Archive for the ‘Synagogue Studies’ Category

Rekindling Tradition as Life Partnerships End

Monday, January 18th, 2010

It is somewhat surprising that researchers have paid so little attention to how people experience divorce in congregations. Studies that do address the relationship between religion and divorce are largely quantitative, measuring divorce numbers. Rarely do these reports consider the personal impact and how (or if) communities support those affected by divorce. Do synagogues know how to handle end of relationship issues?

From 2005 to 2009, author Kathleen E. Jenkins conducted sixty interviews with divorced individuals (eleven Jewish) active in a variety of religious communities. Jenkins interviewed forty clergy (twelve rabbis) and lay leaders. Three of the rabbis had been divorced.

Jenkins includes anecdotes from her interviews that may surprise many in the synagogue community while not surprise others at all. The report concludes with some simple, practical suggestions for synagogues to better serve this distinct community.

Download the full report

Bernie Madoff"s next trial

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Now that the earthly trial of Bernard Madoff has come to an end with a sentence of 150 years in prison, he will await his next trial — the heavenly one.

Although eschatology is not emphasized in Judaism, there is a recurring metaphor in rabbinic literature of a “heavenly tribunal,” an accounting of one’s actions on earth. For 2,000 years, rabbis have imagined what questions might be asked at such a trial. Astonishingly, one sage, Rava, imagines the very first question you are asked in heaven is: “Were you honest in your business dealings?”

In the months since the Madoff story broke, clergy have weighed in on the lessons of the scandal in hundreds of sermons. Some have focused on the pain of the victims, others on the greed of the perpetrator. Most conclude with exhortations regarding the importance of business ethics. Priests and rabbis, imams and pastors, have used the Madoff case as an opportunity to remind their congregants that trust and accountability are the bedrock values of business.

Why on earth — or rather, why in heaven’s name — would the first question one is asked in heaven be about business? Because it’s not just about business. The question is about honesty, integrity, faithfulness. If you are not honest in your business dealings, can you be trusted to be honest in other relationships? If you are not honest with others, can you be honest with yourself? If you are not faithful with others, can your faith in God be trusted?

The idea that those entrusted with other people’s money have a fiduciary responsibility to safeguard and account for it dates back to the Bible itself. When the Israelites receive the Ten Commandments, God instructs Moses to solicit gifts from “every person whose heart so moves him.” These gifts are then to be used for building a Tabernacle, an elaborate sanctuary fashioned from precious metals, stones and wood.

It is quite the construction project, requiring significant contributions of treasure from the people. When it is completed, Moses gives a detailed public accounting of the expenditures.

Why? Wouldn’t the people have trusted their great leader?

Some commentators imagine that the people did not trust Moses. Others suggest that Moses anticipated the accusations, taking upon himself a process of accountability in order to pre-empt the suspicions of others. In either case, the clear lesson is that leaders of a community must avoid any hint of personal aggrandizement when entrusted with public funds.

Madoff committed another offense, in addition to stealing: He brought shame upon the Jewish people. Many of the charities and nonprofit organizations losing hundreds of millions of dollars served the Jewish community, including the foundation of Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel.

Since the Madoff confession, the Jewish community has gone through much anguish and soul searching. How could a Jew perpetrate this devastating fraud on fellow Jews, including major foundations and institutions that have been obliterated in one fell swoop? Madoff made a mockery of the notion that all Jews are responsible for each other.

These are some of the questions Bernard Madoff will be contemplating in prison as he serves out his sentence. Although we may not witness his next trial, the one before the heavenly court, it is not difficult to imagine what his sentence will be.

original post at

Unhealthy Reasoners

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

Parashat Korach

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

Why?” we ask, when people act outrageously, “Why in the world would you do that?”

The answer almost always is, “Because….” And that answer is usually wrong.

“Because,” translates into, “Here is the cause.” But people rarely do things on account of causes. More often they act on account of reasons. We do well to note the difference.

In this week’s Torah portion, Korach and Company rise up against Moses with the plaint, “Enough already! The entire congregation is holy…. Who are you to lord yourself over the congregation of God?” The dispute arises when Moses hands over the priesthood to one family rather than another. Enough was enough for Korach; Moses had gone too far.

The priesthood decision was the cause of the rebellion. It was not, however, the reason behind it.

A cause is some objective event, something that happens, a decision made to resolve a crisis. A reason is the subjective baggage people bring to the cause. The cause is singular. Reasons are multiple; they vary from person to person; and they are not always healthy. Healthy reasons address the cause and its likelihood of solving the crisis; unhealthy reasons reflect deep-seated fears and insecurities. Korach’s claim “The entire congregation is holy” is a healthy reason; “Who are you to Lord yourself over the congregation” is not.

Unhealthy reasoning dissipates any chance of coalescing around reasonable positions. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer gets it right: “It doesn’t say ‘Korach and the others separated themselves,’ but ‘Korach [singular] separated himself.’ That is because each rebel had a different interest in the matter.” That, add most commentators, is why it was not “an argument for the sake of heaven.” The “cause” was just the excuse for prompting old animosities, prior agendas, and personal insecurities: all of them unhealthy reasons, not healthy ones.

If the cause were the only thing that mattered, a healthy conversation about it (citing healthy reasons only) would produce a solution. But unhealthy reasons get in the way, and they are harder to address because they go unspoken, and, usually, unrecognized, even by the parties themselves. When unhealthy reasons get the best of us, the healthy ones go on vacation. Some synagogue boards attract and reward “unhealthy reasoners,” and when they do, the healthy reasoners don’t run for office.

There are three variables, actually: “cause,” “reason” and “crisis.” The cause of the debate is an action someone takes (or threatens to take) to solve a crisis. The crisis here, say some of our commentators, was the golden calf, which prompted Moses to change the “organizational structure” of the Israelite camp by reassigning the priesthood. That decision would have solved the crisis, but when Moses mentioned it, people with unhealthy reasons made it into a cause. Knowing God would demolish his enemies in an earthquake, Moses had it easy. How do we handle controversy when — alas for the good guys – God has retired from the earthquake business?

Take the case of Congregation Nameless. The executive officers proposed solving the current economic crisis by cutting programs. A healthy board would have debated the proposal with healthy reasons, like the potential impact of the cuts on synagogue life.

But the debate included unhealthy reasons that got swept under the table rather than faced. A sure sign was the fact that people acted rudely toward each other, sometimes interrupting and even shouting. Rancorous debate carried over from the board meetings onto email and into shopping lines at the local grocery store.

The Education chair, for example, noted that a smaller budget meant less education, but said nothing about her underlying insecurity: her need for recognition. House Committee members stood firm in their plan to enlarge the sanctuary – if that got cut, their many hours spent would be in vain, and they would become irrelevant to the congregation’s immediate future.

That’s the way it works: from crisis to cause to reasons. Discussion on the cause can never allay the “reasonable” fears of the parties if the reasons running the discussion are unhealthy. And we all have unhealthy reasons. We just don’t always recognize them.

Torah calls our unhealthy reasons the yetser hara – “the evil inclination” that makes us human. Since we all have them, we should not be embarrassed by them. Being unembarrassed by them, we can admit them and put them aside. We can even chuckle a bit about them, when we see them acting up (and ourselves acting out). Banishing unhealthy reasons allows healthy ones to debate the actual cause and solve the crisis.

In Congregation Nameless, unhealthy reasons still go unchecked. It is a real place, incidentally. A year has gone by and it is still fighting. And I remember its name, come to think of it. It is Congregation B’nai Korach.

Synagogue 3000: A Concurring Dissent; Or, Of Babies and Bathwater

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik

Before saying anything to the topic at hand, in the interests of full disclosure, let me share a few facts about myself. I have been the rabbi of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a large, urban Conservative synagogue in Queens, NY, for the past twenty-eight years. But though I serve a Conservative congregation and was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary, my educational and experiential background is Orthodox. I grew up in an observant Orthodox family, attended Yeshiva Day School and High School, and graduated Yeshiva University before completing a masters degree in Bible at NYU, and rabbinical training at JTS.

And so it is that I straddle two worlds, both personally and professionally. Leaving Orthodoxy was a conscious decision for me. Years spent at Camp Ramah, and ultimately at JTS, convinced me that the religious world of my youth had become too confining, standing in the way of my religious growth instead of nurturing it. I was suffocating there, and needed to acknowledge that my horizons had broadened in a way that could never be reversed. But even as I migrated to the Conservative world, I retained my deeply rooted love of (and respect for) the regular and passionate practice of Jewish ritual as a whole, and particularly Jewish prayer. I never stopped attending synagogue or being observant, even as I embraced a different conceptual framework within which to observe.

Within Conservative Judaism, at least as it manifests itself in many Conservative congregations (as opposed to Orthodox ones, and the more homogeneous, self-selecting Havurot and prayer communities), that life-long love of regular Jewish practice has, not surprisingly, proved frustratingly difficult to satisfy. Actually, it’s not only Jewish practice that I grew up loving, but also the “given-ness” of that practice, if you will, rooted in the idea of hiyyuv… the sense that said practice is obligatory, and not a volitional act depending on the will (or lack thereof) of the individual Jew. The religious world that I minister to today, in the language of contemporary sociologists, is one wherein the “sovereign self” has almost completely trumped the “commanding presence” of God and its accompanying notion of obligation. Everything religious needs to be marketed, and to the degree that it is marketed well, or effectively, it stands a chance of becoming part of a religious routine. But there is precious little idea of obligation in the world of the sovereign self. Sovereign selves do not like to be told what to do, or what is expected of them.

It is from this vantage point that I approach the work of Synagogue 3000, STAR, and similar organizations dedicated to the re-creation and re-vitalization of the American synagogue. I understand the challenge at hand. I work with those “Jews in the pews” (or not in the pews!) every day, and know the deep sense of alienation that so many of them feel from traditional synagogue worship and ritual. They are profoundly disconnected from that world of Jewish practice that I live, breathe, and so value. But I have a nagging feeling that, though I understand the goals of organizations like Synagogue 3000 and appreciate what they are trying to accomplish, re-creating the synagogue and its worship is, at its core, a flawed enterprise. That’s why I’ve called this piece a “concurring dissent:” an oxymoron if ever there was one. I agree with the problem, but I’m uncomfortable with the solution. We are changing the davening to suit the daveners, and in so doing, we are losing something precious and irretrievable.

This discussion is not, to me at least, about egalitarianism, which I embrace, or the need to make our services more participatory and less of a spectator sport. I agree, wholeheartedly. It is, rather, about being able to appreciate the prayer experience from within, as opposed to critiquing it from without.

Whatever ambivalence I might have about my Orthodox education through my college years, one great blessing that it gifted me with was a remarkable comfort level with synagogue life and practice. The words of our prayers come easily and naturally to me, as do the melodies to which they are traditionally chanted. Those prayers are my spiritual comfort food. No matter what state of mind I bring to prayer, they are the mantra that enables me to access my spiritual self, regardless of setting. Setting helps, to be sure, but it does not determine whether or not I can have a spiritual experience. When I visit a synagogue that I’m not familiar with, even if it’s a place where I would never choose to daven, I can still talk to God there.

Coming from Orthodoxy to Conservative Judaism, I have always thought that we set the bar far too low for our laypeople in terms of expectations. Because so many of them are Hebraically challenged, we’ve added more and more English. Because quietly spoken words of prayer don’t resonate with meaning for so many, we emphasize singing and minimize opportunities for individual prayer (which was always the bulk of the traditional prayer service, but today brings people uncomfortably close to their linguistic and spiritual inadequacies). And perhaps most importantly- we have decided for them that they can’t deal with the traditional service because they’re not equipped to. So instead of raising them up to the bar of tradition, we tend to lower the bar to them. Again, the issue is not egalitarianism, or participation. The issue is prayer itself. Is it possible that Orthodox outreach efforts enjoy the success that they do because they try to change the daveners to suit the davening?

Just something to think about…

Ron Wolfson’s response…

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik raises important issues in his posting: the notion of hiyyuv – obligation – as the primary motivation for observance, the challenge of making prayer meaningful and accessible to those who do not feel “obligated,” and the need for “synagogue transformation” initiatives.

The first – and most important – point to be made is that phenomenal congregational rabbis like Skolnik “toil in these vineyards” on a daily basis…and understand the challenges facing synagogue leadership better than anyone. In the past year alone, I have visited more than two dozen congregations – Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Independent Minyanim – and most of them struggle with these critical issues.

For me, the great value in “synagogue transformation” efforts is to a) raise these questions and conduct research that reaches beyond anecdote to hard data for the purposes of illuminating the discussion, and 2) raise the bar of expectation in what a spiritual community can be – even for those “sovereign self” Jews who do not feel obligated in any way to participate and engage in synagogue life.

Why is it important to worry about the “sovereign self” Jews? First of all, there are far more of them in our community than “hiyyuv” Jews and I, for one, will not dismiss them, give up on them, or ignore them. Second, I have never bought into the “saving remnant” argument that the community ought to pour its resources into a tiny percentage of Jews who will “save” Judaism for the next generation. Third, in my opinion, we have done precious little to create a truly outreach-oriented, welcoming community in our synagogues. Since Synagogue 3000 “rang the bell” on this issue, some of our congregations have gotten better at creating a culture of welcome in our institutions…but, believe me, we have a long, long way to go.

As for what Synagogue 3000 “advocates,” particularly with regard to worship, let me make it clear that there is no one answer. We are blessed with staff and supporters from across the Jewish spectrum…and we embrace the diversity of goals and strategies that we have been privileged to bring to those interested in our work. What we share is a vision of the synagogue as a kehillah kedoshah, a sacred community of meaning and purpose. Our Number One challenge is to increase the level of engagement with such communities, even among the members we already have in our midst.

This brings me back to Rabbi Skolnik’s main point: should we alter the davenning or “alter” the davenners? Here too, there is some misunderstanding of what Synagogue 3000 advocates. We have never advocated “more English readings;” in fact, several of the most outstanding models of an engaging prayer experience are almost entirely conducted in Hebrew. Similarly, many of the “independent minyanim” that we have studied in the S3K Synagogue Studies Institute would certainly never think of “watering down” what they believe is an authentic Jewish prayer experience in order to reach more people.

Another “red herring” in this debate is the use of musical instruments on Shabbat. We have never suggested this as “the answer” to increasing the vitality of the worship experience. The issue is not instrumentation; it is what we used to call in our synagogue youth groups and camps “ruach” – spirit; a prayer experience that lifts up participants through a variety of means: participatory singing, serious text study, a challenging message, the warmth of a welcoming community, the celebration of lifecycle moments.

Personally, I wish more Jews felt a sense of “hiyyuv.” But, unless you are lucky enough to have grown up with this sense, I am convinced we need to continue to think of ways to invite the “sovereign self” Jews in, to ignite the spark of spirituality that I believe is just underneath the surface of most human beings, and to engage them in the life of the community in a much deeper way when they do decide to join our membership ranks. Otherwise, I fear we will see more and more empty seats in our pews, even on the High Holy Days (a phenomenon many rabbis report to us).

As for Synagogue 3000, we continue our research into synagogue life through the S3K Synagogue Studies Institute and welcome the debate, the dialogue and the heartfelt conversations that Rabbi Skolnik and others are good enough to stimulate.

Dr. Ron Wolfson

Larry Hoffman’s response…

Dear Rabbi Skolnik,

Many thanks for raising the issues you do. In his usual informative and sympathetic manner, Ron Wolfson has already provided our S3K position on them; and there is no point in restating what he has said — better, I expect, than I could have. I do, however, want to reiterate the fact that S3K has never mandated solutions for individual synagogues. As a transdenominational organization with enormous regard for congregations everywhere along the spectrum of practice and belief, we have emphasized new ways of thinking that congregations might or might not find useful (each in its own fashion). In the case of prayer, that has sometimes entailed drawing attention to areas of the service that were being overlooked and that could be attended to with equal ease by everyone — Ron’s best example is “welcoming.” Sometimes it has meant challenging denominational stereotypes that Jews in one movement have of another. Sometimes it has entailed initiating a conversation that was not likely to take place elsewhere.

With the last goal in mind, let me respond in a manner differently from Ron – using another hat I wear, that of a lifelong student of liturgy and prayer. How might we think differently?

I begin as you did: with personal candor. I am a Reform Jew who has arrived at these positions as part of the way I think my own movement ought to approach the issues of prayer. At the same time, I, like you, come from a positive childhood experience of traditional prayer. I learned to daven well before my bar mitzvah, and appreciate the traditional siddur, especially since I have the added benefit of studying it in such depth as an adult, whose scholarly field it is. On virtually every page I am tempted to stop and admire the story behind what I see; I love the different sounds of our musical tradition, and the psychological feel of the whole experience. This past Shabbat (second day of Shavuot) I attended an Orthodox shul where the davening took 4 ½ hours. The “regulars” apologized to me for its length. I, by contrast, enjoyed it from beginning to end.

But here is the rub: most Jews today do not know what I know, have not been brought up as I have, have different sensibilities than I do, and (as a consequence) think altogether differently about prayer in general. We have three options. 1. We can ignore or dismiss them as anything from ignorant to sinful. 2. We can alter the service – with English, let us say — so as to speak to them, but take a dim view of what we are doing: call it pandering (at worst), watering down (a bit better), or a temporary measure necessitated by the difficult times but intended to raise the ignorant to our own superior position of knowledgeable appreciation “for the real thing.” Or, finally (3), we can decide that there really is no such thing as the real thing; that we are not the first generation to claim the right to adapt the past to the present; and that there are many alternative criteria that we might adopt to guide the way we adapt.

Appropriately, as the committed Conservative Jew you are, your own view is determined by how you view halakhah, which, since the Middle Ages, has indeed codified certain practices as proper. I, by contrast, see halakhah as a richly textured testimony to the way Jews then had adapted Jewish prayer, but not necessarily how I should. The prayer book was codified in more ways than one – the ninth-century version of Rav Amram became probative, as it happens. But Amram and his scholarly colleagues regularly explain their custom by saying, “That is what how we do things here [in Babylonia],” knowing that theirs is not the only option. All of this is readily countered by a halakhic Jew who can easily find older, apparently more elemental, assumptions – “Rav Amram and his opponents at least agreed on the basics of the Talmud,” let us say. But as you know, the two Talmuds differ also on a great deal, and were you then to say that they both follow the Mishnah, I would contend that the Mishnah too has many alternatives. You know all this of course. You will agree with my facts but disagree with their implications. My whole line of thought may be irrelevant for someone committed to a traditional view of rabbinic authority as provided by the codes, and I do not argue it as a better way to think. I state it only to demonstrate that there is another way to think, and that depending on this bedrock starting point, one arrives at different criteria for what can or should be done today. Even if there were but one way to approach the question, I see no way to arrive at it without begging the question we want to approach.

To begin with, I do not concede your point that because of a sovereign self, people do not, as a rule, feel commanded (or even obliged) to pray. I prefer thinking that the sovereign self means simply that people are more apt to try on commandedness and obligation in their own personally idiosyncratic ways; that if they knew how, they would as readily seek out God’s will for us as did even the most pious Jews of the past; and that the problem is not them but us, the knowledgeable rabbis who want them to seek God “more conveniently,” meaning “the way we think we did.” My first point, then, is that those years are over; it is not just pointless but incorrect as well to mourn their passing; we need to appreciate what sovereign selves in fact do, insofar as they have any interest whatever in what might sometimes look to them like our own rabbinically arcane ways of thinking.
Second, I warn against setting ourselves up as curators of a Jewish museum. Insofar as we take the position that we must take care to guard the tradition against those who would dismiss it, trash it, or water it down, we are apt to lose perspective on what we are guarding. Sometimes even the greatest museums prune their holdings, putting some once-loved treasures in storage until, perhaps (but only perhaps), another generation reclaims them. Even as guardians, we ought to be wary of what needs guarding and what does not.

More troubling is the very image of ourselves as guardians. It presupposes adefensive response to Philistines at the gate, whereas I do not consider the sovereign selves in any way to be Philistines. I prefer thinking of ourselves not as guardians of art already finished, but an extension of the artists themselves – a chain in the Jewish People’s artistry. That is not the same as a chain in the Jewish People’s tradition, which might indeed presuppose a bedrock essence that is crystal clear to anyone who peers under the museum’s glass casing. If there is such a thing, except for truisms like Jewish monotheism, I do not know how we can arrive at it – and even there, what counts as appropriate expressions of that monotheism is not at all self-evident. That artists can go too far is clear to anyone who studies the history of art, but how we know just when the artist goes too far is harder to determine. At the very least, we know that the final say is available only after the fact, when history judges the work properly “artistic” or not. We know also that artists never work as fully sovereign selves – they create in response to traditional artistry with which they become familiar – so starting altogether de novo is not only wrongheaded but, in the case of serious Jewish artistry, even impossible. “Strong poets,” says literary critic Harold Bloom, are in agonistic struggle against with predecessors. New composers create variations on old ones. Standards of art can change – they do change, they must change — without debasing the excellence that defines the nature of art. The issue becomes the criteria for that excellence.

Now a fully halakhic Jew, in the sense in which I think you understand halakhah, would not have to deny my artistic analogy. At stake would be the criteria by which the art is measured, and here we return to our bedrock assumptions about the role of the law codes, the Talmud, and legal precedent. In their own ways, modern Orthodoxy and Conservatism too — no less than any other serious grappling with Jewish past — do not know what is right until after the fact. We are all in the same boat, or, at least, in parallel boats buffeted by the same waters. We stake our Jewish lives on different assumptions about the proper boat to get into, the criteria (that is) by which we will be measured; and where we agree on criteria (the continuation of the Jewish People, for example) we take bets on what the best strategy will be to attain our desired end.

With all of that in mind, I turn to just one real-life example from our time, the one you mention so prominently, the use of English. Let us posit the common goal of preserving Hebrew as the indispensible language of our people. We now must decide what strategy is most likely to attain that end. That some of us will continue to appreciate fully Hebrew services is likely. That is not at issue. What we wonder about is the growing number of people who do not appreciate Hebrew davening. That they even bother to attend prayer is, as I say, a sign of commendable adult search, a sign of openness, at least, to the possibility of Jewish meaning. If they find that in poetic English, the way our ancestors (or even you and I) find it in Hebrew, what is wrong with that? To be sure, the English liturgist may go too far, but who is to say that the adamant curator of the Hebrew museum does not go too far in the opposite direction? Only time will tell. We rabbis who are charged with making such weighty decisions must be properly humbled by what is demanded of us. That is why you and I are engaged in this machloket l’shem shamayin (“argument for the sake of heaven”).

I supply the English (“argument for the sake of heaven”) for less Hebraically knowledgeable readers who may actually choose to read this exchange of views, and who should not have to feel that they must be able to get the “esoteric” references in the original Hebrew. A further question might well be whether knowing Hebrew (and operating with the references) helps further the appreciation of the debate. I think you and I would agree that it does. I suspect that first-time readers engaging in this exercise will slowly learn some of this “in-language” that we like to quote. And similarly, I think newcomers to exceptional prayer in poetic English may come to appreciate the warmth and texture of traditional Hebrew prayer. If so, however, the goal is not that competence for its own sake! In one case (our conversation) it is appreciation of the argument for the Jewish People and for the purposes of God. In the other case (prayer) it is the human intuition (and, perhaps, divine will itself) that God and we be in dialogue.

I suspect Hebrew helps in both cases. But I also suspect that replacing Hebrew as universally better than the appropriate English parallels would rob each aspiration of its full possibilities for success – at least among many of the Jewish “searchers” we are discussing. Having appreciated the finesse of English in prayer, I, for one, cannot go home again: I want the best of both worlds, the Hebrew I learned as a child, but equally, the English I learned as an adult. My prayer is deepened by one as well as the other.

You raise so many magnificent issues! I am tempted to attend to them all. But I hope my overall point is clear enough as the matter stands. By no means do I advocate my own artistry over someone else’s. I argue only for a deep and passionate regard for other artists, and the recognition that their canvasses may be equally rich in Jewish value, equally appreciative of Jewish tradition, and no more a threat to the disappearance of our historical treasures than our own predilections, if taken to extremes.
Hence, to put back on my S3K hat, our S3K insistence on interdenominational conversation. We are not curators but artists, outfitting (rather than protecting) the museum of a Jewish eternity (not just a Jewish past). You and I have somehow found our way into adjoining rooms in this Jewish museum, committing ourselves to adding the newest touches of paint to a different vision of what the canvass might become. From time to time we wander into each other’s room to appreciate the alternative that we see there. We return enriched by what we have seen, better able to develop insight into our own project of the ages.
Warmly and with appreciation,

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

Steven M. Cohen’s response…

The Rabbi is Right, uh, Conservative

This may be a case of the Fiddler joke that ends with, “But they both can’t be right.” “You’re right too!” – Or, maybe not.

To elaborate …

The backdrop for this stimulating exchange between Rabbi Skolnik and Dr. Wolfson is critical: Notwithstanding the familiar but often over-stated and premature pronouncements of the death of denominations, Conservative and Reform embody striking and healthy contrasts. The contrasts are both worth noting, and, in my view, worth keeping.

For its part, Reform Judaism is remarkable for its agility and for the premium it places on creativity and innovation. It is attuned to the ever-shifting and diversifying Jewish market place. In so doing, Reform temples manage to attract far larger numbers of intermarried Jews and converts than do their Conservative counterparts down the road, or in town.

At the same time, taken as a group and compared with Conservative shul members, Reform congregants are more tentative about their engagement with congregations. More of them drop out of congregations with the Bar/Bat Mitzvah of their youngest child. What’s more, the tendency to dis-affiliate at that moment is even more pronounced among intermarried than in-married congregants. On most of the standard measures of childhood Jewish education, Reform congregants score lower than do Conservative members. They score lower on equivalent measures of current Jewish engagement, e.g., the importance of being Jewish or frequency of attendance at services.

In short, Reform congregants are more tentative in their commitment (on average), less Jewishly well-educated (on average), and more recently arrived at Jewish engagement (on average). As such, they pose distinctive challenges and demands, very different from those posed by Conservative congregants.

Reform Jews need rabbis, cantors, educators, leaders, community and Judaism who are attuned to their needs, interests, language, worldview, and so forth. Hence, the adaptability and innovativeness of Reform is both necessary and, I would argue, proper for these Jews. Even the most traditional Jew who cares only about more Jews doing more mitzvehs ought to say, “Baruch Ha-Shem for Reform Judaism.” The purpose of Reform Judaism is embedded in its very name: to re-form Judaism, and to do so in line with the times, and the needs and sensibility of its prime constituencies.

In contrast, Conservative rabbis are dealing with a very different constituency. It’s older, more ethnic, more in-married, less converted, more tied to Israel, more familiar with Hebrew prayers and their melodies, more resident in areas of higher Jewish density, more tied to Federations, JCCs and other Jewish organizations, and on and on. The graduates of Ramah and Schechter schools, as well as today’s day school parents, are over-represented among the more active Conservative shul members and among the regular daveners.

In this environment, the Conservative approach is to treat the inherited and prevailing cultural patterns as “authentic.” Change in liturgy and tfilla undermines the claim to authenticity and to the compelling nature of Judaism. To many Conservative davenners, shorter services, instrumental music, the sound of English, an emphasis on social action, and divrei Torah that fail to emphasize textual analysis, all seem like concessions to the influences of the larger society (in general) and of Christian churches (in particular).

Conservative leaders therefore work to preserve the compelling image of authenticity by resisting visible change, especially in ways which can be interpreted as yielding to larger social forces and cultural patterns. Thus, Conservative Jewish leaders (both clerical and lay) do what Conservative Judaism does best: they conserve Judaism, as they understand it.

To bridge the gap between what they see as authentic Judaism and an under-committed and under-educated laity, Conservative rabbis and educators invest considerable time and effort in growing the skills of their worshippers. One rabbi’s proud remarks about his achievements stick in my mind as emblematic of this approach. To paraphrase: “When I came here, maybe three people could leyn. Today, if I need someone to prepare shlishi on the spot, forty hands go up.” [Translation: At one time, only three worshippers could prepare to read from the Torah on Shabbat mornings. As a result of classes and training, many worshippers now are able to do so with minimal notice.]

In other words, if one is confronted with a liturgy that appeals to very few worshippers, as I learned from my friend and colleague Prof. Lawrence A. Hoffman, one can change the liturgy or one can change/teach the worshippers (or do both). Reform tends to invest more in the former approach; just as Conservatism tends to invest more in the latter approach. And, Synagogue 2000, and now Synagogue 3000, has tended to emphasize the manifold ways to adjust the services, while not particularly developing new approaches to teaching and learning synagogue skills.

Hence, Rabbi Skolnik does have a point. The S3K effort with which I am proud and pleased to be associated is not explicitly Reform, but its methodology has what my teacher Charles Liebman, z”l, would call, an “elective affinity” with Reform Judaism.

So, as I said at the outset about Rabbi Skolnik and Dr. Wolfson’s comments – they’re both right – or maybe they’re not!

Professor Steven M. Cohen

How Spiritual Are America’s Jews?

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

The first-ever comparative national study of spirituality among American Jews and Christians demonstrates that young Jews are more spiritually inclined on every available measure than their elders. The historic large gap in spiritual orientation between Jews and others is narrowing, especially among younger adults, those 35 and under. The S3K Synagogue Studies Institute report, written by Professors Steven M. Cohen and Lawrence A. Hoffman, both of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, draws upon a web-based national survey of 1596 Jews and 1520 respondents drawn from the general population.

This growth of spiritual receptivity among young adult Jews can be attributed to 3 factors:

  1. The growth in the number of Orthodox Jews, especially among people under 35.
  2. The parallel, and even more substantial, growth of intermarried families and Jews by choice, both signifying the growth of Jews with Christian parents, husbands and wives. These family members appear to render their Jewish relatives more open to, and comfortable with, the ideas, expressions and language of spirituality.
  3. Even non-Orthodox Jews with two Jewish parents (a shrinking population sector, albeit still a majority) are more receptive to spiritual language than older counterparts.

As ethnic ties among American Jews diminish — with more non-Jewish parents, spouses, children, friends and neighbors — American Judaism is becoming, in broad terms, less ethnic and more religiously and spiritually oriented.

These findings have serious implications for Jewish communal policy makers, rabbis, educators, and planners. More American Jews are expressing interest in the study and experience of spirituality. The two population segments showing especially elevated spiritual concerns are precisely the two major demographic growth sectors of the Jewish population: the Orthodox, and Jews with at least one non-Jewish nuclear family member.

As spiritually oriented American Jews grow in number, seminaries will have to educate students to show comfort with spiritual language, and help congregants with their spiritual search. Congregational rabbis, especially those serving large numbers of intermarried families or the Jewish children of the intermarried, will find greater demand and greater receptivity to spiritual language and concerns in the years to come.

Join the conversation with study authors Steven M. Cohen and Lawrence Hoffman.

Full report,

What Rick Warren Is Teaching to Rabbis

Friday, December 5th, 2008

Check out this Jewcy post from Benyamin Cohen about what synagogues can learn from churches.

Turning 40: Beyond Boomers

Sunday, November 23rd, 2008

Parashat Toldot

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

If you have already turned 40, you know it is no ordinary birthday; if you are not yet 40, pray God you will get there, but, perhaps, with appropriate trepidation.

These thoughts on “40” are prompted by our sedra’s curious insistence that Isaac married Rebecca when he was 40 years old. Commentators are taken aback, if for no other reason than that 40 is pretty old for Jews who believe that their halakhic mandate is to have children. Granted, it worked out for Isaac, and granted also, Abraham didn’t father Isaac until he was over a hundred, but still, as the Talmud puts it, “We should not depend on miracles.”

Rashi explains the calculation. “When Abraham returned from the akedah (the binding of Isaac), he was informed that Rebecca had just been born. Isaac was then 37 years old.” If he met and married Rebecca when he was 40, she would have been only three years old at the time.

That is, of course, outlandish. So Abravanel quickly concedes, “This is pure midrash. Can a three-year old water camels at a well?” So 40 is a symbolic number, not a real one. But what is it symbolic of?

“Forty” turns up everywhere in the Bible. Esau too marries at 40 (Gen. 26:34). Noah’s flood lasts 40 days and 40 nights (Gen. 7:17, 58:6); the spies take 40 days to scout the Land of Canaan (Num. 13:25); 40 days and nights is how long Moses spent atop Mt. Sinai (Exod. 24:18, 34:28); the book of Judges says, “The land had rest for 40 years” between the time that Othniel conquered the Arameans and “the children of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (Judg. 3:11). So maybe “40” just means “a long time.”

More specifically, it means a period of transition, the time it takes to grow up, the time necessary (for instance) for young men like Jacob and Esau to come into their own. Until then, they are the youth of tomorrow. At 40, they become the adults of today, inheriting the mantle of leadership from their parents. That is why Joshua is 40 when Moses (whom he will replace) appoints him (Josh. 14:7); and why the generation of disloyal Israelites must wander the desert for 40 years before entering the Promised Land. It takes 40 years for the generational turnover to occur.

In 1946, the largest ever generation of Americans was born: the baby boomers. We date the end of the boomer era with people born in 1964. People born as of 1965 are the next generation, sometimes called Gen X. If the biblical number “40” symbolizes maturation, Gen X began coming of age in 2005. We should just now be seeing the first signs of the baby boomers being replaced by their children.

And so we are – most evidently in the recent presidential race where a candidate of the next generation was elected, largely with a massive effort by Gen X supporters who said they wanted change, and trusted no baby boomer (or older) to bring it. America has begun the process of turning the reins of the country over to this next generation.

What is true of America generally is true of Jews particularly. Jewish organizations, however, have no national democratic elections to vote people in or out of office, so it will be harder for Jews to make the transition. Current leaders can stonewall and hold on for dear life while the next generation decides it is easier to contribute to causes outside the Jewish arena.

We cannot afford to let Gen X opt out. As Moses turned to Joshua when he turned 40, so must the boomers now transfer power to their children, even if they suspect they will disagree with what those children decide to do once they get it. Suspecting the next generation of naivete, stupidity, or worse is natural. Boomers in power today may recall that it took a revolution for them to be recognized by the establishment in the turbulent 1960s, when they were suspected of radicalism and even sedition. But they did pretty well. On their watch, we built UJA and Federations into massive agencies, saw Israel through the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars, saved Soviet Refuseniks, rescued Ethiopian Jews, and launched continuity efforts when the 1990 census showed Jewish numbers receding.

We cannot predict the challenges of the next twenty to forty years, but whatever they are, we know for sure that boomers won’t be around to handle them. It is time to empower the next forty-year old cohort to take its place in the long line of leaders who bring our People to greatness.

Extreme Makover – Synagogue Edition

Sunday, November 16th, 2008

Dr. Ron Wolfson

Synagogues looking to makeover the “atmosphere” of their sacred space would do well to take note of how The Gap recently transformed their stores from “institutional” to “homey.” In an effort to woo back customers, the retailer has devised a radical plan to remodel their outlets.

CEO Paul Pressler recognized that companies such as Starbucks and the Pottery Barn have created warm, comfortable places that people want to spend time in. The Pottery Barn stores look like home and Starbucks encourages customers to linger by providing music, entertainment and high-speed Internet access.

To accomplish this “makeover,” twenty senior Gap executives in three different teams traveled the world to learn “what everyone else was doing and really experience a lot of different customer experiences – and not just retail,” according to Christopher Hufnagel, the Vice President for Brand Store Experience. They visited places as diverse as retail stores, museums, and amusement parks. They took 4,000 photographs and recorded observations in journals. When the teams reconvened, they spent a week sifting through their findings, distilling the best suggestions into a one-page brief. This formed the basis for a detailed plan to remodel their places.

Among the best ideas: warmer lighting, upgraded display tables, better sound systems, and free bottles of water in fitting rooms. After noticing the enthusiasm and pride of a young tour guide at the Kennedy Space Center, the Gap put more emphasis on staff training: instead of pushing particular products, staffers are to spend more time asking customers about their needs (emphasis mine).

In researching my book, The Spirituality of Welcoming: How to Transform Your Congregation into a Sacred Community (Jewish Lights Publishing), I cite many ideas for improving the “atmosphere” of synagogues I have gleaned from noticing the “best practices” of organizations that interact with the public: better signage, color photographs of clergy and staff on a wall near the office, placing couches in the lobby, and offering a Starbucks-quality coffee bar.

Some synagogues have completed their “extreme makeover.” Ahavath Achim Congregation in Atlanta participated in our recent Synagogue 3000 Initiative there and decided to renovate a long, narrow and bland entryway to their mid-twentieth century building. Instead of a “bowling alley” effect, the entry now features a gorgeous “concierge” desk and a flat screen LCD television that flashes rotating images of congregants participating in all sorts of activities, color photographs of clergy and key staff, and notices of upcoming programs. Situated next to this desk is a “living room” with couches, coffee tables, Jewish periodicals and membership information. In the corner, guests and members discover “Café Schmooze,” offering excellent coffee, teas, and treats.

This renovation addressed one issue facing congregations seeking to create an “ambience of welcome” in the building. But, the lobby is only the first step into a sacred community. Many congregations are looking anew at their sanctuaries, offices, classrooms, and other facilities to upgrade them from dreary to delightful.

Moreover, the quality of the building is only one aspect of creating a welcoming community. Far more challenging is to improve the hachnasat orchim (hospitality) most guests experience when they meet our synagogue leaders and members. Is everyone in your congregation equipped to be a great greeter? Are the prayer experiences you offer welcoming to those with few or no “access skills” to the liturgy? Have you thought about how to deepen the relationships between members and the congregation, members and each other?

Embarking on a serious assessment of your building is one way to begin the “extreme makeover” of your congregation into a sacred community. The most important lesson is this: synagogue leaders rarely look at their sacred spaces with fresh eyes. Familiarity breeds myopia. Here"s a best practice idea from The Gap: form a team of people to visit the stores and public venues in your community. Visit other congregations – Jewish and Christian. Collect your photos and observations. Look at your building as if you are a first-time visitor. Then, make the changes that can transform your “institution” into a spiritual “home.”

Dr. Ron Wolfson is President of Synagogue 3000 and Fingerhut Professor of Education at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He is the author most recently of The Spirituality of Welcoming: How to Transform Your Congregation into a Sacred Community and God"s To-Do List: 103 Ways to Be an Angel and Do God"s Work on Earth (both Jewish Lights Publishing).

Independent minyanim growing rapidly, and the Jewish world is noticing

Saturday, November 15th, 2008

Althought S3K is out of the ’emergent’ business, our research into emerging (pardon the pun) Jewish community trends informs our current work with synagogues. Independent minyanim are one form of new community. What do you think?

By Ben Harris · November 11, 2008

WALTHAM, Mass. (JTA) — When Kehilat Hadar met for its first Shabbat morning service on Manhattan"s Upper West Side in 2001, about 60 people showed up, some of them spilling into the hallway at the apartment of Ethan Tucker, one of the minyan"s founders. Three weeks later the number had ballooned to more than 100.

“It was a wide range of people already there and I didn"t know half of them,” said Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, another of Hadar"s three founders. “That"s when I actually got a sense that this was bigger than just a couple of friends getting together.”

Seven years later, Hadar now attracts some 200 worshipers on a typical Shabbat and has a mailing list of about 2,500. More significantly, it has been joined by some 55 so-called independent minyanim across the country.

The Jewish institutional world is beginning to take notice.

On Monday, representatives of dozens of the minyanim met with academics and communal professionals at Brandeis University for the second independent minyanim conference. The meeting provided a chance to discuss the manifold ways these communities pose both a challenge and an opportunity for established Jewish organizations.

“I think ultimately there will be a necessary transformation in what American Judaism and what the institutions of American Jewish life look like in the 21st century,” said conference participant Felicia Herman, the executive director of Natan, a foundation that supports several emergent Jewish communities, including independent minyanim. “This is part of that reinvention. We"re helping to build a new infrastructure, but we have no idea what it"s going to look like.”

Though the minyanim by nature are independent of the mainstream institutions of Jewish religious life, their rapid growth has made them difficult to ignore. Typically they are lay-led communities with spirited prayer and an ability to attract the elusive cohort of 20- and 30-something Jews that the organized community has struggled to engage in Jewish life.

There appears to be widespread agreement that the minyanim provide an avenue of engagement for what sociologists increasingly describe as a new developmental stage: the post-college and pre-marriage period, when many young Jews often fall off the communal radar.

Hadar"s original Shabbat morning prayer community has spawned Mechon Hadar, an institute creating the first egalitarian yeshiva in the United States to train a corps of leaders for the minyanim, which require highly educated participants for their rabbi-less communities.

And while both Kaunfer and Tucker have recently received major grants from Jewish foundations, there has been some hesitation to fund minyanim that are seen as catering to a population that is highly educated and already relatively well-connected to Jewish life.

“We felt in the beginning that our added value in the field was focusing on unaffiliated jews,” Herman said. “That"s changing over time and we"ve become much more willing to consider organizations that are developing Jewish leaders and that are just giving all kinds of Jews creative new expressions for their Jewish identity.”

Most minyanim cluster around a point on the ideological spectrum between Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, finding a number of innovative ways to balance an egalitarian impulse with an otherwise traditional prayer service. Most members define themselves as nondenominational, according to survey results presented at the conference.

They also seem to reject what several participants refer to as a consumerist model of Judaism, where members pay dues to synagogues in exchange for services provided, in favor of a more participatory experience.

But in creating communities with no rabbinic leadership, and where participants are unlikely to affiliate in traditional ways—through synagogue membership, for instance, or by donating to federations—the minyanim pose particular challenges to existing communal structures.

Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, the dean of the Hebrew College rabbinical school and a longtime member of a Boston-area minyan, joked that by existing communal standards, she probably would be counted as an unaffiliated Jew.

“Significant numbers of Jews are rejecting a consumer model of Judaism and opting for a model where they see themselves as co-creators of Jewish life,” Cohen Anisfeld said. “In a culture of rampant commodification, this is an amazing achievement.”

The minyanim also pose significant challenges to the rabbinate. Most of the communities are led by extremely knowledgeable lay leaders who conduct services and deliver Torah commentaries, as well as carry out many of the functions typically performed by rabbis. Even those minyanim that might want a rabbi may find themselves rubbing up against institutions that limit the range of positions their rabbis can assume.

“Independence is not compatible with the protectionist guild system that has a stranglehold on the American rabbinate, and I would say on rabbinic creativity,” said Tucker, the Hadar co-founder.

Though Tucker, speaking in a session on minyanim and rabbinic authority, argued for changes to rabbinic roles and training, he and several others at the conference agreed that no long-term minyan model was viable without some rabbinic guidance.

In this respect, as in many others, the minyanim have looked for inspiration to the havurah movement, which saw the rise of similar lay-led and self-governed communities in the 1960s and 1970s. They were sort of a Jewish religious version of the larger countercultural movements of the time.

Rabbi Arthur Green, the rector of the Hebrew College rabbinical school and one of the founders of Havurat Shalom in Boston in the late 1960s, said during the closing plenary that a rabbi would have helped havurot avoid another pitfall that threatens the independent minyanim—the tendency toward cliquishness.

Green recalled how Havurat Shalom had twice rejected a candidate for membership who had all the qualifications, but was deemed to be a somewhat obnoxious personality who would not get on well with other members.

“That was one of my failures of leadership,” Green said. “Had I been the rabbi of that group I might have been able to say, ‘We stand for something. We"re not just here to satisfy ourselves, we"re not just here to have fun." I couldn"t do that because I was just one of the group. We didn"t believe in professional leadership.”

Though some of the independent communities are organized around a paid rabbinic leader, most are not, which makes a knowledgeable lay community integral to the continued growth of the minyanim.

“The No. 1 scarce resource for the minyanim is not dollars, it"s human capital,” said Kaunfer, now the executive director of Mechon Hadar. “What"s crucial about these communities, it"s not a single person who"s in charge. It"s not even five people. There"s a premium on having a wide variety of people running services, teaching, etc. The question is how do you develop that pipeline of participant leaders who can continue to work and grow communities.”


American Jews and the 2008 Presidential Election: As Democratic and Liberal as Ever?

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

“The long-standing identification of large numbers of American Jews with the Democratic Party and the liberal camp in American politics has been one of the most reliable features of national elections.” Is this still true or a stereotype. “The 2008 election again raises the question of how American Jews will vote – and why.” Steven Cohen and colleagues examine this question using empirical evidence gathered through a recent survey of American Jews. Read this BJPA (Berman Jewish Policy Archive) report

American Jews and the 2008 Presidential Election: As Democratic and Liberal as Ever?

Socialized through Gregarious 42