How to Grow Our Synagogues

While not everyone in the Jewish community is predisposed to spirituality, prayer, or an encounter with the Divine—and I recognize and support their rightful place and position—I count myself among the believers. That is probably no surprise to those who have read some of my titles, including Sparks Beneath the Surface (with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner) and Jewish Spiritual Guidance (with Dr. Carol Ochs), among others. It is certainly not a surprise to those who sit next to me at minyan (literally a prayer quorum, but generally used as a reference for daily services) each morning, or on Shabbat, at my local synagogue. I often reflect on the various elements that draw me there, hoping to discern how to explicate those elements for others so that they might likewise be drawn. This is a particularly critical question as participation in synagogue life in North America continues to diminish, along with its membership rolls.

I also recognize that synagogues are not the only places that promote spirituality and prayer. My own spin on the famous phrase from the Torah, ascribed to Gd: “Asu li mikdash. . . .” usually translated as “Make Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell in your midst,” is “Make Me a sanctuary BUT I will dwell in your midst.” The well-known Hasidic Rebbe, known as the Kotzker, responded to a question of his students, “Where does Gd dwell?” with this oft-quoted response, “Wherever you let Gd in.” (Actually, the Kotzker was gender-specific in his reference to Gd, so I edited it somewhat.)

Some may even argue that the contemporary form of synagogue structure has the potential to work against the creation of an accessible prayer environment. Services are long; the language (Hebrew and English) is difficult to surmount; the list of challenges is long. I often argue, moreover, that synagogues need to spend more time on prayer and less time on liturgy. This is true in worship environments as well as in education programs. So what is it about the synagogue that makes it the right place?

My colleague Rabbi Stephanie Dickstein says it this way, and I am paraphrasing: the combination of sacred space, sacred words, and sacred community open me up to the Divine in a way that none of these individual elements is capable of doing—and that is what makes the synagogue so special and unique. If her description is correct, then the task is obvious. First, synagogues will have to determine whether they have, in fact, captured these three elements and presented them to the community in accessible ways. Second, they will have to identify how these elements meet the needs of individuals in the community. And third, synagogues will have to share this with those who would otherwise have to cross their threshold in order to take advantage of them. (By the way, that is where JOI’s model of Public Space Judaism figures prominently, by bringing experiences outside the walls of the synagogue to where people are, such as shopping malls and parks.)

So here is a brief prospectus for synagogue growth and survival. Sounds pretty simple and straightforward to me. So let’s get started.

Cross-posted on here.

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