Interior photo of the synagogue in Oni, Georia; facing wooden pews in multiple rows, ornate columns, and a raised dais.

Everyone Belongs Here

Though he published it a couple of years ago now, for some reason I only recently encountered Rabbi Menahem Creditor’s article at Huffington Post entitled “Children in the Sanctuary.” Rabbi Creditor’s article reflects on occasions when he observed a child crying or making noise in a synagogue service. On several occasions, Rabbi Creditor observed a congregant telling a child’s parent that the child should be removed and saying, “‘perhaps your child doesn’t belong in synagogue.'” He calls these “the least synagogue-ish” words he has ever heard.

He’s right. But it’s not only children.

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A stack of $100 bills, bundled together with a strip of paper.

Due You Feel Like I Due

In a few weeks’ (two? three? it’s close) time, I’ll be in Michigan for another week-long, in-residence course with IISHJ for the rabbinical program (this in addition to the numerous regular, weekly live interactive sessions, etc.). This one is on congregational leadership, so it covers things like organizational dynamics, roles of the rabbi and other leaders, etc.

A stack of $100 bills, bundled together with a strip of paper.

Bills, bills, bill. From 401kcalculator.org.

It also addresses synagogue membership and dues models. This is an issue that gets a lot of attention and a lot of press–not the least of which is a result of the negative feelings of many about the notion of dues payment to begin with. I’ve written about this before, and I’m obviously far from the only one to have done so. I claim no particularly special insight on this topic.

But something about the discussion concerns me, and it’s the overlap of reading a book on alternative dues models, seeing yesterday a Kveller article making “The Case for Pay-What-You-Can Synagogue Dues,” and reading various other items that prompted me to express the concern.

It is this: synagogues and synagogue-supporting think tanks are latching onto changing dues structures in response to financial pressures associated with reduced membership, on the thinking that much of the reduction in membership is related to dues structures. No doubt some of this is true; some synagogues have seen a rebound in membership numbers and in dues-derived revenue after leaving the fixed-price dues structure and adopting a different model.

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Autism, inclusion, and theodicy

(I will freely admit that this post is largely an emotional reaction. Tough. Go read something else if that bothers you.)

The “Daily Reyd” feature at Rabbi Gil Student’s Torah Musings blog has a link to an article at the Orthodox Union’s website. Titled “The Gabbai With Autism: A Living Lesson In Inclusion,” the article talks about Eli Gorelick, a young man with autism who serves as one of several gabbaiim in his congregation.

I will first say that the synagogue’s ability to adapt to Eli and to effectively welcome him to lay leadership is–or should be, anyway–a model for inclusion for those able and willing to serve with accommodation. I have no quibble at all with any of that, and it’s precisely that kind of thing that we’re missing in so many other places.

My problem, of course, is going to be the theodicy piece. Eli’s father is himself a rabbi, and when one of Eli’s siblings asked his father why God made Eli the way He did, the answer was, “Hashem wanted us to do chesed for Eli.”

And that, dear reader, is when I decided it was time to take the day’s lunch break.

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Member Poaching Part 4: So What Now?

Since first posting about this issue, I’ve discussed some of the problems I see in the American Jewish scene regarding engagement, leadership, membership, education, community models, and the like. Of course, it’s easy to pick nits without actually suggesting solutions.

So here are the ideas I’ve been thinking about.

And of course, hackneyed though this point may be, there is no silver bullet.

Jewish Education

Starting with Jewish education, the current model that exists outside much of non-Orthodox Judaism does not work. For too many children, and for too many families, the supplementary school model (which is what “Hebrew School” is called in more formal educational circles) is a drudgery of grueling sessions learning to make out Hebrew letters and vowels and maybe learning some prayers in order to perform well during a bar or bat mitzvah.

Unless Hebrew just really speaks to a child’s soul, that’s not going to create Jewish engagement.

What will? While I like the idea of social action/community service as a way to shake up the traditional model of education toward bar or bat mitzvah, that isn’t distinctly Jewish. Plenty of high schools require volunteer experience before students can graduate.

So I think it will have to be a mix: social action will have to be tied to sources of Jewish provenance that make sense for the children, the congregations they belong to, and the children’s and parents’ values. And that means bar/bat mitzvah education will be more time-intensive for educators. But it will also be more meaningful and have a better chance of creating meaningful connections between bnai mitzvah and their Jewish identities.

That education will also, for many, focus much less on “learning Hebrew.”

That education will also, for many, focus much less on “learning Hebrew.” I’m not sure that’s as big a problem as we might think, because let’s face it–what supplementary school kids learn now doesn’t exactly match up to really learning Hebrew.

Jewish Organizations

Jewish organizations will also have to change. I think Prof. Wolfson has written a bit that starts down this road in his Relational Judaism, but I don’t think he goes far enough or is willing to really rethink Jewish organizations enough.

Prof. Wolfson is right that Jewish organizations need to do better at reaching out to new potential members. But that’s not really enough–that’s just doing better at marketing. Jewish organizations–synagogue, educational agencies, social service agencies generally–will need to figure out what Jews want and how to deliver on those desires.

The modern Jewish community will, gradually, begin to look like the rest of the American population. We will have more diversity. Jewish community organizations will fail if they do not begin to figure out how to deal with special needs children. They will fail if they do not figure out how to genuinely welcome interfaith families.

Jewish community organizations will fail if they do not begin to figure out how to deal with special needs children. They will fail if they do not figure out how to genuinely welcome interfaith families.

There are no easy paths to these ends. In fact, these will not be ends. Improvement is a process, not a product, and successful improvement will be the result of continuous feedback loops between organizations and community constituents.

Improvement will also be a result of recognizing that stakeholders in the community will not only want to contribute money, but time. Many of Jewish organizations aren’t prepared to handle the DIY ethic shared by so many younger members of the American Jewish world. That, too, will have to change unless Jewish community groups want to alienate large portions of the next generation of Jewish leaders.

The Synagogue

The synagogue will also need to change. I’ve already let on in this series that I think the high-cost, centralized rabbinic model is flawed in many communities, and that we will need to make more training and ordination options available to willing clergy.

But I also think we may see increased decentralization of synagogue-like groups–e.g., havurot–that may benefit from sharing educational work. There are even some larger synagogues that do this–the Indianapolis Jewish community is a somewhat impaired version of this.

Belief

This may be the toughest nut to crack–not because of where I think the typical American Jew sits on the ideological spectrum, but because of what people are willing to admit to in public.

The American Jewish community is interestingly reticent about saying what it thinks. Dissent is muted on a number of issues: Israeli politics, American foreign policy, American domestic policy, and statements of faith. To grow–to be able to encompass the broad range of Jewish viewpoints–we will need to create a more open environment for dialogue.

In particular, I think we need a vocal, growing Humanistic Jewish movement to push the edges of the debate.

This last point is where I think we need vocal smaller movements. In particular, I think we need a vocal, growing Humanistic Jewish movement to push the edges of the debate.

Unfortunately, I think is where those of us in the Humanistic Jewish world will have the greatest difficulty, because what we do–the songs we sing and the language we use–is often very unlike what Jews in the rest of the Jewish world do. We will need to work hard to bridge that gap.

I think it can be done–but we’re going to have to work at it.

I’m ready. Are you?

Member Poaching Item 3: Affiliation

Headed back to the article that kicked things off, one of the dividing lines that emerged between the “new,” lower-cost Reform-style synagogue and the more established ones was that the established synagogues contended that the new synagogue was acting to damage the established Jewish community.

I mean, this just makes me want to sputter with rage. (Imagine a guy sputtering. There you go!)

Why? Because if you’re fighting to keep people connected to the Jewish community, is there a worse way than to convey the message that unless you’re willing to pay a couple thousand dollars a year just to be affiliated with something, you’re actively harming the Jewish community in your area (and ergo the Jewish people)? I’m not sure there is.

So I’d point you, dear reader, to this first reminder: it doesn’t cost anything to be Jewish. Nothing.

It may cost more to do Jewish, depending on what it is. And it shouldn’t cost anything to be able to feel like you can walk into a synagogue and attend services. It shouldn’t cost anything to be affiliated. Why do we have so many synagogues that charge for High Holiday tickets if you’re not a member?

Sound crazy? Guess what institutions don’t charge anything to be affiliated or go to Easter and Christmas services?

Christians. I hear they’ve been in rapid decline for the last 2000 years.

To answer the objection that will come up: yes, institutions require support to survive. But ask yourself: do we need these institutions in this form? Is what we have the best possible set of institutions, with the best possible array of priorities, programs, and activities?

At bottom: should we have only one model?

As you can tell, I’m not convinced we should.

Next time: what can we do about it?

Member Poaching Item 2: They’re Eating our Lunch

Chabad, I mean. They’re eating our lunch. (No offense intended to Chabad members–it’s a compliment to you, a smack at most of the rest of us.)

Let me explain.

Take a look back at that article that started the series off. Only one of the “start-up” synagogues mentioned is a liberal Jewish congregation. The other two? Chabad.

(“Liberal” here unfortunately means “everything not Orthodox.” Way to cede the debate, everyone. Nice job. But I digress.)

What the heck is going on here? I’ve got some ideas.

Money is certainly part of the issue. The traditional synagogue structure we know (where “traditional” = how it’s been since you’ve been paying attention) is premised upon high overhead costs for members; Chabad doesn’t really do this to people.

But there’s something else going on. Going back through that article, the story of the mother who left the Reform synagogue for one of the Chabad congregations is very telling: she left because the synagogue leadership didn’t care whether she was there or not, and the religious school didn’t teach Hebrew or much that she found meaningful or important as the concerned parent of a Jewish child.

Chabad filled that gap.

Now, if someone really clicks into Chabad in a real, I’m-a-baal-teshuva way, that’s great–it’s where that person probably belongs. But not everyone who goes to Chabad really does fully click in that way; I imagine many or even most don’t really do so in the end, but I don’t know for certain. The problem, of course, is that where we in the “liberal” denominations could be providing many of the things people get from Chabad, we don’t. This is especially problematic in someplace like the U.S., where most religious groups–Jews, Christians of most stripes, etc.–are marked by relatively free movement between communities/churches/synagogues based on not too much more than what fits best for the congregants, who don’t always (fully, sometimes at all) grasp doctrine.

I think there are a few related issues that feed this problem for “liberal” Jewish groups.

One problem is that we’ve sold ourselves short by selling ourselves. If your competitors don’t charge simply to allow people to feel like they can show up or look for help, and you do charge, you lose. You lose because you lose the economic value proposition game–why pay more when you think you can pay less?–but more importantly, you lose because you aren’t what you should be: open, welcoming, and trying to help.

Another problem is that we’ve sold ourselves short by failing to sell ourselves. I’ve already alluded to this one. By calling ourselves “liberal” Jews, we cede the language game to an unacceptable degree. Why are there halakhically non-observant, “liberal” Jews who donate to observant “Orthodox” causes whose ideologies would otherwise be unacceptable to the donors? In part because we on the “liberal” end have taken up the “conservative” name, incorporated it into a form of “liberal” Judaism (Conservative Movement, anyone?), and ceded “Orthodox” to 20% of the Jewish community in the United States. And in our “liberal” Judaism, we often make it clear that we’re making accommodations to the modern world that allow our members to feel better about non-observance.

So in the marketplace of Jewish ideas, as they come through to the average Jewish family looking for a place in the Jewish community (or who encounter a place in the Jewish community), we have “liberal” Judaism, which packages itself as a compromise, and “Orthodox” (and, especially these days, Chabad) Judaism, which packages itself as simply Judaism. In the latter of these categories, Chabad is the most outgoing and welcoming generally. Who would you, all things being equal, go with?

So what do we in the “liberal” Jewish community do about this? Oh, but if I told you my ideas, you wouldn’t have to come back for the rest of the series!

 

Related articles from elsewhere

 

Series alert: member poaching and pay-as-you-go synagogues

My wife forwarded along to me a link she found on the Tablet website to an article in the New York Jewish Week about non-traditional synagogue models and the difficulties (read: sh*t-fit) they are causing in the Long Island Jewish community.

There’s just so much to unpack in that one article; many of the issues it raises are ideas I have been thinking about for some time. So, parsing the article will be this blog’s inaugural series! I intend to discuss a few different issues: rabbinical education, the role of rabbis in modern Judaism, the role of the community, the role of the synagogue, affiliation, and religious entrepreneurship.

Stay tuned–we’ll be back with more over the next few days.