Fresh Ideas for Transforming and Renewing Our Synagogues

I remember the feeling I felt some years ago when Edgar Bronfman addressed a major gathering of Jewish communal leaders when the STAR (Synagogues: Transformation And Renewal) initiative was announced. There was an audible gasp when Edgar shared his feelings (or, perhaps more appropriately, his criticisms) about synagogue life. He found the worship experience generally boring and uninspired—not to mention uninspiring. Since many in attendance were pulpit rabbis, it came as no surprise that, overall, the audience did not agree with his assessments.

Recently, Edgar penned an op/ed that, while not quite as critical, does encourage rabbis to experiment with those areas of worship that seem to be the most challenging for people in attendance or potentially in attendance—beginning with the length of the morning service and the accessibility of the Torah reading. Just as I found myself among the few who concurred with his comments some years ago, I found myself again agreeing with much of what he had to say:

Why wouldn’t a rabbi in a Reform congregation experiment with dispensing of the Torah reading as it is done now, ask the congregants to read the parshah before the service begins, and then have a discussion involving any congregant who wants to be involved?

After advocating for that idea to increase the service’s potential for building community, Edgar goes on to talk about ways to attract the next generation of synagogue congregants:

When I speak with young people, they tell me that services should be shortened. But even then, an hour can be too much to handle if what transpires is boring, irrelevant, and bereft of meaning. With beautiful music, choirs chanting, meaningful short services and prayers that speak to the human condition, perhaps we can attract a younger segment of the population, especially if we ask them to participate in their services.

I believe that there is much to be done to improve the synagogue worship experience. It is why I have been experimenting with various aspects of the worship service since my involvement in Synagogue 3000 (formerly Synagogue 2000). It is also one of the reasons why JOI has teamed up with STAR on its Call Synagogue Home project—using life cycle events to nurture relationships with interfaith families. (In the spirit of full disclosure, the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, of which Edgar Bronfman is president, supports the STAR project, as it does JOI.)

The synagogue is the cornerstone of the Jewish community. It will only remain so if our leaders are willing to take on Edgar Bronfman’s challenges and take some risks. Some of the risks may lead to failure but I feel certain that many will lead to success. And the reward we stand to gain from those risks are well worth our time and efforts: an engagement of the generation that stands in front of us ready to take the reigns of the community, many of whom come from the diverse Jewish community that JOI affirms.

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