I got a great compliment from my daughter a few days ago. She said that I was more technologically savvy than most other Rabbis. I write blogs, I have a website, I can navigate the web and I understand social networking and messaging. Most of the time, my daughter, the soon to be Rabbi, thinks that I don’t understand what Jews today want so I am happy when she admits that there are things that I do right in my rabbinate.
Most of our discussions focus on young, professional Jews and their needs and why the usual synagogue experience just doesn’t cut it. I have to admit that she is usually right. She is a “member” of Kehillat Hadar, the “independent” minyan here in New York City. She shares with me the concerns of its leadership core and how they are seeking out new answers to the issues that the Minyan encounters. There can be hundreds of young Jews at Shabbat Services in the basement of the church in which they meet.
I am member of Anshe Chesed. It is the home of several minyanim, each with its own flavor and style. And yet, Hadar is not part of their constellation, and the members of each minyan at Anshe Chesed are not attracting the same demographic. Shabbat at Anshe Chesed is dynamic and participatory. Still it is not enough to attract the Jewish Young Professionals that frequent Hadar. I know that young Jewish professionals are not the entire Jewish community. There are many different age and denominational groups in Judaism, but there is a sense in the larger community that without the young Jews, the institutions will have a limited lifespan.
So my colleagues, some older, some younger, bemoan the fact that synagogues are not what they used to be. Cantors are struggling with ritual music. Sisterhood and Men’s Clubs can’t seem to attract new leadership. Synagogue boards are aging and young people are not yet ready to take on the challenge of running and fundraising for a congregation. Clearly there is a major transformation in synagogue life that is taking place, and Rabbis, Cantors and Synagogue Leadership ignore it at their own peril.
It is not that there was no warning about the changes. Demographics were the first indication that things were going to be different soon. Young Jews were marrying later, ten years later, and having children ten years later. They were not moving to the suburbs but were staying in urban downtown apartments so they could be near work and the nightlife.
Star and Synagogue 2000/3000 started ten years ago to experiment with different models of congregational life and few paid any attention. Even today, I know colleagues who see the good things that have come from their work, but insist that “It could never work here.”
My friend and colleague Rabbi Jack Moline of Alexandria, VA once admonished Rabbis who were bemoaning the fact that their synagogues were not the kind of places they would want to join if they were free to join a synagogue. He told them that if they were unhappy with their congregation then they needed to make the changes necessary to make it the kind of place where they would be proud to pray. Many have not heeded his advice.
I have written about Conservative congregations who are struggling with the question of whether or not to have instrumental music at Shabbat Services. It is the wrong question. The real issue is not whether or not to have instruments but the kind of music they are playing. If the music is right, it will not matter whether or not there are instruments. Unfortunately the music remains the same and even older Jews find themselves less interested in services.
I was in a discussion with a friend the other day about the big three auto makers who need a loan from the Federal Government but it is looking like they will not get it all. They have been behind the curve for so many years that so many people would rather they fail and start the entire auto industry over again. Even with all the people who would be out of work, it would be better for them to fail than to have people keep working at jobs that are doomed to the dustbin of history. My friend noted that the lesson here is not just for the auto industry. It is a story that we need to be aware of in the Jewish community as well. The “big three” sell cars nobody wants; we are selling a faith that people need but packaging it, Pro Israel, fight anti-Semitism, we are all responsible for each other, we need to stand together, etc., with slogans that just don’t cut it anymore for young Jews. There is a major change going on in Jewish life and if we Rabbis can’t change, if the community can’t change, then we will fade into history.
At least the car companies took surveys to see what the coveted young demographic wanted in a car. We may think that many of the newer models are ugly and strange, but that is what sells to the people they are targeting. We are still targeting our congregations to married couples with children. We fail when it comes to younger singles and married without children. We also fail when it comes to intermarried couples, single Jews by choice, divorced families, blended families, single seniors and anyone with a Jewish education beyond Hebrew School.
Many congregations were formed by founders who worked hard for many years to get the synagogue right where they wanted it and then they froze it in place as they aged. It is upsetting, I know, to wake up one morning and find that the music you love, the music you grew up with, the music that drove your parents crazy and the music where you memorized every lyric and guitar chord, now being played on the “oldies station”. What ‘s the matter with kids today that they don’t appreciate “good music” anymore? “Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way? What’s the matter with kids today?” (That is a quote from a musical that is so outdated it is not even a candidate for a revival).
We Rabbis and lay leadership know what we need to do. We need to face the frontier that is before us and mold our congregations for the age and territory that lie ahead. First and foremost on the list is social action programming. We trained our children to fill their lives with social action and community service. Now they are in the workforce and are still looking for ways to make a difference in the world. Don’t expect young Jews to come to administrative meetings, house committee meetings, preschool or religious school parent meetings. They want to make a difference in their lives and if our congregations are not ready to make a difference, they will go where there are Jews who are out there making the world a better place.
Second are changes to worship. Forget pews and facing the front. Try movable chairs set where those in the congregation can see other worshipers. These graduates of day schools and Ramah know nusach but they want different melodies. Carlbach tunes work because it is the same melody over and over, so it is easy to learn. It ends with La-la-la so one can sing and not know Hebrew. It is often upbeat in tempo but can be slow and spiritual. Craig Taubman and Debbie Friedman have been doing this for years as well as some lesser known songwriters. A Cantor today needs to be a bit of a composer, and the service need not be the same every week, it need not be led by the same people every week and should reflect what is going on in the wider world. The time a service begins or ends less relevant. It only needs to be engaging to those who come .
Beyond this there are many other changes that need to be made. Forget websites that open up to a picture of a building. Home pages should have pictures of people having fun. Websites must be updated weekly and have up to the minute information. It should be possible to sign up for a program and even pay for it online. You can mail notices to seniors, but young people want their messages by email. Don’t even bother with a monthly bulletin in print. Adult Education classes should be recorded and placed as podcasts on the website, for those who missed, in a timely fashion. Even better, video the class and post it as a webcast. Rabbis, Cantors, and Educators need to use blogs and the web to stay in touch and teach modern Jews. Event pictures and video should be posted on the web within days if not hours. And why not have a section of the synagogue website for members only?
How many congregations have free “wifi” in the lobby or in a meeting room so waiting parents can use their laptops while they wait for children in lessons? How many synagogues serve good coffee? And we wonder why our members are at the local coffee shop and not in shul? Ron Wolfson and the Synagogue 3000 team keep asking us why it is so hard for newcomers to find their way around an unfamiliar synagogue. Where are our greeters? Where are our nametags so our members can learn one another’s names? Where is the signage that will help visitors find their way to the sanctuary and the restroom? Do we even mark the front door and the office door for those unfamiliar or do we make them walk around the building looking for the entrance? Do we greet people at the door or do we wait until they find the sanctuary before someone says “hello”?
Do congregants share information online through a listserv? Is there a social network group so they can see which friends will be attending a program this week. Do we tell our congregation what we will be offering or do we talk to our congregants about what they need and help them organize the right group around that need?
Jews today have choices, not just the young Jews, but all Jews. We offer something with meaning and purpose to fill a life that can be so empty at times. With all the internet connections, people are lonely and want to fill their time with something that is not vapid entertainment (vapid entertainment has its uses, but nobody wants to spend all day there. Jews today want to know how Israel treats its Arab citizens and Israel’s gay/lesbian community as well. They want to know if Kosher food is more than killed properly, but maintains high moral standards. They are willing to give their money to causes that are really making the world a better place, and they will give their hands and feet to such causes as well. Do our synagogues have Habitat for Humanity work days? Do we go out and serve the hungry? Do we staff homeless shelters? Have we changed our communal light bulbs to compact fluorescents? Do we recycle at the synagogue? Does the leftover food go to the hungry? Where does the Jewish community stand in relation to Burma, Darfur, the war in the DRC and Iran? Do we send volunteers to read to children, to mentor at risk kids and help teachers in the classrooms? Are our celebrations filled with excess or is there a mitzvah project that gives it meaning beyond the walls of our community?
Have we gotten the message?
It is as old as Bob Dylan:
Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.
The times indeed are a-changin’