The weekend of April 28-30 promises to be a stimulating and though-provoking one as the Shaarey Zedek Congregation welcomes well-known author and thinker, Dr. Ron Wolfson.
Recently I was invited to listen in on an on-line interview Chris Yaren, Chair of the Scholars Committee at the Shaarey Zedek, conducted with Wolfson. During the course of this very interesting interview Yaren led Wolfson through a detailed examination how the synagogue can serve as the basis for Jewish renewal in the 21st century.
Following are excerpts from that interview:
Wolfson: I think synagogues and community institutions are really important. We have to change up our model in the 21st century if we’re going to engage more people in organized Jewish life, especially in synagogues.
I’ve worked for 20 years on synagogue renewal and synagogue transformation.
We worked on this project called Synagogue 2000. Between us we had several hundred synagogues working with us on synagogue transformation. I wrote some books. One was “The Spirituality of Welcoming”, then “Relational Judaism”, based on the work we did helping synagogues figure out how we can move from the 20th century to a 21st century model of synagogue engagement.
Our major point was we had to work on worship renewal and we had to work on improving the welcoming ambience in the synagogue.
Every synagogue I’ve ever visited and every synagogue I’ve ever worked with thinks it’s a wonderful, warm, and welcoming place – and it is – for the regulars, but for the newcomers, or the ones who are there for a bar or bat mitzvah or the ones seeking spiritual renewal, it’s a whole different kind of experience and it’s hard for us to wrap our heads around it, but one of the things I try to do in working with synagogues is to get people there to stand in the shoes of someone who’s coming from Omaha to attend a bar or bat mitzvah or family simcha, and they walk in and no one from the congregation says ‘hello’. That ‘s pretty devastating.
So, if we’re going to do a reversal of that we have a lot of work to do in learning the skills of creating that welcoming ambience.
The point is synagogues do a lot of wonderful things, but if someone comes to synagogue for a program or for a worship experience and they leave not having met another human being in the room, then something is wrong. Yes, new people have to make their presence known, but we can do a whole lot better in welcoming the stranger and letting in new people.
Yaren: When you wrote “The Spirituality of Welcoming”, you wrote that you were willing to stake your career on one statement: ‘The future of the Jewish community in America is directly connected to the effectiveness of synagogues in transforming the Jewish people.’
What about the Jewish people needed transforming?
Wolfson: What I was getting at was that we needed to get Jewish people and those that live with Jews deeper into Jewish life….I was talking about synagogue more (in that book), not communalist work, although in “Relational Judaism” I broadened the category to any Jewish organization.
Jews tend to have transactional relationships with synagogues and organizations.
Take synagogues for example: I pay my dues and you give me a rabbi to call, a bar or bat mitzvah for my kid, seats for the high holidays, and that’s about it. That’s a transaction.
The proof in the pudding is that when many Jews have their bar or bat mitzvahs and the kids go off to college, people tend to drop away from regular attendance at the synagogue, regular involvement in the synagogue – and that’s really a shame because you would hope that over those 10 or 12 years of involvement people would really engage in a deeper way than transactional. That’s what I mean by ‘relational’.
Yaren: You wouldn’t walk away from a friend.
Wolfson: Right, it’s easy to quit an institution; it’s not so easy to quit friends.
Yaren: What does a sacred community look like?
Wolfson: A sacred community to me is a community that focuses on the people in the community, not necessarily the programming as the only way to engage people. That’s my critique of the 20th century model of engagement.
I think a sacred community is a community of sacred relationships – with people that are going to be together in good times and bad – and that leads you to a sense of meaning in your life, a sense of purpose: What am I supposed to do with my life and a sense of belonging? I’ve got friends, and a place to celebrate the blessings in my life.
The synagogue is the bedrock sacred community of the Jewish community as a whole….That’s why I thought ‘let’s first tackle the synagogue and see whether we can’t improve upon the synagogue as engaging people in both deeper connection to Judaism and to each other’.
Yaren: So, what are some of the things that you’ve seen work? What can a synagogue do to nurture wide scale relationship building?
Wolfson: You never solve a challenge until you identify the challenge, so one of our challenges is to go deeper than this transactional, programmatic model which many synagogues have – and which many other Jewish institutions have.
So, the theory of let’s just throw a whole series of programs together – and they’re often very good, and we’ll get people to come together – that’s not sufficient because I can get a health club with 24-hour fitness and I can get - here in Los Angeles, where I live, an independent rabbi who I can hire, and I can get a bar mitzvah in my back yard, so why do I need a synagogue?
And the Internet has transformed everything. It used to be that if I needed a scholar I had to go to the synagogue and ask questions, but now with a click of a mouse I can find a million things to do for a Passover seder (for example).
So, what’s the specific value offer that a synagogue can make to people that would justify their engagement in the life of a sacred community?
I think it’s relational. In my book I identify nine levels of relationships, but it’s relationships that help me figure out who’s the best me I can be. It’s strengthening my family, it’s giving me a group of friends, it’s teaching me more about Jewish practice, and it’s teaching me about ideas, and it’s connecting me to a broader community, and it’s connecting me to the State of Israel, to the world and my role in the world – and ultimately a connection with God.
The synagogues that have adopted this (attitude to how the synagogue can become a “sacred” place) have done remarkable things. There’s a Reform temple in Atlanta that now has 100 small groups meeting – not just in the synagogue, but all over the city. These are small groups of people that have been launched by the synagogue – to meet people’s needs, affinities, all sorts of things. They’ve got many people engaged with each other than they ever were before.
The rabbi in this temple has reoriented his calendar to make room for more one-on-one meetings with his congregants. There’s a rabbi I quote in “Relational Judaism” who says, ‘Ron, the most important thing I can do as a rabbi is to get to know my people – not just the board., not just the 25 people who volunteer for everything.’
It’s not just meeting with someone a year before a bar or bat mitzvah and spending 45 minutes in a study. It’s got to be deeper than that so it means both the clergy and the laity have to reorient themselves to the job at hand.
I was in a synagogue just three weeks ago when one of the congregants – before the Mourner’s Kaddish – stood up and gave a three-minute talk about his father he was remembering that night. There was hardly a dry eye in the synagogue. And they do those very week, so it personalizes the experience of coming to the synagogue to say kaddish for a loved one. That’s a much more relational moment in the worship experience - for that congregant and for that congregation, than reading a list of names.
The first principle of relational engagement is personal engagement, where we learn each other’s stories. If I come to a program, a concert, a study class, I can learn a lot of stuff, but will I meet the people I’m sitting next to?
In many synagogues, the ‘minyanaires’, the regulars, the board members – they’ll get to know each other. I‘m not so concerned with those people. It’s the revolving door of synagogue goers where people come in for a few years, then they’re out for the rest of their lives.
I’m in Des Moines, Iowa, as I speak, and it may not be so true in Des Moines or even in Winnipeg as it is in Los Angeles (where Wolfson lives), but my guess is it’s starting to happen in Winnipeg.