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Synablog » 2006 » November

Archive for November, 2006

Meditations on “Members and Motives”

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2006

Check out the developing conversation about Steven M. Cohen’s S3K Report (scroll down to the comments section) and join in the fun!

Four in the Forward Fifty

Thursday, November 9th, 2006

Congratulations to S3K Leadership Network member Sharon Brous and Synagogue Studies Advisory Board members Elliot Dorff, Arnold Eisen, and Richard Joel, four of this year’s Forward 50!

Points of entry

Friday, November 3rd, 2006

Joshua Avedon and I were guests at last week’s Synaplex Sneak Preview, covered here by The Jewish Journal. As Rabbi Hayim Herring (a member of the S3K Synagogue Studies Advisory Board) remarked,

“People have all kinds of yearnings…. Some are looking for God, some for prayer and meditation, some for community. I don’t want to impose my definition of spirituality on anyone else. We all go through different stages; what fits us today might not fit us tomorrow. If you think of Shabbat as the destination, Synaplex provides many paths to get there. Synagogues take what we have to offer and imbue it with their own creativity and energy.”

His comments were echoed by Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel Beverly Hills:

“There are many different doors to Judaism. For some it’s spiritual, for some it’s cultural, for some it’s community, for some it’s learning, for some it’s social justice.”

The popularity of Synaplex programs at places like Temple Emanuel and elsewhere demonstrates that American Jews haven’t given up on the synagogue — they just want them to become more welcoming sacred communities. And it’s more evidence of the potential synagogues have to be true sacred centers for the Jewish people.

Is there a Jewish mainline?

Thursday, November 2nd, 2006

This post by Rabbi Aaron Spiegel

Yesterday’s USA Today included an article entitled, “Some Protestant churches feeling ‘mainline’ again,” contending that it"s not just conservative, evangelical churches that are thriving but that many mainline Protestant congregations are alive and well. The “mainline” here refers to the Episcopal, Presbyterian, Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ, United Methodist, and Lutheran denominations. Most of the press around these denominations has predicted the slow demise of the mainline from the religious landscape of American Christianity.

Not so, says Diana Butler-Bass in her new book, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith. Along with her two previous books, The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church and From Nomads to Pilgrims: Stories from Practicing Congregations, her research found that there are mainline churches that are doing well, and many are thriving and growing.

So, what does this have to do with American Judaism? We could learn a lot from Diana"s research. Bass makes a distinction between programs and practices. The congregations she studied are able to identify those things they do that were irrelevant or lost their meaning. Instead of throwing these away, Bass talks of “retraditionalizing” these practices. I"m reminded of Larry Hoffman"s distinction between ritual and ritualization in The Art of Public Prayer. Bass"s research found that mainline churchgoers crave ritual and ancient practice. But, they also want these presented in ways that are relevant and meaningful to their contemporary lives. So while one Episcopal church chants Gregorian melodies, they also offer Café St. Mark – a free breakfast buffet for all, member and visitor, as a way of offering hospitality and forming community.

One Lutheran official stated of mainline Protestantism, “We got lazy…” Sociologist of religion Barry Kosmin says, “The mainline is never going to be the dominant cultural group again.”

Where is American “mainline” Judaism in comparison? There is already talk that Judaism is in a post denomination/movement period. Steven M. Cohen"s forthcoming S3K Report for the S3K Synagogue Studies Institute on movement affiliation may say otherwise. Larry Hoffman says that “post-denominationalism is a ‘myth" and that denominations are still very important.” I would contend that the movements are not important themselves; it"s the identity that synagogues derive from their affiliation. However, I think we"re in the midst of our “lazy period.” If synagogues (and the movements) don"t start the process of retraditionalizing, we will have our own version of mainline decline.

Bass says of these practicing, revitalized churches, they “have a beautiful world where they are enacting service, doing justice, learning to pray and caring for one another.” Isn"t it interesting how this parallels the edict in Pirke Avoth, “The world rests on three foundations: study, service, and benevolence”? Judaism offers the prescription for vital synagogue communities. Maybe it"s time for us to borrow it back from our Christian brothers and sisters?!

Freedom’s Feast …an innovative Thanksgiving “seder”

Thursday, November 2nd, 2006

This post by Ron Wolfson

When I was a kid in Nebraska, Thanksgiving was all about turkey and football. In contradistinction to the Jewish meals of my youth, the Thanksgiving celebration was curiously absent of any ritual whatsoever, except the annual fight over which of us brothers got to eat the enormous pupik (gizzard)! In school, we learned some great patriotic American songs and a little ditty about going to Grandma’s house, but we never sang them at the Thanksgiving table.

One day in the 1980’s, my friend Dr. Larry Neinstein, director of student health services at USC, said to me: “You know, Thanksgiving could really use a ceremony like the Passover Seder. It’s the one time of the year most Americans sit down to a meal together.” Larry knew that I had written a guidebook for conducting a Seder. I said: “Let’s write a Thanksgiving Haggadah.” We began work on it…but life intervened and we didn’t get very far.

Shortly after 9/11, Larry called again. “Now is the time for elevating Thanksgiving” and we began again. I mentioned the project to my friend and S3K Board member, the brilliant Lee Meyerhoff Hendler [an S3K board member --ed.]. It turns out that Lee’s mother, Lyn, was a true patriot, and the idea captivated her. Larry and I handed off the idea and our preliminary work to Lee - and she was off and running. After a number of years field-testing, Lee has created a magnificent interactive family celebration for Thanksgiving called “Freedom’s Feast.”

The downloadable booklet is available free online here. It is a wonderful compendium of texts, songs, and stories that illuminate the values of American democracy.

Our family has introduced Freedom’s Feast into our annual Thanksgiving celebration with great success. At first, some people were wary…and one of my cousins had a fit when I said we had to turn off the football game for ten minutes. It was the singing of the great patriotic songs that captured everyone. And, when people had the opportunity to say something about what America means to them, well…I wish I had taped my immigrant relative who spoke so movingly about how America saved his life.

This Thanksgiving “seder” can work in congregations and other community groups – and there are short, shorter and shortest versions of the script for family and friends, plus an interfaith ceremony. A huge yasher koach to Lee for creating a wonderful way to enhance our Thanksgiving celebrations!

Speak truth to power …very, very carefully

Wednesday, November 1st, 2006

JTA: “Synagogues, Jewish groups seek the line between legal, illegal political talk”

Want it - need it - get it

Wednesday, November 1st, 2006

Tobin Belzer in the World Jewish Digest on “congregations that ‘get it’” — or not:

In the Jewish community today any conversation related to Jewish continuity tends to be fraught. Jewish leaders have had any number of reactions to the noticeable absence of young adult Jews in synagogues. Some dismiss the black hole phenomenon as a life-cycle stage, suggesting that young Jews will join synagogues once they marry and become parents. Others blame increasing rates of intermarriage. (Jewish couples are more likely to belong to a synagogue than are intermarried couples.) Some blame young adults for their self-centeredness and lack of concern with Jewish peoplehood. Others believe that synagogues simply need to be better marketers.

Jewish community leaders would do well to examine the changing nature of today"s 20 and 30 year olds. For Baby Boomers, synagogue membership and Jewish institutional affiliations were primary markers of Jewish identity. In the past, Jews showed their support for synagogue life by paying dues— whether they were enthusiastic participants or not. Today, that sense of obligation is gone: young adults do not feel compelled to join a synagogue if they have no intention of attending. However, when they to do decide to join, they participate as active, invested members.

If Jewish leaders want to engage with young adults and bring them into the synagogue, they need to learn to speak their language. It is a language of openness and pluralism, one that acknowledges the fluidity of their Jewish identities. On a practical level, it begins with leaders" sincere interest in making room for young people to take on leadership roles.

Young adults currently attending synagogues will strongly influence the direction of congregational life in the United States over the next 25 years. It remains to be seen whether the majority of their peers in the “black hole” will decide to show up. If and when they do, one can hope they"ll encounter more than a few congregations that “get it.”

NB: She mentions the S3K Synagogue Studies Institute’s forthcoming S3K Report by Steven M. Cohen on congregational membership patterns …check back with us Friday for the published report!


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