution than I think is the case.”

Silverstein points to a recent study of Conservative congregations indicating that more synagogue members are regular participants in Shabbat services than were earlier in the last century. Other studies have found young affiliated Conservative Jews are better educated in Judaism than their elders.

“The assumption that davening life in the non-Orthodox synagogue is broken, failed or does not exist, I don’t accept,” says Silverstein. “Could it be better? Sure. But we’re doing better than ever before.”

Even if it is true that synagogues need change, all the talk about process and transformation strikes some as a bit too touchy-feely.

David Liebeskind, a longtime member of Temple Sinai in Stamford, Conn., and a management consultant by profession, says that while he respects those involved in the process, he and several other congregants have grown frustrated with the Reform congregation’s participation in the ECE program.

“I personally wouldn’t waste the resources with these grandiose programs because I don’t think the payout is going to be good as spending the time and money elsewhere,” he says.

One Conservative synagogue member in Detroit says she has a better suggestion. Federations would be more helpful if they simply paid for more staff positions at synagogues.

“What kind of money are the federations paying Synagogue 2000 people to come to their towns and state the obvious?” she asked.

“The problem is not that shuls don’t know what needs to be done, but that they are chronically understaffed” and, with more women in the work force, can no longer rely on a large pool of volunteers, she said.

Nonetheless, change proponents insist that congregations can become vibrant even without money.

According to Schwarz and Hoffman, if a synagogue does a good job of building community, members will be able to — and want to — take over much of the work that had been relegated to professionals. In fact, they argue, such volunteering will strengthen members’ feelings of ownership in the synagogue.

“Members can do so much more,” says Schwarz. “It’s true that people are working today and the volunteer pool is now very busy, but one of the things I’ve learned is that people are hungry to be involved in creating spiritual communities and will give untold amounts of time if they feel they’re the players and not just supporting the staff.”

While synagogue transformation has caught the public interest, it is still unclear whether the advocates for change will usher in a new era of synagogue life, or whether most congregations will continue business as usual.

Isa Aron, the HUC professor who coordinates ECE, says that “interest keeps growing so clearly this isn’t a blip on the screen.” Because transformation efforts mirror many ideas about institutional change used in the business world, it should resonate with congregants and lay leaders, she says.

“Now it’s a lot easier than years ago,” Aron says. “Now if you go to a congregation and talk about this, not everyone looks at you like you’re crazy.”

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