Archive for the ‘Conversation Partners’ Category

Beyond Spiritual Consumerism. . . Or Not

Monday, September 14th, 2009

Rabbi Michael Wasserman
The New Shul, Scottsdale, AZ

Perhaps the most important message to come out of Synagogue 3000 is its call for synagogues to break with the consumer paradigm. As Lawrence Hoffman has put it, “Whatever authentic Jewish spirituality is, it can find its way into synagogues only if synagogues cease being communities that people join as consumers, buying services with dues” (Rethinking Synagogues, p. 131).

When we put a price tag on synagogue membership, we in effect define membership as a purchase, which turns members into customers. Having made that equation, we cannot blame members for expecting synagogues to organize themselves around the “sovereign self.” When we “buy” something, we value it according to how well it meets our personal needs. The customer is always right. We should not be surprised that members apply that logic to the synagogue, if the synagogue itself frames its work in market terms.

The vocabulary of consumerism is so deeply ingrained in American synagogue life that we often take it for granted. How often do synagogue leaders speak, without irony, of their programs and services as their “product,” and their outreach as “marketing?” But that vocabulary undermines attempts to make the synagogue a place of deeper meaning.  To the extent that synagogues embrace the language of the marketplace – i.e. of private benefit – they find it difficult to speak with credibility of mitzvah. If we wish to revitalize the synagogue, to cultivate a sense of meaning and belonging deeper than a vendor/customer relationship, we must use a different vocabulary.

The call by S3K to move beyond the consumer paradigm resonates very deeply with me, as co-founder (with my wife Rabbi Elana Kanter) of a synagogue that has done that at a very literal level, by eliminating membership dues. When we launched The New Shul in Scottsdale Arizona in 2002, one of our core principles was that membership would not be for sale, and hence all giving would be voluntary. The New Shul’s message on membership was, and is, that financial support is not the price of belonging, but an expression of belonging, part of a broader sense of shared commitment that defines participation in a spiritual community. Our alternative – and we believe the only real alternative – to spiritual consumerism is a culture of mutual responsibility, or, in a word, community. For the past seven years, our members have supported the shul (complete with payroll and building mortgage) entirely on voluntary pledges. Because membership is not a purchase, no one asks  “What am I getting for my money?”

We have found that moving beyond the vocabulary of the market is tremendously validating to those who have the greatest potential to revitalize non-orthodox Judaism, those who are searching for religious meaning in commitments that transcend the self – or, to put it another way, who understand that their deepest need is to be needed. Their sensibility can be called “post-liberal” in that they take their personal autonomy for granted, and hence feel no need to hoard their freedom, to resist commitment. Their autonomy has evolved from freedom from to freedom for. This post-liberalsensibility, in which voluntary obligation is not an oxymoron, is at the heart of the neo-traditionalism that informs many of the new emergent communities that Synagogue 3000 has studied (see Emergent Jewish Communities and Their Participants, Steven M. Cohen et al, 2007). 

To be sure, post-liberal Jews inhabit mainstream synagogues as well. Often, they are the heart and soul of those institutions. But ironically, even as they strengthen mainstream synagogues with their energies, they often find themselves out of sync with those institutions’ public vocabulary. The language of the market, which their synagogues rely on so heavily, does not describe their own involvement.  They pay their dues like everyone else, but they do not think – or at least do not wish to think – of the money as payment for services rendered. They hunger for a language that can give voice to a deeper sense of mitzvah.

Restructuring our synagogues so that they speak the language that those Jews truly wish to speak, that use the vocabulary of shared responsibility, ought to be a priority for us. So I say amen to the call by Synagogue 3000 to transcend the consumer paradigm. 

The picture gets more complicated, however, in that many of the practical prescriptions coming out of SK3 – ostensibly designed to meet that goal – seem to be at odds with that vision. Much of the S3K literature calls for customizing synagogue experiences to individual tastes, and marketing programs to specific interest groups, drawing on the retail and entertainment industries for inspiration.  Lawrence Hoffman, in his model of the non-orthodox “Experience Synagogue,” forgoes any notion of shared commitment (at least as far as worship and/or learning are concerned), and emphasizes personalization instead. He envisions people taking advantage of a wide menu of synagogue offerings according to their individual tastes, much as they shop for clothes (Rethinking Synagogues, pp. 174-175). 

If we ask for no sense of shared responsibility, then aren’t we treating people, in essence, as spiritual consumers? Aren’t we inviting them, in effect, to “buy” spiritual experiences? How does this differ from the paradigm that we are attempting to break with?

I am not suggesting that models like the “Experience Synagogue” have no place. To the contrary, there is clearly value in upgrading the existing consumer paradigm, in offering more attractive programs and services to the tentative and uncommitted. Religious consumerism will be with us for a long time, and, as long as it is, we need to do a better job of – yes, marketing what are in essence spiritual products. My point is not that we should reject that work. It is that, even as we support that work, we must recognize that it is very different from the other task that we have set for ourselves, the task of creating communities that move beyond consumerism. Enhancing the consumer model, figuring out how to do it better, is not the same thing as transcending it.

It seems to me that there is a tension in the Synagogue 3000 literature between means and ends, which calls for clarification.


Choice Does Not Always Mean Consumer Choice

Rabbi Alan Brill
Seton Hall University

On Sunday nights, I am glued to my TV watching the hit show Mad Men The show ostensively focuses on an ad agency in 1962 portraying the rise of advertising and consumer culture in America. But the real story is the sense of falling and anxiety that occurred when the certainties of the nineteen fifties gave way to the individualism of the 1960’s. I find that this post “ Beyond Spiritual Consumerism. . . Or Not” confuses the plot with the real story.
In the 1950’s people learned to accept culturally constructed institutions and model ideal attitudes whose expectations might not have been experienced privately. In the 1960’s people started to seek their own individual directions and overcome the split between the institutional and the personal. They moved from dwelling to seeking. By the 1980’s and 1990’s this individualism became the norm.
Jews aspired to a collective idea of peoplehood and accepted institutional attitudes toward Judaism, family life, and society. Mordechai Kaplan’s important re-evaluation of Judaism was based on the descriptive ideas of Durkheim in which individuals express themselves in collectives. But what comes after Durkheim, and the evident decline in self-definition through Jewish institutions?
Charles Taylor in his recent work A Secular Age points out that Durkheim’s approach — in which individuals expressed themselves in collectives and institutions — no longer holds true in its original meaning. Religion today, Taylor argues, can be found in “the continuing multiplication of new options, religious, spiritual, and anti-religious, which individuals seize on in order to make sense of their lives.” Taylor stresses the complex ways in which religion is now even more a part of our daily lives, and the importance of a multiplicity of practices and interpretations to deal with this variety.
In the post –Durkheim reality described by Taylor, we need to reframe the issue away from peoplehood to individual meanings and smaller social units, in short, religion in the human life.  We need to think in terms of changes based on the small changes of meanings and moral orders.
Take, for example, the variety of religious experiences and moral orders that could be found among the pews in a single congregation on Yom Kippur 2009. We will find people from whom Judaism is of varying importance in their daily lives, but for whom the content of that Judaism is different and varying. There will be those who adhere to old-time theology, those for whom Judaism is about being a politically conservative ADL supporter, those who are progressive, another who stresses social action, another who understands reality using 12-step language, and another who eclectically combines Chabad, feng shui, and Buddhist spirituality, those who are uplifted through art, and even moral majority Jews who embrace Judaism for its strong “family values.” There are dozens of other Jewish moral orders, no congregation has even half of them. People choose to obligate themselves to these diverse meanings because they help make sense of their lives.
Recently, many analysts of the Jewish community have picked up the phrase “spiritual marketplace” (first used a generation ago) and proceed to compare the Jewish choices made by today’s Jew to the choice of a “grande soy latte” in Starbucks – a simile implying a degree of pampering and meaningless luxuries. Viewing Jews making life decisions as Starbucks customers, their policy proposals emphasize the need to reach younger Jews through better marketing. However, religious choices, as Robert Wuthnow has stressed, reflect an attempt to create meaningful lives and a structure of moral orders. Multiple choices do not lead to the banal market pluralism, but to a variety of constructed finite religious identities. 
When entering the contemporary spiritual landscape, the contemporary Jew experiences not three or four denominations, but dozens of flavors. Synagogues and Jewish organization become specialized into single products for specialized audiences. So of course, people enjoy the Synaplex model because it gives them a possibility, a chance, to experience what they find meaningful. If they are lucky, they can find their personal vision validated.
To return to the original issue of equating choice with consumer choice, we need to look at moral orders and meanings created.
Seekers, as Wuthnow categorized them, are not a single category but are many approaches and many moral orders. While some still seek naturalism, other seekers embrace traditional concepts of God. The literature in the field of spirituality divides spirituality into anywhere between four to ten different types. Many of the books from Alban Institute place the number at four.
Rabbis need to know that these different types of spirituality are not interchangeable and that congregants are not choosing them just for consumerist variety. Some congregants seeking certain forms of spirituality are actually repelled by some of the others. No one congregation can attempt all of the current varieties of spirituality. No Rabbi can offer all of them. But there is shopping because there in fact several different unique types of spirituality, each with their own sense of meaning, not because they have internalized the marketplace values.
The blog post asked “If we ask for no sense of shared responsibility, then aren’t we treating people, in essence, as spiritual consumers?”
The answer is no!  Judaism is capacious and has the possibility of many meanings constructed and many moral orders formed. That is, unless, the vision is to return the community to the 1950’s. We watch Mad Men to remind ourselves how much we have changed.

CO-STAR: Rabbi Aaron Spiegel on “Why Synagogues Need to Increase their Use of Technology”

Monday, February 18th, 2008

S3K’s new Board chair (mazal tov!), Rabbi Aaron Spiegel:

We talk about wanting to be more welcoming, particularly of young people. But our actions say that what we really want are young people who are willing to learn, participate in worship, and be part of our community, in the same way their parents and grandparents did. Statistics say this isn"t working. Technology is a tool.

The church world calls it a tool for ministry. Synagogues need to start thinking of technology as a tool for connecting with our congregants, and for them to connect with one another and the rest of k"lal Yisrael. And dare I say, in the most reverent Buberist terms, with God.

M’herah r’fuah sh’lemah [speedy & complete healing] for Dieter Zander

Friday, February 8th, 2008

Tony Jones reports the difficult news that our friend Dieter Zander, with whom so many of us spent time at the January 2006 gathering, has suffered a stroke and remains under sedation.

Updates about Dieter’s situation are available here.

Dieter is a true emergent-religion pioneer. In the mid-1980s, he founded the first-ever GenX Church, New Song, in West Covina, California. In the mid-1990s, Willow Creek‘s Bill Hybels invited him to launch Axis, Willow’s church-within-a-church for GenXers. Since 2000 he has lived in the Bay Area, where he and Mark Scandrette cofounded Re-Imagine; he now is the Pastor of Arts and Spiritual Formation at BayMarin Community Church, working with David Cobia, who also was with us in January 2006.

Our prayers for a speedy and complete healing, healing of body and healing of spirit, are with Dieter and his family.

Tony Jones on Christian-Jewish Emergent Conversation

Monday, February 4th, 2008

The following is an excerpt from Tony Jones’s new book, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier, coming out this spring from John Wiley & Sons.

…In late 2005, some of us emergent Christians were invited to meet with a group of young and innovative rabbis. Meetings between Jewish and Christian leaders are nothing new, and a lot of us, on both sides, had been involved in previous meetings (though not with each other). However, we were committed to making this meeting different. In the blogosphere, we began taking heat for even announcing the meeting, especially my quote in the press release that I was excited to meet with the rabbis to ‘‘talk about the future and God"s Kingdom."" Some of my Christian friends made it clear that Jews could not possibly be involved in kingdom of God work because they did not profess belief in Jesus. To emergents, this kind of thinking binds God"s work to the church and implies that outside the lives of professed Christians, God is handicapped.

Rejecting this belief, I set to work with Shawn Landres, the director of research at Synagogue 3000, the group that convened the meeting …to bring together the emergent Christian leaders and the emergent Jewish leaders. We decided that we would ask no one to leave anything at the door—who you were in your synagogue or church is who we wanted you to be at this meeting. To that end, Shawn began our meeting. We were all sitting in a circle—about two dozen of us—and Shawn said, ‘‘To my fellow Jews, I want to let you know that these emergent Christians are going to talk openly about Jesus and the Bible. This may make you uncomfortable at first, but that"s what they believe, so that"s what they"re going to talk about."" I went on to say something similar to my Christian peers about the rabbis talking about the Torah.

The resulting conversation was a thing of beauty. Though occasionally awkward, those moments were far outweighed by times of great poignancy. I led a meditation on a story of Jesus, and Troy Bronsink led songs he has written about Jesus. The rabbis taught from Torah, and the cantors led us in songs of Jewish faith. No one held back, which ultimately led to more candor and openness about what we really believe. And that, in turn, led to deeper friendships, since openness and authenticity are such important qualities in making friends. One instance from the gathering represents this best. In one small group, the question was raised about whether rabbis from older, established synagogues might bless and assist young rabbis who are attempting to start something new. After some discussion among the Jewish members of the small group, Tim Keel, pastor of Jacob"s Well in Kansas City, spoke up. He told the story of Eli and Samuel, found at the beginning of 1 Samuel, and of how the very old prophet, Eli, and the young boy and prophet-to-be, Samuel, formed a mutually beneficial and nonhierarchical relationship.

When Tim finished, silence ensued. Then a rabbi quietly said, ‘‘Yasher koach."" Shawn told me later that"s a Yiddish version of the Hebrew yishar kochachah, which means, ‘‘More strength to you."" He also told me that it"s a traditional expression of appreciation and respect for an interpretation of Torah.

It was a moment of beautiful truth.

Thanks, Tony, for this beautiful retelling of our time together. As they say, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

For more about our groundbreaking January 2006 meeting and its continuing resonances, please click here.

What’s in a name?

Wednesday, January 9th, 2008

Some of our Christian colleagues are having a bit of a blog & comment-fest around the future of the terms “emergent” and “emerging” to describe their work:

Kester Brewin at Signs of Emergence
Steve Knight at Emergent Village
Brian McLaren at God’s Politics

It’s hardly a new conversation for them, but rather goes back at least to 2005.

So what’s in a name? Brian McLaren and his conversation partners make some reference to political implications, especially vis-a-vis the 2008 elections, but there’s little exploration of the link between types of spiritual community-building and modes of political action. Kester Brewin’s conversation stays more or less at the meta-level (where he intended it to be, I think). Steve Knight’s discussion concerns language as a description of action; one commenter, Wayne, writes, “In the same way, as the number of churches deal with the change in approach, emergent will be redundant and it may just be ‘church".” What’s interesting about this (Christian) emergent discussion is how theological and ekklesia-focused it is; there is little attention paid to the organizational structure of these new groups, still less to how they actually spend their time (worship? social service? social change? evangelism? learning? personal growth?).

Over on our side of the fence, we’ve tended to be concerned with organizational structures. Thus, a group that rejects denominational structures and rabbinic authority is, hey presto, an “independent minyan.” But that hasn’t necessarily helped things. Some people like to use “independent minyan” or “indie minyan” as synecdoche, to refer to the phenomenon as a whole; it’s occurred all too often in some of the recent reporting on the S3K-Mechon Hadar Survey. The problem is that whatever else they may be, new communities such as Brooklyn Jews, IKAR, Jews in the Woods, Kavana, Kavod House, Kol Tzedek, Mitziut, Nashuva, Riverway, Saviv, Yavneh, etc., simply aren’t independent minyanim.

Most people aren’t interested in terms at all; they’re busy doing the work that they set out to do, and don’t have much interest in what it’s called, so long as it gets done. Certainly there are other metaphors one might use to describe these differences, but the initial point I want to make here is that for now, our conversations about distinctions among the “independent minyan” vs. the “rabbi-led emergent” vs. something else are letting internal organizational structure drive the discussion, or, if you will, letting ontology recapitulate phylogeny. Indeed, our survey data does show significant distinctions among “independent minyanim,” “rabbi-led emergent communities,” and “alternative emergent communities” (and yes, there’s some truth to the claim that the “alternative” category is a bit kitchen sink-like, but we do say our report is preliminary).

This initial point – the priority of organizational structure – leads to my second point: underlying these organizational differences, however, are significant similarities: commitments to community-based (rather than inner-directed) spiritual expression, deep hospitality, democratic worship, sustained confrontation with tradition, theologically-informed social change, blurring of the sacred/secular divide, and so on. Perhaps “emergent” is not the ideal term to capture these big ideas; “emerging” may be a slightly generic, though it doesn’t have the richness associated with “emergence.” Still, for now, “emergent” is serving an important purpose: to capture in a single word or phrase (“Jewish Emergent”), one not dependent on organizational structure, the broad swathe of new spiritual communities that have sprung up over the past decade or so.

And this leads to my final point, which is about where all of this is headed. I think the Christian Emergent debate about labels is more productive than what has (or, rather, hasn’t) transpired among Jewish Emergent leaders. Brian, Kester, Steve, and others are exploring the meaning of their work and looking for ways communicate that meaning not only to themselves but more broadly to the Church as a whole, in the ultimate hope that Christendom might reconsider the way it lives out its faith. In contrast, the “Jewish Emergent” conversation seems aimed less at effecting change within the broader institutional community than at coming up with new forms that at best ignore the mainstream. The broad conversations that do occur, often facilitated by mainstream institutions or by funders, mostly are framed as “us-vs.-them,” rather than as “we,” and there is relatively little visioning of how Jewish Emergent might shape klal Yisrael.

The question very few people seem to be asking (admittedly, emergent types just do rather than spend time asking questions) is whether these developments ultimately will result in reform or revolution in existing ecclesial institutions like churches and synagogues (as Wayne suggests above), or whether we ought to be looking at new ways of mapping the organized religious world. Some independent minyanim — Minyan Koleinu, Altshul, PicoEgal — already are finding physical homes in synagogues; whether that means they eventually will assimilate into one another remains to be seen. Some “synagogue-like” rabbi-led communities may move in non-synagogue directions. Speaking personally, I’ve been a member of IKAR all but since its founding: when we “grow up,” I don’t know that we’ll be a synagogue, or even that we want to. And the alternative communities are pushing the organizational envelope furthest of all.

Perhaps Emergent Village and Sojourners have more in common with each other than they do with churches, seminaries, and denominations. Among Jewish emergents, perhaps the independent minyan Kehilat Hadar has more in common with the yeshiva at Mechon Hadar than with the synagogue Anshe Chesed; perhaps the rabbi-led emergent community IKAR has more in common with the social justice group Progressive Jewish Alliance than with Temple Beth Am; perhaps the alternative community Kavod House has more in common with Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council than with Chabad House (denominational differences notwithstanding). And what that might mean for klal Yisrael — beyond the constraints of our existing institutions — is an exciting conversation just waiting to happen.

Synagogue consulting – toward the state of the field

Monday, December 17th, 2007

Our friends at STAR have published three new reports on synagogue consulting, a field that has grown tremendously over the past few years. We’re proud that the report highlights the impact of S3K alongside the Experiment in Congregational Education and the Alban Institute. Yasher koach to the STAR team for its important work in an under-studied, under-supported area of synagogue life.

Rabbi David Teutsch, a leader of the project, is a member of our S3K Synagogue Studies Academy, and his colleague Noga Newberg was the founding president of Kol Tzedek, a community represented in our Emergent Sacred Communities Working Group by Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Hermann.

Tolle et lege….

The 2007 National Spiritual Communities Study [now sitting on its own page]

Saturday, December 8th, 2007

[As of 12/13, please check here for link updates.]

Over the past few years, we have seen an important new phenomenon in Jewish life: the creation of dozens of independent minyanim, spiritual communities, alternative worship services, and emergent congregations. This rich array adds diverse opportunities for worship, learning, social justice work, community-building and spiritual expression.

We knew very little about the thousands of people associated with these new endeavors. Who are they? What are their concerns? How do they feel about the communities they’re creating, joining, and building? Why do they participate?

To answer these questions, the S3K Synagogue Studies Institute, in collaboration with Mechon Hadar, conducted a survey designed by the prominent sociologist Steven M. Cohen in partnership with Rabbi Elie Kaunfer and Shawn Landres. Our goal was to find out more about the participants, members, partners, and “acquaintances” of these new spiritual communities. The results of this work is the first ever portrait of the interests, values, and concerns of a critical innovative turn in American Judaism.

Please go here to download the report and related files.

To take part in Mechon Hadar‘s hosted discussion of the report and/or to suggest issues and questions for further analysis, please go here.

For links to coverage of the survey results, as well as additional blogposts related to both the results and the November 28 New York Times story by Neela Banerjee, please click here.

Emergent ~ yes, it’s happening among both Christians and Jews

Sunday, December 2nd, 2007

Responding to last week’s New York Times story, some commentators have been noting the parallels with the Emerging Church in the Christian world. See my article with emerging church expert Ryan Bolger, which appeared this summer in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (free abstract, institutional subscription required for full text; a shorter version also appeared in Sh’ma, but it’s not online). See also this Synablog roundup, this Theoblogy reflection, and these BolgBlog roundups (1, 2, 3, 4) from the January 2006 gathering of Jewish & Christian emergent leaders hosted by S3K and Emergent Village.

(For more from Synablog about Jewish Emergent, dating back to December 30th, 2005, click here.)

Larry Hoffman ruined my Holy Days!

Friday, November 23rd, 2007

Now that"s an attention getter! I have to admit it"s only partly true – well maybe not true at all. To be honest, it"s something that Hoffman wrote that ruined my holy days. While referring to ethnic Judaism in his recent book “Re-Thinking Synagogues,” he writes, “Jewish ethnicity is ‘doing what comes naturally," but with no transcendent purpose.” The phrase “no transcendent purpose” has haunted me and caused a serious review of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This year I judged all my actions based on the question of whether or not there was some transcendent purpose. Was the action somehow connecting me with God? I was surprised by how often the answer was – no.

It"s time for the family service. I ponder, “does that mean that the regular service is not for families?” All of my children have been in the “special” class for advanced Sunday school learners. This means they"ve all participated in leading the family services over the years. I"m thrilled that this is the last one of these I have to endure – my youngest serves his last year in the “special” class. The service is the same as in years past – some of the High Holy day liturgy sprinkled with kid-friendly songs, most of which are loathed by the kids who have heard them more than once. The rabbi tells some stories. I look up on the bima to see my youngest son struggling to stay focused and participatory. He knows it"s important for him to participate – but he really hates it.

In a recent conversation with a friend (who happens to be an eighty-year young retired cantor and spiritual guru), he commented that it appeared that I did many things based on “shoulds” and “supposed-to"s.” Without psychologizing myself too much, he"s right. I remarked back to him, “isn"t that what Jews do?” With regard to the High Holy days, I think the answer is a
resounding yes.

People often remark that High Holy Day services are too long, too boring, irrelevant, without meaning, etc. Shimon Apisdorf even wrote a book called the “Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit.” With all due respect to Rabbi Apisdorf, why do we have to “survive” the holy days? Why aren"t we reveling in them? I"ve heard these remarks for years, sometimes from rabbis. But, other than a handful of innovators on the coasts, I"ve not seen anyone do much about it. What is it that has us convinced that we cannot change? And particularly, what is it about the High Holy Days that makes the rituals sacrosanct?

I"m not a sociologist or trained observer (although I was an anthropology major in college!). I do love to watch people and what better place to watch Jews than in synagogue. Like all “good” Jews, I went to synagogue for the High Holy Days. While I think the High Holy Days liturgy is wonderful and the machzor is filled with some magnificent poetry, I was bored. So I watched.

The rabbi announces a page number and states that “now we"ll recite a beautiful medieval poem that"s arranged in reverse, Hebrew acrostic. “Wonderful” I said to myself – no one understands the Hebrew and it sounds just like the forward acrostic poem we just chanted, and like the one that will follow this one. Isn"t one beautiful poem enough – why do we have to do a full day"s worth?

I remember my days of leading services, looking out over the congregation as the cantor was chanting, and thinking to (convincing) myself that inattentiveness is just human nature. Now being a part of the congregation and experiencing the distraction and downright boredom I believe I was rationalizing. It"s amazing how few people really pay attention for any extended period. I respect and appreciate those who are in fervent prayer. Most attendees seem desperate to find something else to do. The hallways are forever filled with people chatting and socializing. This used to drive me crazy – how dare they come to the synagogue, on the most holy days of the year no less, and kibbutz with their friends. In truth, we drive them to it. Maybe there in the hallways are where the transcendent moments occurring – where, in Buberesque manner, people are connecting with each other and with God?

It"s Kol Nidre, the beginning of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. The hazan has just finished chanting Kol Nidre three times, the Torah scrolls are returned to the ark. The rabbi continues with the Maariv service. Then he announces the synagogue president will now address the congregation. The topic of her speech – why the congregants need to give more money. I"ve heard the same speech from different people at different synagogues. She pauses as the ushers go through the sanctuary collecting pledge cards. My daughter leans over and whispers to me, “It seems like a church collection.” What a way to kill the
spirit of the evening!

Several times, both before and after the holydays I mentioned, somewhat provocatively, that I don"t like the High Holy Days. OK I admit it, I was fishing for startled reactions and I got them. What usually followed my ‘invitation to speak candidly" were streams of criticism of the High Holy Day experience. Some admitted that while they attend and follow the “rules” of the period they neither understand much of the meaning nor find the traditions uplifting or spiritual. In good Jewish-guilt fashion though, they trudge on doing what they always do, in many cases what their parents did and their parents before them. Sadly, one converse to those attending synagogue are those who have given up – they refuse to attend. One young woman commented that she just doesn"t get it anymore and while she identifies herself as a committed Jew, she will neither fast nor attend services this year. The one ritual that still has meaning for her is tashlich, because it"s simple, tangible, and makes sense to her.

During one of my Yom Kippur hallway wandering times I stop by the teen service in the chapel. I hear the din even before I get down the hallway. At first glance I think they must be taking a break. They"re actually reading the Torah, or at least the guest cantor and her gabbaim are reading the Torah. Everyone else seems totally disengaged. The cantor glances up periodically to throw evil-eye glances at the congregation. I don"t think any of them catch these – at least they don"t react to them.

What do we do? I find myself in the same predicament as many Jews who want, need, something new and different. This year I gave myself permission to try something new. That in itself was no easy feat. To deviate from “tradition” is difficult for Jews. We think we find meaning in tradition but as Rabbi Hoffman reminds us, tradition is often confused for ethnic longing, a “nostalgic yearning for Jewish folkways.” Ethnicity is “doing what comes naturally, but with no transcendent purpose.” I don"t find this sustaining and posit most Jews don"t either. The rabbis of the Talmud created a concept called hilkheta k"vatraei, the law follows the latest generation of authorities. It"s time to empower new authorities!

This year I decided I needed meaningful ritual – something I could share with my family. After discussing it with my wife, we decided to focus the holy days on our family relationships. While I thought it might be contrived or hokey, the results were wonderful. We began erev Rosh Hashanah with “services” at home. Anyone with a machzor can do this. We went through the evening"s liturgy, passing readings from person to person, discussing them while we read them. Instead of two hours in schul it took about twenty minutes! Then everyone got four sheets of paper. On each, we wrote at the top, “If I"ve harmed you in any way this year I"m sorry.” Each of us then came up with at least one specific thing for which we wanted to offer an apology. While it lasted only a few short minutes, the silence was deep and tangible. Each of my children (16, 13 and 12) studiously followed the instructions. We gave the paper apologies to each respective person with the idea that the receiver would accept or not accept the apology by Yom Kippur. I can"t say that all were 100% diligent about this but it led to a week"s worth of communication with my children and my wife that I will remember for a long time. I hope they do too. And I hope this is a new tradition for our family. While it was a small step, all my children commented that they got more out of the few hours we spent together in prayer and connecting with each other than they did at synagogue. I"m not sure if this is a testament to our new family ritual or the remoteness of synagogue!

I wish I could say we were as innovative for Yom Kippur, but the “shoulds” prevailed. We attended Kol Nidre, which I still find moving and meaningful. But this year at our pre- Yom Kippur meal we talked about the meaning of Kol Nidre. The conversation was deep, fun and moving.

If it sounds like I"m advocating the end of High Holy Days services, I"m not. For some people I believe there is enduring meaning in following the paths of our predecessors (even if those paths only go back a few hundred years). I am advocating that Judaism needs to offer choices. While I don"t like the idea that religion has to be consumer driven, The High Holy Days has to meet people where they are. We need to give ourselves permission to experiment and innovate – and sometimes fail. If we don"t offer new choices, many Jews will make the choice for us by choosing not to – not to attend, not to question, not to seek a meaningful expression of their Judaism. That"s a failure I cannot endure.

Aaron Spiegel

Synagogues and Social Justice: Creating Sustainable Change Within and Beyond the Congregation

Thursday, November 1st, 2007

Join the conversation on about the Fall 2007 S3K Report, “Synagogues and Social Justice: Creating Sustainable Change Within and Beyond the Congregation.”

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