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Start Up Synagogues: The Future Looks Hopeful

Cantor Doug Cotler Leads Biennial HavdalaJewish pundits love to predict the eventual demise of the synagogue, decrying its dearth of deep ideas, shortage of spiritual inspiration, and absence of warmth and meaning. They say that Jews and Jewish families are opting instead for DIY Judaism, where one can rent-a-rabbi to “do it yourself,” or to start their own shuls, unencumbered by the trappings of traditional synagogue sloth.

True, there are plenty of temples stuck in the 1970’s, whose music, methods and message seem to ignore that fact that the world and its spiritual seekers have changed. But contrary to these doomsday scenarios or the radical embrace of only newly birthed synagogues-without-walls, synagogue life is alive and well.

Five Insights on Synagogue Next Steps

Five insights over five days at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial convention reaffirmed this. So many synagogues, like the most robust businesses, are fearlessly and honestly taking a measure of themselves and are responding to what they see by experimenting and innovating. Yes, at an exciting rate, synagogues are transforming themselves into flexible, all embracing, relationship-focused engines for a refreshingly exciting and deeply spiritual Judaism.

1. Deep Commitment to Social Justice

When we reach out to others, we end up lifting ourselves up as well. At Biennial, as father-son cantors Doug Cotler and Kyle Cotler (Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, CA) led Havdala (video), singing Eliyahu Hanavi, the prayer asking the prophet Elijah to herald the coming of the Messianic Age. At the Biennial, we reminded ourselves that we Jews don’t wait for someone else to bring an end of war, poverty, violence, prejudice and more. Rather we roll up our sleeves and do the work tikkun olam, repairing the broken world we inherited. Immediately afterward, in speeches to the assembled, US Ambassador Rabbi David Saperstein and Vice President Joe Biden each emphasized the centrality of social justice work to being Jewish.

That’s why at Biennial, synagogue leaders attended workshops in droves, learning how to effectively advocate on issues ranging from racial justice and transgender equality to fighting poverty and working for peace in Israel. We rediscover a central Jewish truth: synagogues that marry deep learning about the Jewish foundations of tikkun olam with regular and meaningful social justice work continue to attract vibrant participation.

2. Audacious Hospitality and Radical Inclusion

Walk in the doors of too many synagogues, sit in the pews, and notice how few people will greet you. Try bringing a child with special needs into many synagogues, and see whether the leadership will alter their program to embrace you. Similarly, so many other barriers to participation keep large groups of Jews and Jewish families away. Changing that dynamic holds one key to transforming a synagogue into the much-sought-after kehilla kedosha (holy community) that can sustain itself.

At Biennial, Rabbi Rick Jacobs with the support of the Ruderman Foundation designated Congregation Or Ami and 26 other synagogues (out of 850) as Exemplar Congregations, in recognition of excellence in disability inclusion. They honored “Yes, let’s together figure out how,” as the only acceptable answer to the question, “Can my special needs family member participate in the synagogue?” Similarly, as Cantor Alicia Stillman and I co-lead an “audacious hospitality”-themed morning service, we patterned it after what we do regularly at our congregations. We welcomed everyone in multiple, inclusive ways: with name tags, moments to greet others, opportunities to hold hands, embraceable niggunim, and a daf (written page) that let everyone know what we were doing and where we were going.

What did so many worshippers comment upon thereafter? That in addition to feeling spiritually moved, they felt warmly embraced. Synagogues that flourish in this new era trumpet this fundamental Jewish value: “No one belongs at here more than you! Whether you or your Jewish family includes special needs, multiethnicity, LGBTQ, interfaith partners, older adults, empty nesters, young people, recovery from addiction, healing from brokenness or more, we embrace you always.”

3. Deep Learning and Spiritual Searching

Back to basics. Jews and Jewish families today are seeking something that transcends their daily pressures and priorities. As synagogues return Torah to people in accessible ways, we provide an overflowing wellspring of inspiration. The URJ Biennial overflowed with traditional and creative ways of exploring and confronting our Jewish source-text. Enriching our lives with holiness, these spiritual opportunities pointed us back to our Jewish source text, encouraging us toward holiness and holy living. Similarly synagogues are embracing wide-open discussions about Israel. Synagogues that prosper are providing their communities with deep study, often wrapping primary text study in fancy packages – Torah on Tap, Men’s Night Out, Rap with the Rabbi, Loving Israel/Learning Why. Watch the people keep coming back for more.

4. Innovation Makes the Difference

Synagogues that embrace innovation – technological, programmatic, financial, and relational – are reenergizing and renewing. Social media, once seen as the impediment to real relationships, becomes a powerful tool to tell and retell fundamental communal stories that share core Jewish values. With the energy especially of forward thinking clergy and lay teams (and at Congregation Or Ami, also by visionary student interns), the experimenting synagogue – older in years perhaps, but unafraid of occasionally failing – can become the new Synagogue Start Up, illuminating an engagingly new Jewish entre point for Jews and Jewish families.

5. Let the Young Run the Shul

The old adage, “The old shall dream dreams but the youth shall see visions,” reminds us to engage our youth in real ways. Guide them to mentor younger students, teach them to teach classes, partner with them to develop community social justice projects, and let them regularly lead Shabbat services. Their energy, enthusiasm and technological prowess are infectious and will lead their parents and grandparents to reconnect themselves.

Start Up Synagogues Lead the Way

Where once buildings excited people, we now know that social justice work, inclusion, learning and innovation seems to bring them back for more. Synagogues, like our own Congregation Or Ami, are retooling, experimenting, failing at times, and picking themselves up to innovate anew. The results are exhilarating!

Jewish Start Up Synagogues – often the older shuls that are renewing themselves – are exciting and exceedingly hopeful.

That’s what I rediscovered while spending 5 days with 5000+ people at the URJ Biennial Convention. That Hatikvah – the hope – is blossoming through the embrace of social justice, inclusion, Torah, innovation and youth.

Hatikvah! What’s more Jewish than that?!?

What did you learn, experience and/or bring home from Biennial?




One comment

  1. Rabbi Don Cashman says:

    As someone who hates huge crowds, and waiting in airports, I am grateful to you for condensing the lessons of Biennial so I can feel a little less guilty about not being there and seeing so many wonderful old friends who thankfully filled up my Facebook feed. Maybe I’ll drive to Boston in two years. But before that, I’ll find the video of your havdalah. בידידות

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