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Synagogues try to satisfy hunger for spirituality
By JULIE WIENER
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
September 12, 2000
NEW YORK--At Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, N.J., more than 100 members
gather twice a month to talk about their "spiritual journey."
Photo courtesy of Synagogue 2000
Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller reads from the Torah at a retreat for leaders
of Synagogue 2000's 16 pilot sites.
They break off into groups of 25 people, gather in members' homes and discuss
things like family peace and caring for the ill, using Jewish texts and their
personal lives as springboards.
This is definitely not your parents' synagogue.
Derided as too touchy-feely for some tastes, programs like "spiritual
journey" are promoted by their advocates as a way to keep Jews interested
and active in their synagogues.
"It ties members to the synagogue when you have intense experiences with
a small group of congregation members," says Amy Lipsey, 40, a self-described
"seeker" who says the group inspired her to pursue a master's degree
at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Agudath Israel's "spiritual journey" group is one of several innovations
growing out of this Conservative synagogue's transformation project. The congregation
was one of the first to participate in an effort called Synagogue 2000. Scores
of congregations have launched similar efforts.
With many Jewish leaders criticizing synagogues for being uninspiring, synagogue
transformation is becoming something of a buzzword in American Jewish life.
In the past decade, two national synagogue-change efforts--Synagogue 2000 and
the Experiment in Congregational Education--have guided a number of congregations
hungry for transformation, and both are expanding their reach.
Change is necessary, say the Synagogue 2000 and ECE proponents, because too
many synagogues remain stuck in old patterns that do not resonate with contemporary
American Jews. While earlier generations joined synagogues as "ethnic hangouts,"
they say, younger Jews are often on spiritual quests that could be answered--but
usually aren't--in a synagogue.
"American Buddhism is flourishing because of what synagogues have done
wrong," says Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, founding leader of a suburban Washington
congregation and author of a new book calling for synagogue change.
"Jews are fueling it because they're looking for spirituality that exists
within Judaism but has been successfully masked."
In most congregations, writes Schwarz, liturgy is not accessible or engaging
and most members are only marginally involved, joining simply so their children
can attend Hebrew school and have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
Like Synagogue 2000 and ECE proponents, Schwarz calls for synagogues to make
their services more participatory, to develop healthy lay-clergy partnerships,
to focus on the education needs of adults and not just children and to take
on serious spiritual issues like the nature of God and purpose of life.
Also toward this goal, a triumvirate of mega-philanthropists-Charles Schusterman,
Michael Steinhardt and Edgar Bronfman--created an organization called Synagogue
Transformation and Renewal (STAR) this winter that announced its plans in at a September conference, including their donation of $18 million over five years for synagogue programs.
But transformation and renewal can be difficult concepts to get your hands
Proponents say it can create trusting atmospheres and spur long-term discussions
that might not have otherwise occurred. But skeptics wonder if those who are
attempting institutional change are simply holding a lot of meetings to decide
on common-sense practices.
Rabbi Larry Hoffman, who founded Synagogue 2000 in 1996 with University of
Judaism professor Ron Wolfson, frequently compares the whole process to therapy
in that "you discover how to live so life has purpose and meaning, then
you filter all that you do through a lens of purpose."
Rabbi Danny Zemel, whose Washington congregation was among Synagogue 2000's
first cohorts, described the process as "the most energizing, enlivening
process I've ever been involved in as a rabbi."
He said he frequently gets calls from other temples wanting to know "what's
changed" as a result of the process, but "it's not like that."
"It's about studying, it's a process and things happen, or might even
change but it's not like dominos, one thing falling after the next. It's because
the congregation's involved in a process, all of a sudden it occurs to you to
do certain things."
Nonetheless, the transformation processes do spawn projects and initiatives,
like Agudath Israel's spiritual journey group.
Zemel's Temple Micah now invites congregants observing a loved one's yahrzeit
to give a short memorial speech before the synagogue includes that person in
the Kaddish prayer.
Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Calif., which was involved in
the ECE project, made such
changes as offering a family Shabbat school and hiring a full-time staff
person to coordinate adult education.
At Temple Emanu-El, an ECE congregation in Dallas, members teach--and learn
in--a range of adult-level classes that coincide with Sunday school classes,
and a cadre of members is being trained to teach in the Hebrew school.
The Reform congregation, which a board member, Jane Saginaw, says was once
"lovely, but staid" is now constantly experimenting with new services
and programs, such as a twice-monthly Friday night family service that uses
a congregant-created prayer book and consists primarily of singing.
Synagogue 2000 centers its work around "PISGAH," an acronym that
is not only the Hebrew word for "heights," but stands for six "spokes"
of synagogue life: prayer, institutionalizing change, study, good deeds, ambiance
Formed four years earlier than Synagogue 2000, the ECE has a similar approach
and has worked with 14 Reform temples. A project of the Reform movement's Hebrew
Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, ECE encourages congregations to
make education central to all synagogue activities rather than simply a function
of the religious school.
It is not clear whether transformation efforts affect membership numbers, and--although
proponents says if they are successful they ultimately should attract new people--most
involved in the processes say their primary focus is on intensifying the experiences
of people who are already members.
"I'm sure Synagogue 2000 didn't hurt us, but we didn't promote it as outreach,"
said Silverstein, noting that his synagogue's membership has tripled from approximately
300 to 900 families over the past 20 years. "It's more inreach, to intensify
the involvement of those that are members."
Not everyone is an advocate of change on the institutional level, though. And
even some champions of transformation efforts, like Agudath Israel's Rabbi Alan
Silverstein, question whether Hoffman's therapy metaphor is appropriate.
While Synagogue 2000 "can elevate the synagogue to another level,"
says Silverstein, "Larry really believes the synagogue is more ill as an
institution than I think is the case."
Silverstein points to a recent study of Conservative congregations indicating
that more synagogue members are regular participants in Shabbat services than
were earlier in the last century. Other studies have found young affiliated
Conservative Jews are better educated in Judaism than their elders.
"The assumption that davening life in the non-Orthodox synagogue is broken,
failed or does not exist, I don't accept," says Silverstein. "Could
it be better? Sure. But we're doing better than ever before."
Even if it is true that synagogues need change, all the talk about process
and transformation strikes some as a bit too touchy-feely.
David Liebeskind, a longtime member of Temple Sinai in Stamford, Conn., and
a management consultant by profession, says that while he respects those involved
in the process, he and several other congregants have grown frustrated with
the Reform congregation's participation in the ECE program.
"I personally wouldn't waste the resources with these grandiose programs
because I don't think the payout is going to be as good as spending the time
and money elsewhere," he says.
One Conservative synagogue member in Detroit says she has a better suggestion.
Federations would be more helpful if they simply paid for more staff positions
"What kind of money are the federations paying Synagogue 2000 people to
come to their towns and state the obvious?" she asked.
"The problem is not that shuls don't know what needs to be done, but that
they are chronically understaffed" and, with more women in the work force,
can no longer rely on a large pool of volunteers, she said.
Nonetheless, change proponents insist that congregations can become vibrant
even without money.
According to Schwarz and Hoffman, if a synagogue does a good job of building
community, members will be able to--and want to--take over much of the work
that had been relegated to professionals. In fact, they argue, such volunteering
will strengthen members' feelings of ownership in the synagogue.
"Members can do so much more," says Schwarz. "It's true that
people are working today and the volunteer pool is now very busy, but one of
the things I've learned is that people are hungry to be involved in creating
spiritual communities and will give untold amounts of time if they feel they're
the players and not just supporting the staff."
While synagogue transformation has caught the public interest, it is still
unclear whether the advocates for change will usher in a new era of synagogue
life, or whether most congregations will continue business as usual.
Isa Aron, the HUC professor who coordinates ECE, says that "interest keeps
growing so clearly this isn't a blip on the screen." Because transformation
efforts mirror many ideas about institutional change used in the business world,
it should resonate with congregants and lay leaders, she says.
"Now it's a lot easier than years ago," Aron says. "Now if you
go to a congregation and talk about this, not everyone looks at you like you're
© JTA Inc., 2000. May not be reproduced
without written permission.
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