Chapter Four: Fixing Synagogues

Chapter Four: Fixing Synagogues 

A Guide to Solving What’s Wrong With Our Congregations

Jack and Suzy Welch in a recent article (Newsweek July 18, 2011) talk about a winning approach in business. They complain that strategic planning as usually practiced tries to predict the future and those kinds of predictions are just impossible in today’s world. They write:

On winning teams. Leaders infuse their people with crazy-positive enthusiasm about what winning will look like for the company and, more important (as it’s often forgotten), for them as individuals. “Look, Acme’s killing us”, they might say. “Their on-time delivering makes us look like we’re driving horses and buggies around here. But we can beat them by coming up with a better idea for efficiency every single day and when that happens, your life is going to change and everything is going to get better. Our company will start to grow again; …. Even though we’re going to enter into a long, hard slog of change ahead, at the other end of it you’ll be smarter, richer and your life will be more exciting. Clarity. Direction. Outcome. Ready, forward, change.

The issues I have raised should not be a source of disillusionment and discouragement. It is difficult to examine the problems laid out in all their stark detail. But if synagogues are to survive, we need to see where we have gone wrong so we can plan better for the future. It is not “Acme” that is killing us; we are operating in a fundamentally different world that will require a different approach to resolve the issues. Once we identify the problems, we can effectively plan how we will address them each and every day, so that our “long hard slog of change” will lead us to success and a secure future for our congregation, for Jews and for Judaism. Now that we know what has gone wrong, we are ready to formulate effective solutions.

The answers to all the issues I have raised are not secrets. Both university scholars and those working “in the field” have written about these issues and the solutions are available to anyone interested in looking for them. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, in his book, I’m God You’re Not: Observations on Organized Religion and other Disguises of the Ego (Jewish Lights Press 2010) writes:

Jews need one another, and therefore a congregation, to do primary religious acts that they could not, and probably cannot, do alone… There are three kinds of primary Jewish acts: communal prayer, holy study, and good deeds… [i]n order to maintain their congregations, Jews must do many other things that  are not inherently Jewish. These secondary acts include maintaining a building, raising money and perhaps forming a board of directors… Congregations, unfortunately, often get so caught up in dong secondary acts that they actually begin to think that maintaining the building, raising money or electing the board of directors is the reason for the existence of the congregation. Their members are busy at work, but because they have forgotten why they are at work, their efforts are hollow and come to naught. (22-23)

Rabbi Kushner is not alone. There are many who have written about what is happening to our synagogues and what we can do about it. Any of them will prove my points and add the authors’ own experiences to those that I will share. There are books, online resources and actual congregations who have put these kinds of practices into use and have met with great success. I hope, with the next chapters to bring together the thinking of these experts and offer some ideas of what synagogues can do to respond to the issues that are causing so much trauma in the Jewish community. For those who wish to have a deeper exploration of the issues I raise, at the end of this book I include a bibliography of others who have written on these topics.