Opening the Door

I have been writing about Synagogues and how to fix them now for two years. I have spoken with anyone who will listen to me and I have now a pretty firm group of followers who respond when I write about fixing American Synagogues. . (If you have not read my thoughts on all of this, you can find them on my website using this link:  RevitalizingSynagogues )
What I find astonishing is how synagogues are so resistant to change. I have had members of synagogue boards and even a few synagogue presidents tell me that my assessment of the situation today is spot on and that my ideas about resolving them seem well reasoned and easy to apply. But, then they tell me that it could  never work in their congregation, because of a host of reasons that all boil down to, “This is just too risky for our community, we prefer to keep things as they are and see what happens.” Guess what? When there is no change, the situation remains the same, falling membership, falling income and more wondering why more people don’t join the synagogue.  The more things change the more they stay the same (French proverb). Or maybe Einstein is appropriate here: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result”
Here are some important realizations for those involved in synagogue life who feel that something has to be done.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has said and he may not have been the first to say it; The business of a synagogue is NOT fundraising.  Fundraising is important and even necessary, but it is not the reason that synagogues exist.  We need to stop acting as if it is the most important task we do. It is not. It is at best, a secondary part of synagogue life.  Any entrepreneur can tell you that if you want to succeed in your field, first you have to know what you are selling and then you have to promote what you are selling.  Anyone who only wants to “make a lot of money” is doomed to fail.  Anyone who thinks that people will throw money at them has no business plan.  
In business, they rely on customer surveys to know what is working and what is not. In synagogue life we need to do the same. The first question we need to ask is “Why would any Jew need our congregation?” What reason do they have to come here and join with us? If you don’t know the answer you have to survey your success stories.  Go and ask the most active members why they joined and got active, you will almost always get the same reply: “Someone welcomed us when we first visited, and we felt that this place was so warm and friendly that we thought we would give it a try.” So they came to a couple of events, liked what they saw and joined. Usually the first visit takes place during worship. 
We can learn a lot from this reply:
1.       Welcoming people and being friendly is a crucial part of synagogue life. If someone can attend a function at your congregation, sit down, get up and leave and nobody says “hello”, you are doomed. That is the kiss of death.  
2.       It is everyone’s responsibility to be warm and friendly. Not just the usher, the Rabbi or the staff.
3.       Your programming, from worship thru social events needs to be engaging, every moment is a chance to bring someone in. What kind of programming do you have? Would you invite your best friend to come and be a part of what your synagogue does?
4.       Do you follow through with those who visit your congregation? Do they get on email lists? Do you have printed material to give them if they ask? Does someone give them a call and invite them to a future event?  Or is the first contact also the first time you ask them for money? 
Ask yourself why you go back to the same restaurant over and over. Is there someone on wait staff that you like? Do they make your favorite food the way you like it?  Were they constantly trying to get you to buy something you didn’t want or were their suggestions about the menu helpful? Translating this into synagogue life is not too difficult. Do new members find people they like in shul? Do we do things that people want/like to do? Are we always asking for money or do we show then why the shul is a meaningful part of our life and invite them to join us. The money always follows interest. Are we getting people interested?
The Rabbi and staff don’t need to be “Pied Pipers” and social media is not going to be the salvation of the synagogue.  Success begins with these two ideas: People will attend events where they are made to feel welcome and when you engage them, they will quickly become active and then tell others about what they found in your community.  To be sure, you have to do a lot of things behind the scenes to make sure that there is something to get people interested. But a synagogue is, first of all about relationships, then it is about Torah, Worship and acts of Hesed. Then it is about making a difference in people’s lives. Only then can we begin to ask them to help keep these programs and projects alive. 
So, be honest. How does your congregation compare?

Sensible Fools

We don’t need any gun control in this country.
You have to ask yourself what will it take to have sensible gun control in this country?  In the wake of the slaughter in Aurora, Colorado, everyone wants to talk about the tragedy but nobody will look at the reason behind the shooting. A young man, mentally falling apart is able to amass a small arsenal of weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition and nobody is to blame, nobody has any way of knowing what is going on.
We don’t need any gun control in this country.
We have shootings in schools, at stores, in offices, at post offices, on the street, in our homes and the number of guns continues to increase. The strictest laws have loopholes so big the laws may as well not exist. When given the opportunity, the laws that we do have regulating guns are in danger of being repealed. The sheriff deputies I ride with carry a small arsenal of guns and rifles because the bad guys on the streets are so heavily armed.  Ask  yourself, why is it possible in this country to purchase automatic and semi-automatic rifles? Why are these weapons not banned? They once were banned but  our Congress let the ban expire. Does that make sense?
We don’t need any gun control in this country.
Since the latest shooting in Colorado, gun sales in the state have jumped exponentially. I guess people don’t trust the police to arrive in time to save them from another shooter. It took six or seven minutes for the police to arrive at the movie theater in Aurora. It was enough time for 12 to die and 32 to be wounded. If someone in the theater would have had a gun, he could have shot the shooter within seconds and saved many lives. Let me ask you; would you feel safer if there were others in the theater carrying guns to the movies? Would you feel safer having a gun concealed on your person? Or just maybe, more people would get hurt with all the crossfire in the theater as they exchanged gunfire? Does that make sense to you?
We don’t need any gun control in this country.
Judaism puts safety issues like this under the law of the parapet. You have to have laws that protect the public from harm. You have to have a rail around the roof of your home so nobody can fall off. You have to put a fence around a pit so nobody falls in. By extension, you have to wear a seat belt to save your life in an accident. I think it also means sensible gun control. People who own guns have to take on the responsibility and the liability for them.  I may not be a fan of hunting but I can respect the rights of those who do. You just have to be responsible about how you transport guns, care for guns, and secure guns at the end of the day. Target shooters have the same responsibilities.  We need to be sensible about this. How many guns does one person and one family need to own? How much ammunition is enough? We regulate pain medication, we regulate explosives, why not bullets? What possible reason, other than defending the country, is there for automatic rifles? Why would any civilian need a working weapon like this? Why isn’t a gun license like a driver’s license since both can cause great bodily harm? But any mention of gun control drives many people crazy. It is too much government telling us what to do with our lives. 
 And people still are dying. 
 And people are wringing their hands over the killings. 
And nobody wants to talk about sensible gun control.
We don’t need any gun control in this country?                  I’m sorry, but I think we do.

When Nothing is Something

I was reading a fiction short story the other day and it was a typical story of a couple with empty lives and no idea how to break out of the emptiness. So they indulge their egos and their fantasies and the story doesn’t end well. It is the kind of story that always leaves me sad because they live such a meaningless life.
 We want our actions to be for a purpose but there is so much in life that conspires against meaning. We are told over and over what we need to do to be successful, popular, cool and complete but no matter how hard we try, we never seem to get over the emptiness. We educate ourselves for jobs that we think will be fulfilling and purposeful but the idea of doing one thing for a lifetime doesn’t seem to inspire us. We go places but each one ends up looking the same as the last. We try all kinds of activities; bungee jump, parachute from planes, indulge in drugs and drink, go for whatever we think will give us the next “rush”. We always want more, and when it is over, we still don’t think it was enough. We spend all kinds of money trying to look our best but we are still unhappy when we look in the mirror. The problem isn’t outside, the problem is inside
I think this is also why this election season is so upsetting. I understand that the economy is bad and there are people out there suffering but to listen to the candidates for government offices, there are no real solutions other than “I am better than he is”. No matter what ails the country, the solution is always “vote for me”. We want what will be good for us and our personal needs and the candidates are only happy to tell us what we want to hear. The conversation is just as vapid as our lives.  So we tune out the election noise and of course, if we choose not to vote, we choose not to be a part of making a difference.  The problem is not about what will be good for me, but what will be, in the end, good for the country and that is a very hard decision that takes time and effort to research and decide. It means we will have to see beyond ourselves and take into account the needs of others.
I think the issue here is that we are always putting ourselves first and then not understanding why this does not make us feel any better. The more we build up ourselves, the more we feel our lives are empty. Perhaps this is just one of the many illusions of life. We keep doing more and yet we don’t get any satisfaction from any of it. We think we just need to buy one more thing and we will be happy but we are deluding ourselves and the more we delude ourselves, the more unhappy we are.
Pirke Avot, the ethical teachings of the rabbis, has this teaching from the sage  ben Zoma, “Who is rich? He who is happy with what he has. Who is wise? He who learns from everyone. Who is strong? He who controls his passions. Who is honored? He who honors others.”  In every case, the real answer is the opposite of what we might think.  Wealth is not about what you have, but how you feel about it. Wisdom is not about what you know, but about where you go to learn. Strength is not about lifting weights, but about controlling our cravings and honor is not what you get, but what you give.
Mystics like to say that only when we dissolve our ego can we begin to make a difference We need so much humility so that we virtually cease to exist as a separate entity; only then can we really begin to exist as part of the human organism, as part of life itself. Our ego needs be reduced to nothing before we can begin to become something. Only when we lose ourselves in the source of all existence, can we begin to have a meaningful existence.
The same applies to life, it is not about me, it is about others. Notice how the people who are at peace with themselves and life are those who have God at the center of their world. Maybe they don’t see their center being about God but when they put others at the center, the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, the weak, the helpless, the wounded, etc. at the center of their world, they understand what really making a difference is all about. The world looks different after you put a sandwich into the hand of another person who will only have that sandwich to eat all day. Your world will never be the same when the child you are tutoring finally gets the math you are teaching. Life is different when  we help someone overcome their obstacles. It is not about us. It is always about others. Happiness is about relationships. Accomplishments are about the success of others.  Satisfaction comes when we help others achieve their goals.

Dear Rabbi Amar

Dear Rabbi Amar
I don’t know you. We have never met. We don’t travel in the same circles and we don’t have any friends that I know of in common. You are a chief Rabbi in Israel; I am a Conservative Rabbi in South Florida. We are literally and figuratively worlds apart. 
I am not afraid of you and your state power, but apparently, you are very afraid of me.  We have some very serious differences in the way we approach Judaism. You are a fundamentalist and I am not. I see Judaism as a rainbow of ideas and possibilities and you do not.  In any conversation I have had with other Jews or non-Jews, I have never disparaged you or your position. You cannot say the same about me and my position. I have never disparaged any Jew in my search to bring them closer to God and Torah. You have disparaged those Jews who have found meaning and commitment in my synagogue. 
I understand that there will always be Jews who want and need the kind of Judaism you teach. There will always be Jews who need the structure and tight community; a community that will make decisions for them because they are unable to decide for themselves. These Jews will need your Halacha to show them the path every minute of every day in their lives. They will study Torah and be happy to only see it as interpreted by you. I don’t have a problem with that at all. 
But you seem to have a problem with Jews who believe that there are many ways to approach Judaism. There are many different opinions of what the Torah says, how to interpret Jewish law and how to celebrate Jewish holidays. There are Jews who are not afraid to see how different authorities have ruled differently in history and who then feel they can and should decide which authority they should follow, even if that authority is not you. These Jews are not afraid to ask the Rabbi, “Why?” and if they don’t like his answer, they will go on searching. 
You accuse me of “poisoning the well” when they come to satisfy their spiritual thirst. But I don’t believe that Jews who thirst would drink poison. They just don’t find your stagnant water refreshing to their souls. They seek the living waters of Judaism; the rapids of the Jewish river where Rambam and Ramban disagree; where Ashkenazi and Sephardi differ; where Hasid and non-Hassid approach their Judaism differently. They don’t seem to have the same problem that you have of seeing both “Hillel and Shammai as the words of the living God”.
Rabbi Amar, you don’t have to fear me or my fellow Rabbis. You don’t need your high Israeli office or fancy ministry to protect you and the Jewish people from the likes of me. If you are so sure of what you teach and the reasons behind it and if you believe that every Jew should be exposed to your version of Judaism, then come out here with me and let us teach side by side. Let the Jewish people, “who may not be prophets but they are sons of prophets”, decide if your teachings move them more than my teachings.  But don’t hide behind your chief rabbinate office and make pronouncements about the Jewish People who have rejected your teachings and who have rejected you.
God does not need police to enforce God’s law. God does not need border patrols to keep undesirables out. God does not need you to defend God’s honor. I prefer the approach of Rabbi Benny Lau who said, “Delegitimization and war doesn’t work. The best way to reach out to people not connected to Judaism is to do what is good and what is right and to be professional, to serve the community, to provide the best possible service and then the public will choose those who are good in their eyes.”
Neither you nor I can make any Jew love God. We can only teach what we know and model a good life and the rest is in God’s hands. If you can’t do that, then you are not a chief rabbi, you are just another politician protecting your power and your turf.
And if that were true, that would be a true Hillul HaShem and it would not be my poison in the well.

Sacred Words

As part of my spirituality training, I have been exploring issues relating to personal prayer.  Many of the articles I have read put down those people who use fixed prayer. A prayer book, many say, is a waste of time. Real prayer comes from the heart and must speak about what we are carrying in our soul. Fixed prayer is a performance and if we truly want to pray, we have to get out of our seats and put ourselves into the action.  I understand the importance of personal prayer. I understand what it means to open your heart before God and spill out the pain, the hurt and the frustration as well as expressing the joy, the happiness and the gratefulness that reside there.
I was reading Rabbi Naomi Levy, the introduction to her book “Talking to God”. She writes, “When I was a teenager, my girlfriends and I were often trying to diet. Our motto was: A moment on the lips is a lifetime on the hips. It meant that an act that took just an instant could remain with you forever. I like to apply this phrase to the process of prayer. A prayer takes just a matter of seconds to utter, but its influence on our lives, on our behavior, on our hearts, on our perception can be permanent.  A moment on our lips is a lifetime on our souls. A simple prayer can change us; can lead us on the path to healing ourselves and our world.”
There is no doubt in my heart that her words are true. Words uttered in sincerity and words that come from the heart are some of the most powerful words in the world.  These are the kinds of words that can inspire a heart, a community, a nation to move to make life better. These words can set our souls free to soar closer to God. Words that come from the heart break out of the walls that we build around our hearts and around our lives so that we don’t have to care or be concerned about the injustice and the hurt. They can bring about an Arab Spring, motivate a Mother Theresa. When we can break out from behind the walls that protect and confine us, we are able to do the most amazing things. Personal prayer, the expression of our soul before God, can do all of this.
And yet, I know that this is not enough.
What are the words that keep us going when life is tough? What are the words that give us courage, hope and strength when our bodies are about to fail? What are the prayers that that are sung when we are climbing that impossible hill that separates us from our dreams? What words do we repeat over and over when we need to renew our hope and our resolve? It seems there is a role for a fixed liturgy after all. 
A fixed liturgy represents the best words of some of our greatest minds. They are the map that shows us where others have marked the trail so we do not feel that we are alone and lost. Others have been here and have left us the words that helped them when they were in this dark and lonely stretch of highway. Are there not Jews who have faced the fears of the night by quoting Moshe Rabbenu saying, “Shema Yisroel…?” Every day Jews celebrate the joys of life by quoting the Sages of the Talmud saying, “Shehechiyanu  V’Kiamanu …” It is very rare indeed to find a mourner who does not find comfort reciting, “Yitgadal v’Yitkadash…” In a modern congregation, it is hard to find those who would be uncomfortable praying for the sick by singing “Mi Shabyrach” with the new liturgical melody by Debbie Friedman.
The fixed liturgy is where we turn when we have no more words in our heart; when we face life and we don’t know what we should say, or what we could dare to say to God in that moment.
Some prayers are personal and need to be recited by the heart that carries them inside. Some prayers allow us to take the words of other people and make them our own. Personal prayers are about our longing; the fixed liturgy is about our responsibilities. Personal prayer starts in the heart and explodes outward into the rest of our life. The fixed liturgy starts on the outside and penetrates deep within our souls.
The ancient Rabbis were very wise. They gave us the fixed liturgy of the Shema and the personal space that comes with the Amida in every collection of prayer. When we have the words in our hearts, we have the space to express them in prayer. When our hearts seem empty, we have the liturgy to “prime the pump” to remind us of what prayer can be and what it should be.  Sure, we could recite a fixed liturgy by rote. But just like an old love song can mean more to us when we hear it because of our history with that song, how it was played when we met our beloved, and when we married, and at our 50 anniversary; so too, a fixed liturgy can be an old friend, always there to express the everyday feelings that make up our lives. 
I like this way of looking at words: Old and new friends helping us find our way to God.

The One Who Shouts First Loses

The One Who Shouts First Loses
There is an old story of a Japanese village where the people never argue. An outsider is fascinated with this modern wonder and asks the villagers why they never find anything to argue about. “Oh, we argue,” was the reply, “but we have a rule that the person who raises his or her voice first, loses.”
Could somebody please codify that rule in the United States soon!
In the past couple of months I have seen a good Rabbi slandered on YouTube for having the UN ambassador speak at a community event in his congregation. Another local synagogue had to cancel a political education event because the other party wanted to immediately respond to the issues that were raised. Emails are flying fast and furious about whether politicians can speak in synagogues without the synagogues losing their status as non-profit organizations.  All of this to silence Jewish leadership about taking a stand on issues that are important to our communities.
What bothers me is that what passes for political conversation today is all about yelling. One cannot take any position, right or left, without first passing some kind of “purity test” to make sure that they will speak the “truth” according to the extremist position. Forget about the end of the middle class family, we are seeing the end of the moderate thinker. Critical thinking is no longer needed. Nuanced positions are to be “swift boat-ed”. “Fair and balanced” has become a cynical motto and no longer a moral aspiration. Like the most fanatical religious observer, you are all in or you are sinner.  “He rides an elevator on Shabbat; he can’t be trusted” “She reads banned books; so she is a heretic”.
In the Jewish community, if one says the words, “Two State Solution” you are anti-Zionist and if you say “Settlements are a problem” you are an anti-Semite. If you say, “There are some Israeli policies that I am not sure about” then you are the definition of a traitorous Jew.
In Parshat Bahaalotecha, just last Shabbat, we see the story of Moses who begs God to assign some elders to help Moses lead the people. Seventy Elders are chosen and they are given a vision of God and begin to speak prophetic words in the camp. When Joshua is concerned that this will devalue the leadership of Moses, the great prophet replies, “Would that all of the Lord’s people were prophets” (Numbers 11:29).
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Dean of the Ziegler Rabbinical School at The American Jewish University in Los Angeles has written; “Through the authorization of seventy sages, God establishes diversity as a Jewish virtue. By providing the leadership, the prototype of the Second Temple, and the rabbinic Sanhedrin with dissenting opinions, God assures that every possible view will be articulated and considered. Diversity, then, is not a threat. Instead, the Torah presents diverse viewpoints as a source of richness, stability and vitality for Judaism; indeed the Rambam suggests that this pluralism of viewpoint is at the very center of Jewish law, from the time of Moses to our own day” (The Bedside Torah, p. 236).
Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. What is not allowed is drowning out all the dissenting opinions. Diversity is a God given mandate. Pluralistic thoughts are the way to make better decisions. Those who claim that there is only one way, one solution, one course of action are not only wrong, they are lying to us.  There is always another way, maybe it is better, maybe not, but we will never know if those who espouse it are shouted down, drowned out and refused a platform to speak.
And if we don’t speak up, we will get the discussion we deserve, which is no discussion at all. Rather than accept the fact that distorted ideas and defamatory remarks are what will go “viral” in our hypersensitive age, we need to stand up for diversity, pluralism and common sense. Such a stand will not be easy or pleasant. But it is the right stand in the end. 
Rudyard Kipling wrote in his poem “If”: “If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken, twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, and stoop to build them up with worn out tools. … If you can fill the unforgiving minute, with sixty seconds worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, and, which is more, you will be a man my son.” 
I read it as “you will be a MENTCH”. 
What kind of a world is it that vilifies a kind, caring and considerate human being? Not a Jewish world; we believe in diversity. Not an American world, because we believe that everyone has the right to speak freely.  I vote for pluralism and diversity. Where will your vote go?

Growing A Synagogue Part E – Staff and the Modern Shul
There are kehillot (communities) that have a wealth of talented members who don’t need the guidance of a rabbi or cantor in their congregations. If rabbis are involved, they are teachers in the adult studies program or advisers to the leadership team.
Full disclosure: I am a pulpit rabbi and have worked in and with a variety of congregations that have used my talents in different ways.
There are some today who think that rabbis should no longer be the spiritual leaders of congregations. I disagree with that but I do agree that the basic role of the rabbi in a congregation has changed and continues to change. There are some rabbis who have been able to work in this different environment and some who feel that they need to hang on to the older style of synagogue. Some of my colleagues have told me directly, that they are uncomfortable with new ways of leading a congregation and want to keep things the same for as long as they can. While I understand the need to sometimes be the one who holds the line to changes in halacha, as we have discovered, the issue is not halachaat all; it is the very nature of the organization that is changing. I have tried to show many times that there is still a great respect among Jews for rabbis and for Jewish tradition. Young Jews who create meaningful communities do not reject Judaism; they embrace it in some very traditional ways. I think that issues like egalitarianism and pluralism are crucial concepts in the creation of new communities, and once these communities come together, they retain traditional observances, like keeping kosher and observing Shabbat.
If I were to talk to my colleagues, I would tell them that the halachicissues that are being presented as things that need to be changed are not the crux of the problem, only the symptoms. When people are unhappy with programming and prayer in our congregations they may say things like “Services are boring” or “Why do we have to pay so much for X?” or “Why can’t you talk about current events?” The fact is, many of our current members really don’t know at all what they want, only that they are unhappy with what they have. If we press them to tell us exactly what they are looking for, they usually don’t have an answer or tell us that they want us to do what we are already doing but somehow to do it differently.
I believe that a rabbi must be constantly looking at what successful models of congregations look like and creating new ways to bring the successful models to their synagogues. Naturally there will be those who don’t want anything to change and those who want everything to change. Reality is still somewhere between those two poles. Leadership is not easy. My sister is a hazzanand long ago she told me that a hazzan that is not introducing new melodies and new liturgical configurations and changing up the service is just being lazy. The same applies to rabbis (I know, I know, who am I calling lazy?!) I don’t mean this with disrespect for my colleagues, both those who are my senior and those who are junior colleagues. We have a lot of things that we must do as rabbis. But growing our congregations is one of the most crucial. If you look at congregations that are looking for new rabbis, it does not take long to see that all of them want help with “change”. They want to change and they don’t want to change (“change what I don’t like and don’t change what I do like”) but that, we know is impossible. An executive director once reminded me that “nobody likes all the focus on the Bar Mitzvah boy at Saturday services, except the members of the family. Yet the family makes up over 75% of the congregation that morning, and they want the focus to be on the boy.” So how do you make the regulars happy without angering 75% of the people in shul that morning? When we give blessings at the Torah for those with a birthday or anniversary, everyone tells me that it takes too long, except those who are getting the blessings. (It is always too long unless it involves me.)
Congregations have a history. Congregations like to write their history and invite others to read it. Often synagogue websites have links to the history of their communities. These histories often point back to the wonderful days when the congregations were small, or when they were in their heyday. Sometimes, however, there are darker secrets in the history of a congregation that the members don’t like to recall or don’t want to recall; problems with clergy, financial problems, members and staff who are arrested and the synagogue is implicated, sexual harassment of a employee, sexual abuse of a child in the school, embezzlement, misappropriation of funds, the sudden death of beloved rabbi or president. All of these can devastate a congregation and produce years of upheaval. When a congregation faces these kinds of serious issues the officers and members of the congregation want to quickly get past their problems and return to the way things used to be. But going backwards is impossible. Things will never be the way they used to be because we only see the past through the rose tinted glasses that will not let us acknowledge the problems and difficulties that we also endured. In synagogue life, the past is interesting, but we can’t live there. We need to constantly have vision and focus on what lies ahead.
One colleague reminded me that this is the reason that cars have a large windshield and a small rear view mirror, so we can see more of where we are going and less of where we have been. What would success look like in the twenty-first century? It will not be the same as it was in the twentieth century. Life does move on and we must not let our history cloud our vision of the future. The questions we need to ask are what are we doing now that we want to continue and what needs to be changed/updated/renewed or created? This is not a challenge just to synagogues. All modern organizations and businesses have to look to the future or face difficult consequences that come from living in the past. As rabbis we need to encourage these questions and we must be prepared to answer them.
Jack and Suzi Welch in the article I mentioned earlier, write, When a team is infused with trust, people play to their better angels. They share ideas freely. They help their colleagues when they are stuck and need an insight. What they do every day then becomes about the group’s success, not their own. They’re not worried about not getting the credit for some big win; they know a teammate will say something like “Hey, don’t thank me. Cary was the one with the eureka moment that set the whole thing in motion.” and Cary will say, “Thanks. I may have had the idea, but you executed.” The candor-trust connection has another benefit: it promotes an environment of risk-taking. Who wants to try something new if they sense they’ll get a stick in the eye (or worse) should they fall? Leaders of winning teams encourage their people to take on huge challenges and let them know that they’re safe no matter what happens. And then they make good on their word.
I have seen boards that are so risk adverse that they quash every new idea that should arise. I have seen rabbis and directors tell excited lay leadership that what they propose can’t be done. Anyone who has ever served on a synagogue board or who has served on the professional staff has heard the phrases that kill new ideas, “We tried that once and it didn’t work.” “Who will you get to chair that project?” “That may work in big cities but in our town it would never fly.” “That is not what our congregation is about, if you want to do that, you should join a different synagogue that does stuff like that.” We have thousands of ways that leadership, both lay and professional, can kill new ideas. What we need is a culture that encourages new ideas, new programs and forward thinking. It is not about who gets the credit, but what is for the good of the congregation. If we try something and it fails, then we have learned something and, if we think the idea is still good, we can try again with an eye to overcoming the obstacles. If it just doesn’t work, well, then we will try something different. The payoff of an idea that does work is worth the previous failures that have helped set the foundation for the success. We can find new ideas in the talent that we already have, and in searching for ideas that have worked elsewhere. All we need to do to make these ideas our own is to be open to possibilities.
I therefore believe that the best approach is for both rabbi/staff and lay leadership to create a working dialogue. Often the rabbi only hears good things and the president hears all the complaints. That needs to change. Both rabbi and president need to share their points of view with one another. Together they need to identify the real needs of the congregation (not just the personal needs of those who complain all the time) and then look into how other congregations deal with these issues; what may be working and what clearly is not working (and what would never work here!). Complaints about things being too long (services, religious school) are symptoms of programs that do not engage the participants. “Boring” (services, programming) is the symptom of the lack of change. Dropping membership is the symptom of people who are voting with their feet to find something meaningful somewhere else. It means we have missed their needs. If young Jews are not joining, it is because they don’t see anything for them in our congregation. And that is why you are reading this book.
Cantors have an even harder time. New hazzanimare trained to be not just singers, but auxiliary staff members. They are often trained to be teachers, education directors and even executive directors. Older hazzanimwere trained to lead services with classical cantorial melodies. The problem is that many of those melodies are anywhere from 50-150 years old and are not appealing to most contemporary audiences. In the documentary, “100 Voices: A Journey Home” the hazzanimin the film understand that these old classic melodies, many of which came from Europe, are not meaningful to younger Jewish audiences. I recently wrote in my congregation’s bulletin, “I still love the song that Michelle and I danced to at our wedding. Sometimes, if we are out dancing, and I feel really romantic, I ask the band to play it for us to dance to. I would never expect my radio station to play it anymore. Music has moved on and while there are still some of us who like “oldies” it is not the way for a radio station to stay on the air. Even my favorite station that played music from the 1950’s, now plays “oldies” from the 60’s and 70’s. My music is now older than the “oldies”!” Musical styles change. That is a fact of life. A cantorial concert can be the showcase for classical hazzanut, but the liturgy deserves more modern influences. Hazzanimwho can’t keep up may find themselves left behind.
It is crucial that the rabbi and hazzanwork together to create a meaningful service. There should be no reason for rabbis and hazzanimto be feuding or working at cross purposes. While each needs to respect the role of the other, and must treat each other as colleagues, there will not always be agreement on everything. What is important is to try new things, and then come back and assess how it is going. What is important is to talk each week as to what will make that service unique. Sometimes it may be a reaction to something in the news. Rabbi Sharon Braus said after the 2004 tsunami that devastated the countries of the eastern Indian Ocean, “If your service before the tsunami is the same as the service after the tsunami, then something is very wrong.” We have to be sensitive to what is happening in our world and how it affects those who are worshiping with us in our sanctuary. Our service has to reflect whatever is important and on the minds of the congregation.Sometimes a service may be built around a moral issue in the community; sometimes it will be built around getting more participation from the congregation. When the rabbi and hazzanwork together, it creates a better atmosphere for really good things to happen.
If we are to change the focus of learning in the synagogue from school for children to educating adults, this will mean a change in education staffing as well. Rather than an “education director” what will be needed is a “director of life-long learning”. Certainly we will need to oversee the Jewish education of children, but the main focus has to be on adults. There will need to be a movement away from lectures and more to “hevruta” learning. There will need to be more texts and more discussion. There will have to be higher level learning and ways for those who are just beginning to “catch up” without dragging the whole program down. Education programs must also reflect that some learning will be in people’s homes and perhaps in the work environment as well. Coordinating study groups can be a full time job alone once the program takes off. There can be ongoing study programs that feature evening learning for those who work during the day. There can be special week long programs of learning based on the “Limmud” program that takes place each winter in England. There can be weekend programs and Shabbaton programs that can offer a wide range of topics to give everyone a chance to try something new. These shorter programs should kick off a longer program if enough people show an interest in the topic.
Teachers can be the rabbi and cantor and any other staff member with an educational background. Often the same teachers who do so well with our children may be able to teach adults. Many congregations are blessed with lay members who have solid education backgrounds or strong Judaic backgrounds who can also lead these study sessions. Many communities have colleges and universities with a Judaic Studies department that can be the source of teachers and the students in the program may also be able to lend a hand. All of this, of course, takes investment of money as well as time. Just as the religious school for children has school fees, so too adult education, if it is to be credible and challenging, will also require fees from the participants. It may be possible to find outside money from foundations and funders, and a fund raiser in the community on behalf of adult studies could involve a patrons’ program, where people with an interest in adult studies can help fund the program. There are opportunities for endowments and legacy gifts as well. There may even be corporations who would sponsor events in exchange for publicity that could help raise money for the adult studies program. The key to the program is to create it with high caliber talent so that adults will want to join in the study program. Clearly we need educators who are up to the task of creating serious adult learning.
Finally, we need to insure that the entire synagogue staff are involved in the overall program and are adding in their own way to the goal of engagement of the membership. We are no longer in an age where peoplesay, “you should hear my Rabbi/Cantor,” etc. In the future, we will want to hear: “This is what Ilearned/taught in shul this week. It is important that our professionals be able to put their own egos aside and let the learners learn and the members sing.It is not about the staff; the purpose of the synagogue is to teach Judaism, spirituality and how to find God and meaning in life.

How Does The Book End?

It has been awhile since I last posted a chapter of my book. I was working on it one chapter at a time and as I approached the end of the book I needed to draw it all together. I have continued to work on the book, trying to update the chapters, tie it all together and get it ready for prime time. I did not count on this process taking so long. My usual proofreaders now need to cull the entire book, looking for redundancies, and work on ways to edit the long run on sentences I have a tendency to use.  My usual writing style is for sermons. I am not as skilled to write for reading.  So this process has been a learning process for me as well.
Over the next few weeks, I will get the final chapters out on this blog and I hope that you will take the time to read them and to comment on them. I am also looking for comments on the entire enterprise and what I may have missed. I know it is easier to challenge what I have written and much harder to identify what is missing. I am sure that you, my readers, will share your ideas and comments so I can include your thoughts in the final draft.
Don’t be afraid to tell me what you really think. We are all adults. Be kind, but you can tell me what you feel. I promise not to get snippy in return. I do value your comments. I thank you in advance for your help in my quest to change the face and approach of American synagogues.

My Sweet Lord


One of my favorite Religion writers is Lisa Miller of Newsweek magazine. In the double issue of Newsweek (May 24& May 31, 2010) she wrote an article about Yoga and its Hindu roots. ( ) I do recommend the entire article but I warn any Jew who reads it that it might make you think that if Yoga is a Hindu practice, that may make it too pagan for Jews to participate in any way. Judaism is vehemently anti pagan, we are forbidden to take part in any activity that is connected to paganism, so if you love Yoga, you might want to stay ignorant of its Hindu roots. Hinduism clearly falls under Judaism’s definition of paganism.

The question that Ms. Miller asks however, is an important question. Can we co-opt rituals from other faiths and use them in our own way for our own purposes? In fact, Judaism has done this many times in our lengthy history. Clearly the Lulav and Etrog have been borrowed from pagan rituals. Much of biblical sacrifices was taken from the rituals of the people who lived around the People of Israel. Circumcision may have been borrowed from Egypt and much of our laws in relation to conversion seem to come from Roman common law.

The article then quotes a professor of religion at Boston University, Stephen Prothero, the author of a new book “God is Not One” who has this quote, “The American creative, materialistic, pluralistic impulse allows religion here to grow and change, taking on new and unimagined shapes.” It got me thinking about how American Judaism has been received in Israel. It is a topic that is never far from my mind, especially after reading the news stories coming from Israel over the past weeks: about how non-fundamentalist Judaism is being walked on by a bill in the Knesset, about a Conservative/Massorti woman in Israel assaulted for having the marks from tephillin still on her arm, and the latest example of harassment by the Haredi toward women wanting to pray at the Western Wall in a non-fundamentalist fashion.

I began to see why these ultra Orthodox Jews are so angry at what we have made of our Judaism in America and have now exported to the rest of the world. It is an example of the “American creative, materialistic, pluralistic impulse” at work in Judaism. What Conservative Judaism has added to the Jewish faith is something that is a unique addition, one that requires American Jews to bring it to the Jewish table.

I am sure that there are those who would see these additions to Judaism; egalitarianism, liberalism in ritual and in Halacha (Jewish Law) and the establishment of homosexuality as no longer being an “abomination” in Judaism, as examples of how American Jews have “watered down” what Judaism stands for and have breached Jewish Law in ways that have severed any connection to what “real” Judaism is all about. And yet, it does not take a very sophisticated examination of the last 2000 years of Jewish history to see that in every place that Jews have lived, they have brought something from the local culture into Judaism. The next time you see a Haredi Jew who says that Judaism never changes, ask him where Judaism picked up the long black coat, the fur hat, and the belt he is wearing. I can promise you that they are not indigenous clothing worn by the Sages of the Talmud. (who probably dressed like Romans, who are also not a Jewish sect).

There is a story of a man in Krakaw that dreams of a treasure buried near a bridge in Budapest. He goes to Budapest and finds the bridge but it is guarded by soldiers. He tells the captain of the guard that he had this dream about a treasure buried under the bridge. The captain laughs at him and says that he does not believe in dreams, if so he would be in Krakaw looking under a stove for treasure. The man thanks him, goes home and finds the treasure under his own stove. The moral of the story is that the treasure is in Krakaw but knowledge of the treasure is in Budapest. Sometimes we have to go far afield to find the information we need to move ahead in life. The same applies to faith. Sometimes we have to go into exile to find the knowledge we need to keep our faith growing and meaningful, and not stagnant and irrelevant for modern living. American Jews have added, in our own unique way, a new dimension to world Jewry. I don’t think that this is a bad thing at all, and the “purists” who think that by holding at bay any changes at all are making our faith poorer and less relevant.

A Judaism that continues to struggle with modernity, from America, from Europe or in Israel is a living, vibrant faith.

Turn! Turn! Turn!

A season for everything, a time for every experience under heaven…
A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted…
A time for tearing down and a time for building up …
A time for keeping and a time for discarding…
A time for silence and a time for speaking… [Ecclesiastes 3:1-8]
All across the country, synagogues are finding themselves in trouble. In these economic hard times, it is no surprise that donations to religious organizations are down and that synagogues are facing an economic squeeze. But it is not the economy that is creating the bulk of this problem. The real trouble that congregations are finding is a drop in membership and a lack of concern by the larger Jewish community.
It is not a problem unique in the Jewish community to synagogues. Federations and Jewish communal organizations that rely on donations are also feeling pressure. Without a credible number of volunteers to assist any Jewish organization, all of our communal institutions are at risk.
The reason for this drop in interest in synagogues and in the Jewish community, is the result of our collective inability to acknowledge a demographic and the spiritual shift that has been going on for the past decade or more. We have closed our eyes to the situation, usually assuming that if we work harder we can win back those who have left us. I am reminded of a story about a fly trying to get through a glass window by trying harder and harder to break through. There is a door open about ten yards in the other direction but the fly does not see the open door and the easy path to all the fly desires. He only hears the voice, “try harder” and so he tries and tries to break through the glass, and he will die on the window sill.
We see the goal clearly, to serve and lift up the Jewish community of America. We seek nothing less than addressing their spiritual, emotional and educational needs. And if they don’t know what they need, we will tell them. But they do know what they need, and they are telling us, but we are not listening. Instead of paying attention to their needs we are working harder than ever to give them what they don’t want and we are surprised that our efforts do not bear fruit. We are dying in plain view of the goal that we seek but for some reason, we don’t change direction or our approach.
What has changed that we don’t see? First of all there is the demographic shift. The young, professional Jews today are not similar to those that lived just twenty years ago. Synagogues for the past fifty years have been built on the backs of their schools, with the assumption that if we bring in the children, we will bring in their parents as well. It never really worked right, but it did work. Seventy percent of Jews at any given moment were not members of any synagogue but almost all of them had been part of a synagogue at one point or another in their lives. We took that as a given; that we could not hold onto a member for life, so we tried replacing those who left us with new younger families just starting out. Each family was good, on average, for seven years, about the time it took to have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah for two children. After that, maybe a youth group could keep a family around for a few more years, and if we got lucky and the parents did get involved in the culture of the synagogue, we might have a few more years until they burned out or moved away.
But a funny thing began to happen. Jews who used to marry and have children in their early twenties began to wait, and wait and wait. Suddenly 20 and 30 year old Jews were mostly single or just living together. Marriage was held off until they were in their late thirties and forty year old Jews were parents of preschool age children. Synagogues that relied on their school found that they had to wait an additional decade to attract young families to replace those who were leaving. But ten years of living without a synagogue indicated to these families, that they really didn’t need a synagogue at all in their lives. After all, where was the synagogue when they were single? It is a good question. We never reached out to young Jewish singles. Synagogue programming was always for children and families.
Then there is the technological revolution. Jewish communal institutions fell behind as technology surged ahead. Only a handful of synagogues set up websites and those that did, often never took the time to keep them updated. Shining on the home page was a picture of the synagogue building. Followed by information about last year’s Purim party. But buildings don’t draw in people, nor does an out of date web page. What was minimally needed were pictures of people having fun and a list of things that are happening they would want to attend. But even as new Jewish web pages open, synagogues still find themselves behind the technology curve.
New congregations have been starting out by going viral. Minyanim in Los Angeles, Manhattan and many other cities started out merely by setting up a web page and announcing on the internet that those interested should come to a service. Social networking, Facebook and Twitter quickly gathered an interested crowd. Rather than publishing a Shabbat announcement brochure, most information in these new congregations is spread by website. And yet many established congregations do not invest even minimally in technology and continue to hire personnel who have little or no internet experience. To almost everyone under 50, if something is not on the internet, it does not exist. They don’t go to restaurants that don’t have an online menu, they don’t go to stores that don’t have a web page and they have little interest in a synagogue that does not list its activities on the internet.
The Jews we are seeking have needs that are vastly different than the needs of Jews just two decades ago. It is not just about singles vs. married Jews. Young Jews today do not need synagogues or Jewish organizations for their social life. Young and mid-life Jews already have sophisticated networks of friends and favorite things to do. These Jews do not feel limited in life by antisemitism or prejudice. The entire social network of a synagogue, and the networking that used to be such an important part of synagogue life is no longer needed. The internet connects them to friends and entertainment. Cable television offers hundreds of channels to keep them home and movie theaters offer 16 or more screens so that there is always something to do. Young single Jews today live in gentrified sections of downtown, where they are near work and near trendy bars and restaurants. They live in apartment buildings that have fitness centers. There is no way for a synagogue to be the center of their social life.
Jews today wait longer to have children. This means that a Religious school can no longer be the center of synagogue life. For too long our Religious school was the reason a synagogue existed. We wanted to train young Jews figuring that some day they would grow up to be involved in the Jewish community. The Jewish population surveys tell a different story. Religious school did not help raise up a new generation of committed Jews. Many Jews today feel that Religious schools actually drove them away from synagogues. They learned that Jewish education was only for children and when they became an adult, they had no need for Jewish learning. Many times the curriculum of Religious schools never developed beyond fifth grade and the students only learned how to game the system until a Bar or Bat Mitzvah and then they were done. Population surveys tell us that Jewish summer camps and Israel experiences were far more influential to a child’s Jewish education than Religious school. Our education of teens was almost non existent, and we have learned that teens and young twenty somethings are at the most critical time in their Jewish education. And we offer them next to nothing.
If these are the problems, what are the solutions. There are three areas that need to become the core mission of a synagogue if it wishes to thrive and grow.
First, we need to actively invite adults into meaningful programs of Adult Jewish Education. Young and mid-life Jewish adults are looking to be engaged by their Judaism. They are looking for teachers who will let them grapple with texts, will encourage them to engage in discussions on how Judaism speaks to the moral, ethical and spiritual life they are seeking. They want to read source texts on how Judaism wants them to act in family, business and social situations. They want to know that Judaism is a living religion that has something to say about what is going on in their lives. Surveys, overviews and beginners’ lessons can not be all that we offer. These classes need to be followed up with more advanced level classes. We are all guilty of not providing the advanced level of Judaica that these Jews are requesting. In 1950, many Jewish adults had skipped college to provide for their family during the depression or had joined the U.S. Army to serve in WWII. Today, our population has multiple advanced degrees and has little patience for beginners’ classes. We need to provide for them the serious education they require. We need to heavily invest in teachers and materials for advanced Jewish learning. The Melton program has shown us that money is not the deterrent to Jewish learning. If we offer high level classes and clear parameters for learning, we can attract Jews to Jewish learning. Melton does it without synagogues; I believe the learning could even be more significant if it was done under the auspices of synagogues.
Second, Jews today want to pray. For many years, synagogues often acted as if we did not want people to pray; we thought Jews were looking to be an audience. Cantors and Rabbis for years ran the show from an elevated bima at the front of the room. The congregation just watched or followed along in the siddur. Today, Jews want to lead the service and are willing to learn what they need to know so that they have this skill. They look to Rabbis and Cantors to be their teachers and guides. Jews today prefer services led from the center of a circle or from a stand in the middle of the congregation so that they feel like they are an important part of what prayer is all about. A modern synagogue must understand that the days of “one size fits all” services are over. There needs to be multiple minyanim; one for those who like to sing, one for those who like traditional melodies, and one for those who are looking to pray in a learning environment. Some may want quick davening and some may want more singing. Some may look for a teacher to give a D’var Torah; others may want to lead the teaching themselves. We need to have a big enough tent to include everyone in our buildings.
Additionally,I believe that we are also experiencing a new golden age in Jewish music. There seems to be little interest among young Jews who want to pray to listen to a Cantor sing. Jews today are interested in melodies that are easy to learn, upbeat and with enough repetition so that, if you don’t know the tune at the beginning of the prayer, you are singing along at the end. They would rather chant a wordless niggun then to listen to a Hazzan lead a service. I know of Cantors that have embraced this new music and have had much success in guiding others how to use it to lead a service. I have also seen Cantors who belittle this music and insist that the only “real” cantorial music is that from the beginning of the last century. While there is still a following for this kind of music among seniors, and this music may have some life yet on the concert circuit, old style cantorial music is quickly becoming a liability for congregations seeking new, younger members. The issue is not about using musical instruments on Shabbat. I don’t think that younger Jews really care at all about the pros and cons of this discussion. It is all about if the music itself is engaging and uplifting. The rest is merely a matter of personal preference. If the music is right, whether or not there is a guitar, flute, piano or if it is all acapella, just is not an issue.
Finally, Jews today, young and mid-life Jews, want to know that they have made a difference in the world. Many of them were responsible for service projects in high school and took social action spring breaks in college. Now they are successful in business but they look out the windows of their corner offices and wonder if their lives have made any difference to the world at all. Social Action/Political Action (SA/PA) is missing in their lives and synagogues are in a unique position to provide guidance in this area. Certainly there are some standard projects that need to continue. Services to the elderly, to the homeless and hungry are all important. Giving to Federation and other Jewish causes is also part of this mix. But these Jews want to get their hands dirty. I have seen synagogues start food co-ops to provide local grown food for their members, organizing farmers’ markets in their parking lots. A bus load of Jews has gone way out of town to help an organic farmer weed his garden. Picking up litter from the highway, mentoring at risk students, writing to legislators and lobbying for Jewish causes, writing letters to the editor and opinion columns for newspapers and blogs are other possible projects. Party politics may not be the best course for a synagogue but there are a host of issues that are non-partisan and even issues of interest for interfaith dialogue that all can be part of a congregational SA/PA program.
To do all of this, a synagogue needs to be connected to the world. Sections of the synagogue should have a wireless connection to the internet so meetings can be enhanced with video conferencing and so that questions can be quickly answered. Information should be distributed through websites and social networking sites. Synagogues should make sure that almost all office transactions can be performed on the internet even if the synagogue office is closed. (We find that parents often are online late at night and this is when they decide to attend a synagogue event.) In our 24/7 world, it is important for synagogues to at least be open 24/6. Should the daily minyan be able to text a call for the tenth person?
There are still issues with synagogues that remain unresolved. There is a great question about whether or not a synagogue needs a big building anymore. In an age where everything can be outsourced, we may not need to maintain expensive buildings. Meetings can be held in a multipurpose room or in the homes of members. Sanctuaries may need movable seating rather then fixed pews so that the room can be flexible for when there are more or less people praying and so that the room can be used for more than one or two days a week. Clearly when there are multiple minyanim sharing the space, a larger building with many prayer/meeting spaces can work. It may be better for everyone if smaller groups can come together to share space and responsibilities and maybe share volunteers so that empowered Jews can pray and be involved in different activities as their personal/family situation evolves over time.
Dues are another difficult issue. Should there be membership in the community or should it all be a la carte? Do we need large staffs to do the work or should we go small and rely on volunteers to carry much of the heavy lifting at the synagogue? Can we raise enough from the sale of holiday tickets and donations to keep synagogue doors open? Should we look to a “community organizing” model where people who are served pay to keep the service going? Does a synagogue need to provide food after every service or should we rely on our members to sponsor a kiddush by actually bringing food rather than just making a donation?
There is a difficult issue of Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Can we continue to turn an entire service over to the family of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah for their “event” or is it even possible to limit the celebration to just one small part of a Shabbat Service? Does a synagogue have control over the services or can families create their own service that takes place under the synagogue “umbrella” but not necessarily in the “main” service\?. Should there be celebrations in the “auxiliary” minyanim or do all life cycle celebrations have to be a part of the “main” service? There may not be one answer to all of these questions.
We need to stop arguing the details of Halacha. Other than Rabbis and synagogue officers, Jews today do not care at all about the things we are arguing. They don’t care about the length of the service, they don’t care about musical instruments. They are not concerned with the details of Kashrut. They are not concerned with riding on Shabbat. Once they are a part of a community/synagogue that meets their educational and spiritual needs, they will follow along the halachic path that comes with it. After all, Chabad does not seem to have a problem with their Orthodoxy once they have attracted the many Jews who came looking for serious learning and prayer. How much more so will modern Jews be comfortable in an egalitarian synagogue that welcomes mixed marriages and gay singles and families?
Clearly there are more questions than answers but these are the parameters of the directions we need to address. Synagogues can not act like General Motors and assume that people will always want to buy whatever it is that we are selling. That proved to the be short path to bankruptcy. To grow and flourish, we need to rethink the primary mission of a congregation. Synagogues can no longer be a Beit Tefillah, Beit Sefer and Beit Kenesset, a house of prayer, study and assembly. We need to establish our mission around actions: Torah, Avoda and Gemilut Hasadim; Study, Prayer and Acts of Kindness/Tzedakah. We need to listen more to the needs of Jews today and retool our most basic institutions to serve our community.
Rabbi Tarfon teaches: The day is short, the task is great, the workers are indolent but the reward is great and the Master is insistent. [Pirke Avot 2:20]
Let us move forward together.