Reform pounces on synagogue transformation


NEW YORK, Aug. 15 (JTA) — While all streams of Judaism are working on transforming their synagogues in some way, the Reform movement is investing more resources in the effort.

Its seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, created the first systematic synagogue change program, the Experiment in Congregational Education, in 1992.

The program worked closely with 14 congregations over three years, helping them make Jewish learning central to all synagogue activities.

Now, Reform’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations is helping 18 of its synagogues around the country participate in Synagogue 2000, a multiyear program similar to ECE that tries to make synagogues welcoming and prayer services meaningful.

In addition, 10 Reform temples are starting to work on a UAHC project called Creating Learning Congregations, and another 80 to 100 synagogues will participate in a less intensive “worship change initiative” said Rabbi Daniel Freelander, the UAHC’s director of programs.

“At the core of our philosophy is that how the synagogue does business is always going to be changing, but organizations move really slowly and unless you instigate change, it doesn’t come automatically,” Freelander said.

The synagogue transformation experiments come at a time when the Reform movement is rethinking the way it approaches worship, shifting away from what Freelander described as a “performance style of worship,” in which congregants sit passively while the rabbi and cantor lead services from the front.

Increasingly, Reform congregations are incorporating more traditional Jewish rituals and practices. In 1999, its rabbis urged Reform Jews to consider things the movement had once staunchly dismissed, like keeping kosher and observing Shabbat.

Although leaders of Judaism’s other movements agree that synagogues need to think about adapting for today’s American Jews, they are taking a more cautious approach to transformation efforts than Reform. Individual Conservative and Reconstructionist congregations have participated in Synagogue 2000, but their national movements are not directly involved with the effort.

Mark Seal of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation said it is not clear whether Reconstructionist congregations need Synagogue 2000’s approach.

“We didn’t need a sense of davening and spirituality — we have that,” he said, noting that as part of Judaism’s youngest stream, Reconstructionist congregations tend to be fairly new and small, with most already offering the inclusive, participatory type of worship services Synagogue 2000 encourages.

Meanwhile, the Conservative movement is “trying to work with our congregants to help them figure out what transformation is,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Synagogue 2000 “is good for the synagogues prepared to invest significant human and financial resources, but most of our congregations are intimidated by that,” Epstein said.

Instead, the Conservative movement is encouraging more modest projects like one called “Mentoring Months,” in which congregations encourage members to pair up and share Jewish skills with each other. For example, one member might teach another to read Torah.

Talk of synagogue transformation has been less prevalent in the Orthodox world. However, some leaders are calling for more change, particularly to bring in new people who were not raised Orthodox.

“There’s less apparent need for transformation and renewal in Orthodox synagogues because on the surface of it everything looks good. People come in large numbers every week, often every day,” said Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judaea Congregation in Los Angeles.

But, he added, “my contention is there’s so much more we could be doing if we see ourselves differently — not as serving a narrow swath, but serving as broad a swath as possible.”

Toward that end, Kanfesky’s shul implemented several strategies four years ago to make newcomers feel welcome: encouraging communal singing during services, announcing on which page in the siddur prayers are located, coordinating extensive social action projects and organizing members to host each other for holidays and Shabbat meals.

“People who are here for the first time get four or five Shabbat invitations,” said Kanefsky, who used to work with Rabbi Avi Weiss, an Orthodox rabbi known for his vibrant New York congregation and successful outreach to nonobservant Jews.

Professionals in the Orthodox Union say many Orthodox synagogues are involved in strategic planning efforts and are bringing in liturgical and other changes.

In the past year, 30 Orthodox congregations have sought planning advice from O.U. officials, said Rabbi Moshe Krupka, the organization’s national director of synagogue services. Several are trying to make prayer services more engaging, doing things like moving the bimah, or dais, to the center, rather than the front, of the synagogue and incorporating more singing, sometimes even dancing, into the service.

Rabbi Saul Berman, director of Edah, a modern Orthodox think tank,

said that synagogues have “taking a back seat” to Jewish day schools in terms of Orthodox communal priorities. However, he said, there are “certain stirrings, particularly from the younger rabbis” and that as transformation efforts become more prevalent “the Orthodox community will be deeply engaged in the same process.”

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