A Bit of Background
This post is inspired by my friend Rabbi Adam Raskin’s article “Ten Truths about Synagogue Life.” We are graduates of the same ordination class of rabbis from the same school. We have both been Conservative rabbis for 10 years.
I began my rabbinic career with two years as an Assistant Rabbi and Youth Director (at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC). I spent five years as a senior rabbi, much like my friend is now, (at Bet Torah in Mt. Kisco, NY). For the last three years and going forward, I am privileged to be a Senior Jewish Educator at the University of Delaware Kristol Hillel Center, through a grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation.
For a variety of reasons, I have spent significant time in each job exploring the needs and possibilities for Jews on the periphery of institutional Jewish life, especially synagogues. I have found that synagogue affiliation stands a strong marker at the outset of many Jews’ lives; it is where they celebrate b’nai mitzvah and get some kind of Jewish education. I have found that many Jews, even those currently uninvolved in synagogue life, envision themselves in a synagogue later in life. I work in between.
Here is what I have learned (the numbering is meant to mirror Rabbi Raskin’s as closely as possible):
Ten Truths about Life Between Synagogues
1. It’s the network, not the institution. The best title, the flashiest flyer, and the A-list speaker all mean nothing if no one in a group of friends care enough to invite his/her friends personally. Additionally, staff-driven project will stall without meaningful inclusion of either lay leaders or target audience members involvement. Buy-in comes from having a stake, not from being asked for an opinion. Our institutions matter less and less in our global and virtual society. The relationship of stakeholders (be they members, participants, users, leaders, funders, etc.) to each other and to the institution is the key to continuity. In our hearts, we know it is better for 30 families to be sharing Shabbat dinners together in the name of a community than to have 100 people at a Friday night service; we need to show it.
2. Engagement is not outreach. We need to go to where our constituents are. I remember Hillel piloting this methodology in the early 2000’s, and I see it working now. My greatest successes in my career have come from buying lunch at the local eatery for students in private schools nearby, from conducting classes in bookstores, from walking the drop-off line, and from sitting with students on Main St. between classes. I do not try to bring them in. I bring myself as an ear, listening for whatever teaching or institutional offering I might pass on to them. Most effectively, I show them what they can do for their friends and help them achieve it. We must build relationships of meaning to multiply our impact rather than sweating the length of a sign-in sheet.
3. Immersion Experiences are the most powerful Jewish learning moments. Jewish identity is strengthened most powerfully by experiences like Jewish summer camping or trips to Israel, like Taglit-Birthright. These examples are just two of an array of immersive environments of different lengths of time that last a lifetime. I submit that youth group involvement, particularly attending conventions; community service or alternative break trips; retreats; and the like all achieve what a family and/or a school alone cannot. Immersion experiences build positive Jewish memories, a sense of community, Jewish self-confidence, and lasting knowledge (to borrow language from Hillel). We need to see beyond any one option, so that we are sure to match our constituents with the experience that is most accessible and beneficial to them.
4. We need to teach more adult Torah. Conservative Judaism is, I believe, best suited to teach our texts in all their complexity. Once they get past the shock of how little they thought they knew, teenagers to empty-nesters devour material that asks something of them. There is no question that our very young children do not need to grapple with all of the family dysfunction in Genesis; but we dis-serve all, if we stop there. Thankfully, the Jewish world is producing options for adult and post-b’nai mitzvah learning (e.g., Melton, Me’ah, ConText, “adult ed,” Jewish Studies, Prozdor, Gratz, podcasts); we need more.
5. Rabbis need the skills and knowledge to stay current and speak with relevance. Once upon a time, American rabbis knew they needed to be able to talk baseball; the rule has not changed, just the content and the form. The world moves more quickly; our wisdom is ancient; and we need to match the two. The content of this match is a marriage of Jewish and American: if we hold both equally, we can lean to the side most needed by our constituents, as we hear them. The form of this match is, for now, all about social media fads and platforms; we need to be building community and conversation, not just posting sermons, articles, and aphorisms.
6. Mediocrity is miserable; quality counts. Regardless of whether it is true or false, our constituents feel like they are making a choice to spend time with us. If something we do, have, or provide is only so-so, they weigh the lost opportunity of whatever they imagine or really did choose us over. You might think I mean those snazzy flyers or Facebook graphics from #1 or maybe you think I mean the cookie platter or tuna salad. Those count, though not as much as the person in front. Lay leaders need to be prepared to run a good meeting; teachers need to be effective in the classroom; presenters need to capture the audience; and educators need to be nimble and knowledgeable. Time and incentives (salary, honor, or support) must be spent to show our best every time.
7. Peer-to-peer encounters have more meaning; we need to prepare and promote para-professionals.
Rabbis cannot be all things to all people. We can, however, enable those willing to spend quality time with us to represent us to their peers and to introduce us to a trusting network. Peer-to-peer teaching takes intentional effort to establish, and the return on investment is exponential. Independent minyanim recognized this reality early on and have found continuity in the training of others. My job as Senior Jewish Educator is predicated on this model. It works in Hillel and is working elsewhere. It is not a new idea; it is an idea whose time has come.
8. Doing does more for depth than reading or listening. We are the people who responded at Sinai by saying “we will do and we will listen.” From the Passover seder to lighting candles, we know that action embeds learning more deeply than reading. Even our traditional form of studying from books is active: partners read aloud to each other and engage in debate. Beyond the finite moments of immersive experiences, we must continue to foster experiential education. Social action calls out to Jews in between synagogues because it is values being lived. We can do and have begun to do the work of educating by experience. We need more now.
9. Liberal Judaism cannot cede the space between synagogues to the ultra-Orthodox. In between synagogues, there are too few models of religiously diverse Judaism. The Conservative Movement, in particular, ought to be spreading its big tent over these spaces in between. If we leave those who grow up in liberal Jewish synagogues with a choice between social programs and ultra-Orthodox observance, Judaism will become synonymous with the latter. We need role models of Judaisms that range in observance and hold fast in commitment. We need boots on the ground demonstrating our care for the souls, not just the identities and wallets, of our fellow Jews. We must be there for our own; in doing so, we will have the added impact of keeping the extremes honest.
10. No one does it alone; we succeed as team-players. Rabbis are not solo professionals. Even when I was solo clergy, I had able administrative staff and active lay leaders. My best moments happen when I am part of a team working in alignment to achieve our joint goals. The same is true in the larger community: when we work together, we create a feeling of inclusion that shrinks the space in between. On the rare occasion I serve as a rabbi-for-hire, I check with my colleagues to be sure I am part of a process, not of taking someone away, but of connecting someone to a future community. My real role in this between space is to be a part of the community, teaching at the JCC, visiting the day school, belonging to a synagogue, and bridging the social networks throughout my larger community. The more I play nice, the more good will all the leaders, institutions, and clergy garner. The more good will in our community, the smaller the space is between synagogues.