Chapter Five: Responding To Demographic Changes

Chapter Five: Responding To Demographic Changes:

Part One – Study


We live in an age of vast entertainment resources. Just sixty years ago, most towns had only one or two movie theaters, television had limited programming on just three networks, and radio stations played music mostly to get people to buy the artists’ records. We have come a LOOOOONG way. Movie theaters can have anywhere from 4 to 20 screens showing a wide variety of first run movies. On almost any given week, there will be one movie that has been just released and others still running strong. Each week groups of movies will be released on DVD or Blu Ray for home viewing. A vast library of old movies are available online and by mail for less than the price of a movie ticket.  Television is now viewed on Home Theaters where there are hundreds of programs, including a vast array of sporting events, which can be watched at any given moment. DVR boxes insure that even if you can’t watch the program at a given time, you can watch it whenever you wish. Cable companies and the internet feature television programming on demand, starting and stopping the programs as the viewer sees fit. Records became CDs and now even the CD is giving way to MP3 players where one can buy only the songs one prefers, put them in the order one wishes (or play them in a random order) and watch music videos on demand.  Finally, downtown venues have been restored with shops, restaurants and pubs that offer a wide variety of cuisines and entertainment every night of the week. Why in the world would anyone want to attend a social event at a synagogue?


Yet this vast entertainment network is, in the end, a rather vapid place to spend time. From time to time there are important films, documentaries and anthems that spur increased thought and may inspire us to change some of our behaviors. For the most part, serious discussions of important ideas are not part of “entertainment” that sells. This leaves an opening for synagogues and other religious institutions to reach out on matters of importance to individual lives. There are eternal questions that still haunt the human mind: What is the meaning of life? What do our lives mean? How can I make my life more meaningful? What are the real core values in life? How can I apply them in my own life? What does it mean to have a spiritual life? How can I make my life more spiritual? How does God fit into my life? Does God care at all about the things that I do? Can I talk to God and would God talk to me? Why do my friends get sick? Why did he die? What will happen when I die? How can I be a better parent to my children? How can I be a better child to my parents? What is real love about? Does my belief in God change the way I live my life? Why or why not? Is there a direction for my life? How can I find it? Why am I so insecure and where does inner strength come from? These are just some of the questions that, in spite of the vast information networks that we have at our disposal, we just can’t seem to find the answers.


We often forget the reason why there is religion in the world. It is not, as Marx would have us believe, that religion is the way we keep the masses docile and controlled. If this were so, religion would have disappeared long ago. The reason people keep coming back to religious questions is that these questions speak to the very essence of what it means to be human. When we can’t find answers to these important questions, we feel our lives are empty. To bring meaning and direction to life by helping people to answer these questions is one of the most vital roles that religion plays. Synagogues are in decline at the time when Jews need them the most. Jews are reaching out to synagogues and are distressed when they stop in and don’t find the answers they seek. When they come looking for the meaning of life they find instead outdated social programming, educational seminars for children or at a child’s level, and worship services that do nothing to address their needs. It is time for synagogues to stop focusing on Religious School and pre-school and get on with a new agenda to meet the needs of a vast component of the Jewish community in America.


I begin with one of the most neglected parts of synagogue programming, Adult Education. It is usually the poor afterthought of the Education Committee. It has little or no budget. It is usually taught by the Rabbi and seems to be eternally for beginners. It customarily starts out with a dozen students but eventually attrition brings that down to about eight or fewer. Very few of the synagogue “insiders” ever attend Adult Education courses.


The evidence around us, however, is that adult studies are one of the core reasons people get involved in Judaism. Jewish education is not solely about educating children, it is also about educating adults. The Talmud asks: if one does not have the money to afford a teacher for both the parent and the child, who should get the teacher? We might think that the children need the education, but the Talmud insists that the parent should be given the education and then that parent can turn and instruct his/her child. One reason after-school religious training never produced long lasting learning is because parents and children saw it as something only for children. When children did not see their parents engaged in Jewish learning, they quickly understood that Jewish fest in Great Britain that is making inroads here in the United States, advanced teachers teaching adults by the hundreds. Hadar, the congregation of young professionals in New York City has started a Yeshiva that attracts young adult students, some of whom have given up a year’s worth of time to study full time.  The Drisha Institute of Jewish Studies was one of the early groups attracting adults to serious Jewish studies. The Conservative  Yeshiva in Jerusalem, open to those willing to take a year off and study for the sake of study, now has a program that is close to full every year and a popular summer program as well. Pardes Yeshiva and the Shalom Hartman Institute also are riding this wave, (and perhaps were the earliest forerunners of this phenomenon). These programs are not a rabbinical school nor are they directed to future rabbinical school students. These programs have created a wave of young students looking for advanced Jewish learning (although, I might add that some of these students have indeed gone on to Rabbinical school). Ikar, the successful congregation in Los Angeles, CA requires members to get involved with Jewish education and their membership continues to grow. The Jewish Theological Seminary of America has started a “Mitzvah Initiative” training educators how to teach Mitzvot to adults.


Take this example given by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner from his book, Making Prayer Real [ed. by Rabbi Mike Comins, Jewish Lights Press, 2010, p. 172]

We announced here at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco that we’re going to do a class in how to read the Hebrew Bible in Hebrew. We’re going to go word by word with verses from the weekly portion and analyze them from the viewpoint of syntax and grammar with a little theology. Thirty sessions; the whole year. Students would have to buy an Alcalay dictionary for 120 dollars, a Hebrew Bible without English, a grammar book – 200 dollars, all told. We figured we’d get maybe a dozen people. One hundred fifteen people signed up. I think that if we tell Jews, “…We’re going to stop treating you like dummies,” they will respond. Reform Judaism, alas, is close to going down in history as the preschool of Judaism. It’s one thing to have to have a low entry threshold; it’s another to dumb it so down there’s nothing left.


Rabbi Eli Kaunfer in his book, Empowered Judaism [Jewish Lights Press, 2010; p.152-3] writes;

In my own journey with Jewish study as an adult, I have come to appreciate the ways in which an unfiltered encounter with Jewish texts is a form of spiritual practice. As I became an Empowered Jewish learner, I spent many hours talking about this with my teachers…. Torah study opens us up to the notion that there is something larger than ourselves in the universe. Part of the daunting task of learning Torah is recognizing just how much there is to learn. The more we learn, the more we feel there is to learn: we cannot know it all; we cannot control it all; there will always be worlds we have no access to. This is a serious corrective to a contemporary culture that makes claims to being able to access every scrap of information. The Internet confers the illusion that everything is knowable, that it is all available for searching. But Torah study is a regular exercise in humility, a reminder that we are not able to grasp the overwhelming complexity of God’s world.


There are congregations that offer extensive lecture series on interesting topics. These lectures are important and the information they bring to the community is worthwhile. But ongoing serious learning is still far from the conscience of most American synagogues. This has to change. Serious study of traditional Jewish texts should be one of the most crucial parts of synagogue life. One of the names for a synagogue in Hebrew is “Beit Midrash” a house of study, a school; not a school for children but a place where adults can go to learn.


An opportunity to invest more of our resources into adult education presents itself with the development of Hebrew Language Charter Schools. Many congregations are fearful of these new enterprises, fearful that these schools will undermine the basic reasons for the after-school religious training that has been the backbone of synagogue life for so long. It is my opinion that synagogues should take charge of the after school programs at these Charter Schools, adding the specifically Jewish content (customs and ceremonies, holidays and rituals) that can’t be taught legally during school hours. This would free the congregations (and their budgets) to work to improve what is offered to adults.


The yeshiva model has met with a great deal of success. The style is called “chevruta learning” and it involves engaging a text directly with one or more study partners (usually no more than four in a group) who grapple with the text, who share ideas, thoughts and experience with each other to gain a better understanding of what the text is about. This is followed by the “shiur”, the lecture by the teacher who teaches the principles and practices that can help the students find a deeper understanding of the text. This dynamic, between students and then between the students and the teacher, insures that the studies are kept at a very high level.


Sometimes a teacher is not needed. When adults from various backgrounds in both secular and Jewish education gather to read a text, they may find that the discussion as they read together and seek to understand the text is all that is needed to discover meanings deeper than would come from reading Torah or Rabbinic literature alone. If a passage should come to the attention of the group that they cannot make sense of at all, they can then seek the guidance of a more advanced teacher or professor to help them over the hump and to share with them whatever information may be missing that would unlock the meaning from the text.


We need to make this learning available to our adult students 24/6 (let’s give the computer one day off!). These classes should be recorded as MP3 files or video of the class should be recorded as MP4 files and posted to the education page of the synagogue website. Audio recordings could then be downloaded and played back during commutes to work, errands around town or while working out at the gym. Video can be watched while on the treadmill at home or when evening television is more vapid than usual. The “recordings” could be watched on a laptop at the airport or downloaded and watched during a flight. It can also be shared with friends, and links could be sent to anyone who may have an interest. We have to think beyond the classroom to make Jewish learning as easy as using an iPod. With the new cell phone technology, both audio and video can be played on a smart phone; and questions about the lesson can be emailed back to the teacher using the link on the webpage.


Successful synagogues are those where adults can gather to grow in their religious learning. It is not about current events or news analysis; these are done better every day by the pundits on cable TV and the internet. But when it comes to finding personal meaning in sacred texts, the synagogue is the place Jews will go. If we offer what they are looking for, they will make their home in our congregations. If we don’t, they will go wherever they need to go to find the place where serious study is applied to serious spiritual questions. The age of the participants and their backgrounds are not important. I believe that this kind of adult study will help bind a congregation together in a common bond of learning, and that the stratification of ages that seems to be an eternal part of synagogue life, can be broken down as students of all ages study together. Adult students will do the work needed to keep up with the class. It is time our congregations started offering up advanced Jewish Text classes and the sooner the better.


Responding To Demographic Changes: Part Two – Worshiping God


As a Rabbi, I have gotten used to hearing from Jews over the years that services are too long, too boring and not very spiritual. At least that is the excuse given to me as to why more people don’t attend services. I have now been a part of several congregations where services are packed with people. The surprise is that it is the same service, of roughly the same length, but they are hardly boring and they are very spiritual. Each congregation says the same words. In fact, the popular services often don’t skip a word of the service. It is enough to ‘cross a Rabbi’s eyes’.


The Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Dr. Arnold Eisen, recently wrote in his blog (Conservative Judaism, A Community Conversation on Meaningful Tephilla in the Synagogue: July 26, 2011)

It is true that many Jews in Conservative pews today are unlettered in the fine points of Judaism, far from punctilious in their observance, unsophisticated in their personal theologies, and unsure of whether and how God commands action and hears prayer. Yet, they are utterly sincere in their search for holiness and the Holy One. We do not need to romanticize or idealize these Jews (my parents were among them). They are good enough as they are. We just need to serve them better: to provide experiences of tefillah [prayer] that, through music, words, and artful silence, usher them into encounter with God, their fellow Jews, and themselves.

We have Jews attending our services who want to pray, who need to pray, who have a longing to pray, but all too often, the problem is between the environment in which they have to pray and the conflicting needs of others who may not have the same agenda when they attend synagogue. Recently a woman in my congregation announced that she would not attend services anymore because she did not see them as an important part of her life. She would continue to attend social events because she liked being with her friends but she did not see any need for prayer. I reminded her that when her son was ill, we all offered prayers on his behalf and now, after months of illness, was finally feeling better, did she not feel the need to be thankful for the blessing of his continued health? I think that too often Jews get confused about the relationship between their spiritual feelings and the way we need to express them. It is possible that any one congregation may not fulfill those spiritual needs but that does not mean that we don’t have a need and that we do require a space to fulfill the yearnings in our hearts.


Joel Lurie Grishaver, in an article he wrote many years ago, called “Time Wars”, noted that when people are interested in what is going on, they don’t look at the clock. When they are unengaged and bored, time slows to a crawl and they can’t wait to get out and do something different. The issue with boring services is about engagement, not the contours of the service.


Gabriel Blau, in his essay Negotiating Orgasm: Spirituality and the Sexual Experience published  in the book, “Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices: Sex and Intimacy” (Edited by Elliot Dorff and Danya Ruttenberg, JPS, 2010: page 122) writes:

At the center of every great prayer experience that I have ever had, there has been a profound yearning, a desire that is strong and alluring, yet mysterious and elusive. The greatest of our tradition’s liturgy and music offer us a sense of awe, empowerment, and release. These are the same qualities present in our sexual desires and experiences. Like prayer, they can be ecstatic, yet like prayer they can, at times also be off-putting and demeaning. Both spiritual practice, in all its forms (some of which are sexual) and sex offer opportunities for unique connections to others and to ourselves. They require faith and trust, and they have a presence in our lives that can seem limited to isolated occasions, yet are part of almost everything we see and feel.


If sex is a complicated part of our lives, how much more so will prayer be complicated? If both prayer and sex attempt to reach that most intimate part of our souls, then how can it ever be possible to have a service that will meet the needs of all the individuals who make up a congregation? Sometimes it is impossible to have a normal conversation about sex, and sometimes it is impossible to have a normal conversation about tephilot, the structure of Jewish prayer. Sex and prayer may be two different discussions, but they seem to meet in the same place in our spiritual soul.


I think that everyone, Rabbis, Cantors and worshipers all agree that something needs to be done to fix the service. Change is hard, and I believe this is because we are all speaking a different language. Clergy want to remain true to the traditional format of the service, and worshipers are demanding shorter, less “boring” services with more English. Both sides go away from this discussion angry. Each side feels that the other is not listening to their concerns. When I hear these arguments and then step back and see what happens when we let the lay leadership compose their own service, more often than not, they put together something that is pretty traditional. The English readings that substitute for prayer, however, notoriously go out of style after just a few weeks. Writing prayers is a pretty complicated task. Our Siddur is filled with prayers written over thousands of years. The really meaningful prayers have survived a test of time. So what is the key to making our worship services more spiritual, more meaningful, more beautiful, more interesting, more engaging, more uplifting; or in short, what will make services better?


There are many who have written about what is wrong with our services, such as Rabbi Eli Kaunfer, Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Rabbi Mike Comins, Rabbi Naomi Levy, Rabbi David Wolpe, Rabbi Neil Gillman and a host of others. Some have written extensively about taking services out of the sanctuary, into nature and into the real world. There are those who speak about meditation, chanting and mantras. These are all paths to spirituality and they have a rightful place in the prayer toolbox. I will let you read these guides to non-traditional prayer from those who are more involved in them than I. I have bonded with the service in the synagogue and that is where I find my spirituality. My topic here is the synagogue and so I will limit my observations to the synagogue setting.


The Siddur


Ever since the dawn of time, parents have been saying to their children during the prayer service, “Stop fidgeting, pay attention… What page are we on?” Rabbis have seen it as their religious duty to make sure that every member of the congregation is on the same page of the prayerbook (siddur). I was once, a long time ago, visiting another congregation and found that I had fallen behind and had to catch up. I stood up, in the back of the room to move quickly through my prayers and I noticed that the Rabbi was obviously unhappy that I was not with the rest of the congregation at that moment.


I would like to think that we are past this phase. I would like to think that all Jews understand that they don’t have to all be on the same page. All Jews do not have to stand and sit in harmony and if the words of one prayer or another moves us in that moment, then we can linger there, contemplate the meaning of that moment and catch up (or not) later. I know some Jews who bring other books to read to enhance their prayer experience. Some of the more modern prayer books have commentary on every page to help not only explain but to help the pray-er have a deeper understanding of what the words mean and to reveal the deeper meaning of the poetry and metaphor of the prayer.


The siddur is not a cookbook. The prayers are not recipes that one can follow to bake a spiritual cake. Prayer is an art form and the prayer book is a book of poetry and linguistic art that guides us in our spiritual search; but the siddur cannot do all the work for us. Rabbi Mark Greenspan, in one of his High Holy Day sermons recalled some advice from his wife, “services are not spiritual, people are spiritual.” If we come to synagogue expecting something to give us a spiritual feeling, we will be disappointed. If we come prepared to seek the spiritual in our lives, if we come with a spiritual frame of mind, the siddur will guide us to places we have not been before. The siddur calls us to be artists with our words, using them as the rungs on ladders to help us grow upwards and inward to find God. When we find ourselves looking at our watches or trying to figure out what the words of prayer are supposed to mean, we have missed the purpose of being in synagogue. It is the combination of location, poetry, music, and inner awareness that make our prayers come alive. Nobody else can do it for us.




This does not mean that synagogues are off the hook. To improve the way Jews pray, there needs to be a better relationship between synagogue and congregations. We can argue all we want about the merits of spontaneous prayer verses fixed prayer. That debate was resolved centuries ago. Judaism has a fixed liturgy for three services a day, allowing for personal spontaneous prayer in only one section, the Amidah. Rabbi Max Kedushan, professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the early twentieth century, connected this fixed liturgy with what he called, “normal mysticism”; that there could be a deeper, spiritual understanding of the liturgy that could come from regular, planned prayer. As we become familiar with the wording of the fixed liturgy, we are better able to use it as part of our own spiritual advancement; in the same way that we learn to play a piece of music and after we have mastered it, we are better able to add our own “riffs” to the original score. This means that to fully understand Jewish liturgy one needs to become a regular at the service or be committed to praying individually at home. Intermittent praying will not bring about the desired connection to the text. We can sing along to our favorite music in the shower and while driving in our car, but if we wish to take the next step and perform the song for ourselves, we need to add something of ourselves to the music and not just give a karaoke performance imitating exactly how it sounds on the CD.


This would seem to imply that someone who is interested in spiritual prayer in synagogue will have to sink a bit before he or she can swim. It may mean that we will struggle for a while with one prayer or another until we find the place for this prayer in our life. This may be true, but again, we should not let synagogues off the hook. Waiting for the congregation to master the service without recognizing the needs of the congregation and how we can help them bridge this gap would be a serious breach of  communal responsibility. Rabbi Sharon Brous reminded other Rabbis recently, that “if your service the week before the tsunami hit Indonesia is the same as the service after the tsunami, then something is very wrong.” Spirituality is not about a moment of silent prayer, but it is focusing on the proper parts of the liturgy in order to highlight how we can emotionally and reasonably respond to important events in our lives and in our world. It is up to Rabbis, prayer leaders and synagogues to show us the way.


I know that there are many Jews today who think that the best way to improve the service is to cut out unnecessary prayers and shorten the time of the service. This approach is not validated by any of the modern congregations who have successful services. In fact, the vast majority of independent minyaim for young Jews offer only a full traditional service, often from older prayer books with translations that can be sexist or archaic. In the end, it is not the prayers or the prayer book that seem to make the difference.


Congregational Responsibility


The most important part of prayer is the participation of the congregation. All too many synagogues are oriented for prayer that is a performance.  The congregation waits for the Rabbi or Cantor to “lead” them in prayer and the congregation is told when they can sing, when they should pray, when they should stand, when they should sit and they are constantly reminded what page they are supposed to be on. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner (in Making Prayer Real, Comins ed. p. 13-14) writes:

The problem with Reform liturgy is that we assume that we should always give people an exciting new experience. There were ten Friday night services in “Gates of Prayer” [The Reform prayer book], which has the unfortunate side effect of preventing anyone from memorizing the liturgy. And it sort of turned everyone into dummies who had to be told when to stand up and when to sit down. I’m always struck when the leader of the service says, “We now rise for the Shema.” Why are you telling me that? I’ve been coming here for thirty years. I know we stand up for the Shema. Only Jews tell one another when to stand. People in every other religion assume you know what to do, and if you don’t, you’re smart enough to watch and see what everyone else is doing. 


Many of the independent minyanim (see E. Kaunfer “Empowered Judaism”) have placed the leaders of prayer, not in the front but in the middle of the congregation; they have switched from professional leaders to lay leadership of the service and, while they insist that those wishing to lead the service pass a “test” with an experienced service leader, the leadership of the service is, for all practical purposes, open to anyone who wants to lead.  Those who do not have the necessary skills are given a chance to learn prayer skills with the eventual reward of being able to lead the congregation. In this model, “responsive readings” are no longer necessary. The service is done all in Hebrew. The only part in English is the D’var Torah/sermon. Page numbers are only called out in special circumstances (when there is something new or unusual that needs to be clarified); the pages are listed in a program or in the front of the siddur and the congregation is expected to find their own way through the siddur. If there is a problem, then they are to ask someone sitting near them for clarification. In this way, everyone is able to pray at their own pace. The real surprise for congregations today is that they don’t need to coddle the worshipers. While there may be some confusion in the beginning, after a while worshipers will come to appreciate being on their own in the siddur. The reading of the Torah also does not need to be a constant reminder of what page we are on. Everyone should be reading/studying at their own pace. If someone makes a comment on the reading before or between aliyot, a simple reference to chapter and verse is all that should be needed. This would even let those who may be studying the Torah from a different text than the rest of the congregation, follow the comments of the darshan (the one explaining the meaning of the Torah reading).




Music in the service is a big concern. Surprisingly, the issue with music is NOT about whether or not musical instruments are permitted on Shabbat. There are very successful congregations that use live music and those who only pray a Capella. What seems to matter the most is the KIND of music that is being used. In the book, Sacred Strategies: Transforming Synagogues From Functional To Visionary (I. Aron, S.M. Cohen, L.A. Hoffman, and A.Y. Kelman; Alban Institute Press,2010, p. 69) the authors examine worship to see what makes the greatest difference in the service. They write, “Neither space nor choreography, however, made the greatest difference. Nor, certainly, could it have been the prayer book (Gates of Prayer), which had been in use since 1975 without facilitating much notable change at all. The determining factor was music – a finding compatible with Protestant worship change as well. Rick Warren, founder of the path-breaking Saddleback Church in southern California, recalls, “If I could start Saddleback all over again, I’d put more energy and money into music. … The great American pastime is not baseball; it is music.” The authors also note; “…music can either aid or inhibit the congregant’s experiences of meaningfulness in the service. Music and melodies that are familiar link one with tradition, real or imagined, but at the risk of being experienced as routine and uninspiring. Music and melodies that are innovative and contemporary evoke other reactions, such as stimulation, excitement, curiosity, or discomfort. The choice of how best to balance these and other musical options varies with time, place, congregants, and context” (p. 37-8).


I believe that there is a new wave of Jewish liturgical music that is being written today that will eventually mark these years as the beginning of a new “Golden Age” of Jewish liturgical music. The new music has grown out of the pioneering work of Rabbi Shlomo Carlbach, Debbie Friedman, Craig Taubman and many others. It is a mixture of modern forms of music, spiritual chants and repetitive musical stanzas. These melodies are easy to learn and help the congregation learn the Hebrew prayers. Sometimes they begin as a nigun, a wordless melody (using La-La-La or Bim Bam Bim or Ai-De-De-Dai etc) then switching to the words of the prayer and then going back to the wordless melody. This allows everyone to learn the music and the words and if you can’t read/sing the words, there is still time to connect during the wordless part of the singing. The music is actually enhanced by having everyone singing, adding to the spiritual component of the service. Clearly, the music is a key to spirituality and having the congregation chant together with a minimum of central leadership (someone has to at least pick the music for the prayer before everyone can sing it and then set the pace). What applies to leading the music also applies to musical instruments. If the singer or the musicians play as if they are performing, then the service will be an empty shell. If the singers and the musicians play to encourage the entire congregation to join in and participate, then there is almost no end to how high the service can take its participants.




All of this requires a different role for the Rabbi and Cantor in the service. The Rabbi may set the structure of the prayer service and then leave it for the congregation to lead, with an extended role as teacher to those who don’t know the prayers and to those who want to boost their connection to the service by learning to lead the congregation in prayer.  The Cantor would be constantly searching for new music to help the congregation expand the musical modes of the service; the Cantor’s role would be to teach new melodies and new ways to lead prayer. This does not mean that there will no longer be a role in the service for traditional nusach, the standard musical modes that are unique for the different experiences of Jewish liturgy. There is a great deal of interest in learning traditional nusach, but the music attached to specific prayers is an ever evolving process and Cantors can help keep the music of the service up to date.


(I want to note here a technical difference between nusach and hazzanut. These two terms are often mixed up or described as one being a part of the other. I believe that they are very different and need to be treated differently. Hazzanut is a Cantorial tradition that dates back over 100 years to the great age of Cantorial music. Composed and chanted by some of the great hazzanim (Cantors) of the early twentieth century, (Rosenblatt,  Koussevitzky , Oysher, Tucker, etc.) it represents a style of religious singing that once was very popular in synagogues but now has faded over time. Nusach is the older, traditional musical modes of the service that set the tone and style that separates the service for Shabbat from the service for weekdays and which makes the holiday services musically unique. These modes, much older than Hazzanut, are still the musical underpinning of every synagogue service.)


This implies that there will need to be extensive teaching of liturgical melodies and of the structure of the service itself. Some congregations have created a “Learner’s Minyan,” where those who wish to learn more about the prayers and how to chant/sing them can go, ask questions and practice leading the liturgy. Other congregations do this kind of training as part of their Adult Studies program. Some congregations have a team of teachers who record the music for others to learn, post that music on the synagogue website and then help those aspiring to lead to iron out the rough spots in their presentation. To become a prayer leader, one would have to pass muster with this committee. (Kehillat Hadar, one of the new minyanim in New York City, has published a CD of the music they use at their service, and offers sample clips of the music on their website as a way to teach and encourage more people to take a role in leading the service).


Maybe you will accuse me of being self-serving but I don’t think that the role of Rabbi or Cantor is going the way of the dinosaur. Their role in the congregation is changing. The role of Rabbi and Cantor is going back to its roots; that of serving as mentors and teachers of the community. The role is less up front and more behind the scenes, urging and encouraging Jews to take a larger role in their own spiritual development. I am sure that there are still Rabbis and Cantors who want and need to be the center of the synagogue service. I believe that congregations should no longer be looking for the “Pied Piper” who will lead the congregation to successful worship. I think the synagogues of the future will be looking for the “mentor-in-chief” who will guide, support and encourage spiritual growth through prayer.


Challenges in Worship


Finally, the timing of the service is also an issue; not the full amount of time spent praying, but the start time and the pace of the service. Congregations wanting to finish by noon on Shabbat, often had to start by 8:30 or 9:00 am. There are a growing number of Jews who just don’t want to get out of bed to get to synagogue at that hour. This has meant, in the past, that many Jews arrive late to the service, getting there when they have had all the sleep they desire on a weekend. Many successful congregations have instituted start times of 9:30 or 10:00 am (the latest possible time to pray the morning service) and more people arrive on time. The service is sometimes kept moving because the English and the spectator parts have been removed. Kehillat Hadar keeps things moving by keeping the d’var Torah, the teaching of a lesson, short. They stress teaching as the proper place for a lecture/sermon.  It should be unusual for Shabbat services to go three hours or longer, however, except on special occasions when the liturgy may have many additions that could require a longer service.


There are also many indications that the “one service fits all” model is no longer helpful. It should not surprise anyone that styles of worship can vary by social class, by experience and by age.  Young people have different ideas than their parents and their grandparents about what is spiritual. They may like different music, they may like more participation, they may want to learn from each other rather than have a formal sermon. I have heard of congregations where there were discussions about why younger members were unhappy with the main service and had started their own service; the older members were angry that the younger members didn’t like what they were used to. I don’t really see a reason why everyone needs to pray the same way. I believe that synagogues should offer a menu of venues for different groups with different prayer needs. While an advanced study program can generate unity among the students, prayer, because it is so personal, may require a menu of alternative services to accommodate the needs of all the members.


Congregations with large buildings can offer a variety of other services meeting different worshipers’ needs or provide places for smaller minyanim to hold their services. Some alternative minyanim need proper prayer space and some congregations with large buildings have room for alternative minyanim. This can be a natural place for two communities to work together.


What is an alternative minyan? Some of these alternative minyanim could be women only services, healing services, learner’s minyanim, non-egalitarian services, services with a creative liturgy or those that sport longer or shorter davening times (or faster or slower pacing). Often there is an effort to have differing start times to these alternatives services so that they can all end at the same time and so all the participants can join together in one collation after all the services are done (a unified Kiddush or Oneg Shabbat). In some congregations, however, each minyan has its own collation and coordinating the end times is not necessary. This does mean that there will be members of the community who choose not to be present to hear the Rabbi’s sermon or to hear the Cantor chant the Musaf service. They will be preparing their own Dvrei Torah and arranging their own music. (This is another reason why sermons should be posted on the synagogue website and a reason that Cantors should be visiting all the different minyanim and helping each of them find their own musical way).


B’nai Mitzvah


The most difficult area in all of these suggestions about services is addressing the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony. Over the past 50 years, in many mainstream congregations, there has been a tendency to give the service over to the family who is celebrating the Bar/Bat Mitzvah of their child. The child chants large sections of the service, may read from the Torah, chant the Haftara, give a speech and lead the closing part of the service. In addition, the family is given most, if not all the Torah honors on their special day.  The parents may give a speech in addition to the one given by the Rabbi and the speech given by the child. It makes for a longer service on Shabbat morning. For a large part of the congregation, made up of the friends and family of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah child, this is not a problem at all. They have come from near and far to be present at this service. For the rest of the congregation, however, it can be anything from an annoyance to agony. In some of these cases, the child leading the service has not been a regular attendee at Shabbat services. The family is unknown to those who regularly attend Shabbat services, and the family is so focused on the child and their own family that they have little regard for those who attend every week. There are times when the family will not even share the Kiddush luncheon following the service with the regular attendees, having a private luncheon in a different room or in a different location off campus. Is it any wonder that the regular attendees at a synagogue often “dread” when a Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony is scheduled?


On the other side, I have seen wonderful Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremonies where the family is well known to all in the congregation, where the entire family attends Shabbat services, not just for the last year, but for many years. The congregation has watched the child grow and desires to celebrate with the family. In one of the minyanim that meet at Congregation Anshei Chesed in New York City, for example, it is the custom when these families celebrate, at the conclusion of the student’s chanting of the haftara, the entire minyan membership all get up and dance around the child on the bima singing songs of joy and congratulations. Families who may be unwilling to make that kind of a long term commitment to the congregation, will need to, perhaps, conduct their own services for their family and guests and leave the rest of the congregation to daven as usual. In this manner, the family can have a service that they will appreciate and the rest of the congregation will not be put out by the personal and private speeches that often characterize these Bar/Bat Mitzvah services today. I do not mean, in any way, to denigrate the family or the ceremony of Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Surveys have shown that families who have celebrated at a congregation are often the most vocal about their love of the synagogue and their love of the entire community. There are just competing needs that will have to be addressed.


To make prayer a meaningful part of Jewish life today, we need to address the needs of the congregation for a real prayer experience and then offer a service that is real and honest to the liturgy. We should stop dumbing down the service and invite lay leadership to participate at every moment. We need to have music that is easy to use and easy to join together in singing and we must pay attention to the pacing of the service. We should let all worshipers feel that they are welcome, that we value their time and effort and that the service can be, for everyone, spiritually moving. If we are regular attendees at Shabbat services, and we find that the service is long and boring, then something is very wrong and the congregation should begin to find ways to make the service uplifting, meaningful and spiritual. I believe with all my heart that the issues that plague our services are not time, the traditional liturgy or Hebrew. The real issue is how we can gather together to bring God into our lives. It is not about how fast we go through the prayers, but in how the prayers go through us.


Responding To Demographic Changes: Part Three – Political and Social Action


I recently heard a political pundit explain a “moral compass” as having the values to help a person find the right direction, even when faced with  all the noise and commotion in the world.  If this is not the work that synagogues need to be doing, then I don’t know what else is. Our congregations have social programs, dances, shows, dinners, breakfasts, card parties, poker nights, casino trips, dessert receptions, meetings, and a host of other gatherings that keep us busy but have little or no long-term effect on the world around us. Conservative congregations have typically not been actively involved with issues relating to Social Action or Political Action. Often these are seen as the work for Federation or some other Jewish organization. I think that one of the reasons that the Reform movement has not declined as quickly as the Conservative movement is because it has a long history of Social Action programming.


Many congregations point to Mitzvah Day programs, where many people gather on one day and work on a wide variety of social action projects. They also point to annual food drives, or other collections done in response to a call for action. These are fine, as far as they go. But what a modern synagogue needs is an active and ongoing connection to social action or political action. People don’t want to just learn about Judaism, nor just to pray that things should be different. We want to get our hands “dirty” doing the work that will make a difference.


On June 28, 2011 a study was released that was commissioned by Repair the World ( and was conducted by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and Gerstein-Agne Strategic Communications. It was designed to study volunteering among young Jewish adults. We often think of the youngest adults (often called Millennials) as not getting involved in anything but the study results show a very different picture.


The researchers found:

  • The volunteer rate for this age group is anywhere from 63% – 86%
  • Almost a third of the group have made volunteering an integral part of their lives and engage in a service activity at least once a month.
  • 80% say that their volunteer work is done locally.
  • 78% of women and 63% of the men have volunteered their time in the last 12 months
  • Volunteering is the result of social learning that originates in the home and is reinforced by peers.
  • Only 10% of the young adults said that their primary commitment was organized by Jewish organizations. Only 18% said that they prefer to volunteer with Jewish organizations or synagogues over other non-profit organizations. 75% said that it does not matter if the organization with which they are engaged in service is Jewish or non-Jewish.
  • Young adults also said that they don’t know about volunteer opportunities in the Jewish community.


Clearly, there are people who want to be engaged in Jewish community work but we still have a long way to go to engage these young adults. I strongly feel that the same statistics or at least similar ones, apply to the parents of these young adults and one of the great failures of our synagogues is our neglect of this important need. I think that if we create the service programs that these young adults and others are looking for, we will find that they will become a major part of how we are engaging people in their Judaism. Why should Jewish adults have to look elsewhere to participate in local community service projects?


Doing it Right


I know congregations that regularly go out on “builds” for Habitat for Humanity. I know congregations that have a soup kitchen to feed the hungry or a food pantry that distributes food to the poor. I know of congregations that have a homeless shelter in their basement, a vegetable market in the parking lot for locally grown food and one congregation that actually sends people to work on an organic farm to help the farmer in exchange for a share of the crops when they ripen. There are congregations that organize job fairs for those out of work, mentor at-risk children in the community, sent workers multiple times to New Orleans after hurricane Katrina and to Haiti after the earthquake and to Tuscaloosa after the tornadoes  to help rebuild,  and congregations who send teachers out to work with  the children of migrant workers.


There are congregations who send members to their state capitals and to Washington, DC to lobby representatives about issues that are important to the Jewish community or to the wider community of religious people. There are congregations with active chapters of AIPAC and J Street that advocate for Israel. Some work with other faiths to address, from a religious point of view, issues relating to health care, immigration, civil rights, and issues of religious freedom. While there are certainly issues on which different faiths disagree, there are more issues where there is great agreement and working together can make a very big difference. In Hollywood, Florida, when all the other surrounding cities were struggling to find a place for a homeless shelter, the Interfaith Council, working together, had a shelter built, furnished and occupied by a full complement of residents in need. It was the religious organizations that gave the political cover to get the job done.


Many years ago, I had the privilege of hearing from a young man, about thirty years old, who was active in a Jewish philanthropic agency. He recounted that when he graduated college, he took a job at a big corporation, with a corner office, and went to work on his first day. He sat in the office, looked at the walls and the window and thought, “Is this where I will sit for the next thirty years of my life?  Is this all that I have to look forward to?” He didn’t particularly like the answers to these questions, and decided he needed something more. Needless to say, he got involved in charity work to give his life meaning and depth. I think that just about everyone at every age has this feeling, though certainly there are plenty of people who are content with living lives of self-interest and self-indulgence. At a very young age, my children quickly understood the good feelings that come when one has made a difference in the life of someone else. To see the faces of gratitude when we take the time to care is its own reward. To know that life in this country or some other country is better because we got involved is a wonderful feeling. This needs to be one of the main foci of synagogue life.


There are some congregations who in fact do require every member to be involved in some social action project. They offer a wide range of projects in need of helping hands and hearts and expect everyone to pitch in. In many cases, it was involvement in the social action programs that led a family to join the synagogue and to participate in other programs with their new friends.


Getting Started


Like prayer, a Hesed [kindness] program, does not have to be “one size fits all.” Smaller committees could focus on the day-to-day planning and the congregation can get involved as needed. For example, a Habitat committee could plan for helping with a build and make the arrangements with the local organization. The rest of the members only need to show up on the appointed day. An Israel Affairs committee could report information about Israel to the congregation on a web page or by email and then call upon the congregation to respond with appropriate letters, emails and visits to political representatives to lobby in support of Israel. It could also coordinate lectures and educational programs on Israel for the synagogue and for the larger community. An ongoing food drive will bring in food from all the members of the synagogue but the committee would be responsible for bringing it to the food pantry or delivering it to needy families in the larger community. The entire community is thus involved in many different projects, but each member can focus attention on the program that gives him or her the most satisfaction.


When a person is engaged in this kind of community service, it can be an important entry point into the religious world. If synagogues become the place where people go to find meaning and fulfillment, then they will stay at the synagogue for learning and for services as well. There is evidence that involvement in social action projects will also bring greater donations to the synagogue as participants feel that the entire congregation is working on worthwhile and meaningful programs.


One of the ways that synagogue life has changed is that fifty years ago, a person joined a synagogue and then tried to find something with which to get involved. Today, before a person will join a synagogue, he or she will have to see that there are worthwhile things happening there before they make the commitment to join. Social and political action can be the portals to a lifetime of synagogue membership. It provides the entree for Singles in the congregation to get involved; a place to meet like-minded singles who could potentially be future partners. It is important to remember that meeting future partners is not the only idea that drives the lives of singles. Many programs for singles fall apart after a short time as singles meet and no longer need a “meet and mix” program. Social action and political action are activities that singles can participate in regardless of their relationship status. Single parents can participate as a way to be personally involved in meaningful community service or they could use these programs for important and precious family activity. Socially, singles and couples often do not mix, but in social and political action committees, the good work may override the differences that usually keep them apart.


There may be many outside social and political action groups that rival the synagogue already involved in the community and we should partner with them where we can. We must remember, however, that the combination of community service, faith and Mitzvot found in synagogues can create strong connections between participants, congregations and God. It is this deeper meaning that makes social/political action an important part of what the modern synagogue is all about.


Responding To Demographic Changes: Summary


Synagogues based on these three core components, Learning, Prayer and Social/Political Action or as we say in Hebrew, Torah, Avoda and Gemilut Hasadim, are in a prime position to attract Jews of different ages, genders, marital status and backgrounds. All of these activities together under one roof, groups for serious learning, meaningful praying and social/political action involvement, provide many entryways into synagogue life and toward a future of synagogue leadership. This is the bedrock of what a modern synagogue must be to grow and thrive in today’s environment. The irony is that this is exactly what synagogues have been for centuries that have made them one of the most enduring organizations in Judaism. Implied here is a criticism of the last fifty years of congregational life. In some ways, the idea of the synagogue got lost as the leadership planned social programs, education for children and services that were designed for spectators, not those wishing to pray.  I don’t think that American synagogues started out on the wrong path, but over time, the organization strayed from its roots and the damage has been significant. We need to get back on track and we will see that Jews will again recognize the importance of synagogues in their lives. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, in his book, “Rethinking Synagogues: A New Vocabulary for Congregational Life” (Jewish Lights Press) talks about synagogues as “market communities.” A market community is defined as “communities that exist because they promise concrete benefits, not because they are so central to people’s lives that their members cannot imagine belonging anywhere else.” Rabbi Hoffman talks about creating “Sacred Communities: Communities whose worth is measured in sacred acts and relationships that connect us to one another and to God.” Clearly, a synagogue based on Torah, Avoda and Gemilut Hasadim would be creating its community based on sacred acts, rather than “spectator” activities.


Can it really be that easy? If we wish to recreate the Synagogue, is all that we need to do – create adult learning, better services and social/political action programs? That’s it? The short answer is: yes, that’s all it takes. But while the answer is short, taking action on the changes will challenge everything that already exists. I don’t know why we should be surprised that the answer we seek can be found in our ancient tradition. Our Sages and teachers over and over surprise us in how they could see beyond their own time and create a timeless religion called Judaism. The difference is always in how we respond to this tri-headed call. We need to see new ways to apply it for the modern world.


Take learning. Every American congregation today has a program of Adult Studies. This has been going on for decades, and the program has grown smaller every year. We give away the classes for free and the rooms are still empty. We make a mistake when we gear our adult studies programs for beginners only and never offer advanced courses that reflect the higher education attained by many modern Jews. The reality is that young Jews today have advanced college degrees and massive amounts of basic information are available to them on the internet. Many current adult studies classes never get beyond the introductory level. Yet there is a great need, as I have noted above, for serious adult learning. This means hiring teachers, creating curriculum and setting aside a proper place to learn. It means diverting some of the resources set aside for the education of children and using those resources for Adult Education. I do not fool myself into thinking that such a change will be easy nor popular. I only maintain that it is necessary.


Take Avoda, worship. If anyone would like to cut right to the heart of a Rabbi’s or Cantor’s ego, try talking to them about changing the essence of the service. Try telling a man (so far these are still mostly men) who is 90 years old, that the way he has prayed his whole life now has to change. Cantor Linda Shivers once told me that a good cantor can’t rest on what he or she knows, that a cantor needs to be constantly improving his or her voice and repertoire. It applies to rabbis as well. Rabbis who only glean the news looking for topics to speak about but never spend any time learning what Jews are looking for in their worship, may be successful in the short run, but will falter as times change. I am not going to sit here and declare that rabbis and cantor have gotten “fat and lazy.” Actually, clergy work extraordinarily hard each and every day. I know that, in spite of my constant renewal of my rabbinate, I still missed this problem until I had a sabbatical where I met younger colleagues and had the time to really listen to their take on what was happening in the world.


Still, it will never be easy to start an alternative service if the Rabbi expects everyone to be present for his or her sermon. It will never be easy if the Cantor expects everyone to be in the main sanctuary for the Musaf service. As long as we have officers and board members who think that everyone should like the same service or else they are “tearing apart the community,” alternative minyanim will be created not in our current buildings, but in the basements of churches and in the living rooms of young Jews. We need to embrace this movement of alternative minyanim, make room for them in our mostly empty buildings. Those who like the original service will stay in the main sanctuary. Those who want change will gladly go to the alternatives. There will be times when people will move from one to the other as they try them out, but since they are all in the same building it is easy to find the form of worship that makes the most difference in the member’s life. What is wrong with that?


Rabbi Sharon Braus, of Los Angeles, asked about a social action program at a synagogue and was informed that, “Social Action is what they do at the synagogue down the street. Here we do prayer.” It is my personal opinion that the reason Conservative Judaism has fallen so far so fast over the last fifty years is because we have had little or no Social Action. I believe that the reason Reform Judaism has not taken as big a hit as Conservative Judaism is because it has had a very extensive Social Action program. I don’t know of any survey that shows this but it is still what I deeply believe.


When I talk about Torah, Avoda and Gemilut Hasadim, I am looking for new ways to apply these in our congregations and in our synagogue buildings. The mission is as ancient as our faith. The application needs to be as new as the latest smart phone. These are the basic building blocks of Synagogue renewal. It is in these areas that we must address our time and energy to turn our congregations around.


These  basic components of Torah, Avoda and Gemilut Hasadim are the baseline activities that will bring in members and make them active participants in the community, But our world has changed over the last fifty year and there are other approaches to the way synagogues are run that must change if we are to be successful for both our long and short term goals. When it comes to changing synagogues, sometimes we lapse into poor habits and lazy thinking and we undermine our best ideas and programs. Synagogues did not get into the trouble we are in overnight. It has been years, decades, of neglect that has gotten us where we are today. It will take time to climb out of this hole. We need to think in terms of three to five years to really see the changes I propose to make a difference in the synagogue world. It could be a decade until we wake up one day and see that we have created something strong and meaningful in people’s lives. I also need to remind those who espouse change that the changes I propose does NOT mean that we are going back to the way things used to be in the “good old days” – the heydays of our congregations from fifty years ago. What worked then will NOT work now. We really don’t want to set the clock back fifty years, that would be a fiasco. We need to create a new standard of success and then focus all our energy to create it. In summation Torah, Avoda and Gemilut Hasadim may be the keys to success but we still will need to do more than just promote this program.. They certainly need to be the focus of our energies but we must remember that the playing field has changed and we need to address the new reality of life.  Once we have addressed the main issues, there are still a number of “second tier” challenges. These are not the contents of our change, but the “bottle”, the “containers”, in which we need to hold them. We need to do new things in new ways if we wish to truly grow our synagogues.