What Business Are We In?

Posted on March 25, 2015
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Ph.D.

Synagogues should be asking, “What business are we in?” That may seem obvious, but it isn’t, and most synagogue leaders get it wrong – with disastrous consequences.

The usual answers are things like Jewish education, Shabbat and holiday services, social action, or even all of the above, in the tried and true triad of religion: Torah (study) avodah (prayer) and g’milut chasadim (good deeds).

Religion may be what we do, however; it is not our business. The two are not the same.

The question arises compellingly in Peter Drucker’s 1954 classic, The Practice of Management. Drucker’s 1950s example is Cadillac. What it did was manufacture cars; its business, however, was not automobiles but status. Recognizing its business aright led to the realization that its competitors were not Chevrolet and Ford but high fashion and diamonds.

So what is the synagogue’s business?

During the years following World War II, we were in the continuity business. We had lost 6,000,000 and Israel was beleaguered. Challenged by anti-Semitism without and assimilation within, synagogues implicitly guaranteed Jewish continuity. So too did UJA and Federations, but explicitly, and when they proved better at raising huge sums of money to build up Israel and rescue Jews from the Soviet Union, they surpassed synagogues as the dominant Jewish organization. Wrongly so, synagogues complained, thinking the proper Jewish business was study, prayer and good deeds. Rightly so, said average Jews – whose passion was saving Jewish lives and who belonged to synagogues mostly to educate their children, another sign that what they wanted to invest in was continuity, not religion.

What made continuity our business was the fact that the customers (the rank and file Jews) wanted it enough to “buy” it. The business is not necessarily what the entrepreneurs running the show think it is. It is what the customers want. And from the 1950s to the 1990s, the fear of Jewish discontinuity was enough to galvanize the troops.

It isn’t any more, much as Jewish leaders may wish otherwise. Lots of Jews identify as Jews but not enough to insist on raising Jewish children, paying for Jewish education, supporting Jewish causes, and joining Jewish synagogues. Continuity is no longer a sufficient business to be in – not if we want to stay in business.

But neither is religion – not by itself, that is. Witness the Pew study where people increasingly say they are not religious, even though they may spiritual.

Still, religion deserves a closer look, not for what it is but for what it delivers. In the post War years, it succeeded as long as it delivered continuity. What does it (or can it) deliver now?

Religion was once what sociologist Peter Berger famously called the Sacred Canopy — the overarching reality that drove everything people did. To abandon your religion was to trade in the very essence of who you were. Not any more, however. A moment’s observation reveals that religion has become discretionary – what we do (if we wish) with our discretionary time, money and attention. I attend Sabbath services; you play golf; she gardens. I drop $3,000 as synagogue dues; you join the country club; he buys season tickets at the Met. I go to Torah study, you attend lectures on art; others take classes in American history.

Like it or not, that’s just the way it is.

But not all discretionary activity is of the same consequence to consumers. Movie-going on the odd Saturday night ranks lower than what we can call “committed pursuits,” the discretionary choices we make about matters of commitment. In the good old days when religion was a sacred canopy we knew who we were: we were Jewish or Lutheran, or Catholic or Episcopalian. Without a sacred canopy, it is not clear just what counts as our identity.

When the canopy first began to unravel (with the advent of modernity), people thought nationalism would take its place: and for many, it has. We pay taxes to, obey the laws of, and are most dependent on our countries. But the wars of the twentieth century showed us just how horribly, terribly, wrong nation states can become. “Moral man” is subject to “immoral society,” warned Reinhold Neibuhr way back in 1932. So as much as we may value national citizenship as primary, we hesitate to adopt as the deepest motto of our identity, “My country right or wrong.”

And, in any event, with the religious canopy gone, we have room for multiple identities, not just our nationality: I may be an American, a Jew, a professor, and a serious violinist; you may be an American and Jew, but also a feminist, judge, and artist. Whatever we say we “are” requires the committed allocation of discretionary time, money and attention.

Synagogues compete for these resources, the symbolic tokens of people’s inner identities. We are ultimately in the identity business. The Age of Continuity has become The Age of Fractured Identity.

A great deal follows, most particularly, how synagogues make themselves known to the world. Synagogues in the Age of Continuity advertised programs that would keep Jews Jewish: a better religious school, a guaranteed bar/bat mitzvah, or Sunday afternoon lectures on Israel. In the Age of Fractured Identity, these still matter, but for different reasons. If identity is the issue, we need most to demonstrate that we are a serious candidate for people’s deepest selves, their aspirations to matter, their pursuit for meaning, and their desire not to have lived and died in vain.

As it turns out, religion is profoundly (even uniquely) suited to this venture. That’s why synagogues matter more now than ever.

Synagogue 3000/Next Dor welcomes you to the website of resources developed during its twenty-year run as a catalyst for excellence in synagogue life. Beginning with the establishment of Synagogue 2000 in 1994, co-founded by Dr. Ron Wolfson of the American Jewish University and Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, S2K/S3K created graduate-level curricula for congregational teams interested in synagogue transformation, “S3K Reports” – action research accounts of promising trends in synagogue life, and a variety of other materials. All these are collected here, available free of charge, for professionals and lay leaders alike. These resources are now under the conservatorship of the Synagogue Studies Institute, Inc.

Here are links to the S2K curriculum introduction and S3K Reports. We also recommend five books that directly emanated from S3K’s work over the years:

Rethinking Synagogues – Lawrence A. Hoffman

The Spirituality of Welcoming – Ron Wolfson

Sacred Strategies – Aron, Cohen, Hoffman, et. al.

Relational Judaism – Ron Wolfson

Synagogues Matter – Aaron Spiegel

Thank you for your interest in our resources and best wishes for your work in building sacred communities. And join the conversation on

Rabbi Aaron Spiegel
President

Synagogue 3000 advisor and consultant Rabbi Rami Arian wrote this case study on Temple Micah and Next Dor DC for Faith Communities Today’s (FACT) 2012 annual meeting.

In the report, Arian gives a brief history of the Next Dor initiative at Micah and chronicles its evolution as a catalyst for young Jewish adult engagement as well as Next Dor‘s effect on Micah’s culture, membership, and future.

Download the report

Following the hacking of a number of synagogue websites, the ADL has prepared a document entitled, “Considerations for Digital and Online Security at Jewish Institutions.” The ADL also makes available an online security manual Protecting Your Jewish Institution

Download the document

MIAMI BEACH — Settling into their seats for Rosh Hashana service, the tribe rosh hashanahtwentysomethings instinctively reached for their cellphones to turn them off, anticipating an admonition they hear often at synagogue.

Then they looked up at the white screen behind the rabbi: Pray. Write. Text. And text they did for nearly 90 minutes, sending out regrets, goals, musings and blissful thoughts, all anonymously for everyone to see.

Learn how Next Dor pilot site Temple Sholom in Miami Beach is using texting as part of their Rosh Hashanah services to engage young Jews.

Synagogue 3000’s Synagogue Studies Institute in collaboration with the Berman Jewish Policy Archive and North American Jewish Data Bank is proud to release the report, Conservative & Reform Congregations in the United States: The FACT-Synagogue 3000 Survey, 2010

bjpaMany have already seen Reform and Conservative Congregations: Different Strengths, Different Challenges. This is the full survey data that informed the first report.

Contrary to the impression that denomination no longer matters, this jdbresearch underscores the many ways in which Conservative and Reform congregations differ. Those difference include:

  • average size – there are more large Reform congregations
  • location – more Conservative congregations are in the northeast
  • worship attendance – per capita, Conservative congregations report higher attendance and religious practice
  • worship variety – Reform congregations report more variety, music, and excitement
  • plus information on empty sanctuaries, morale, and finances


The report confirms that U.S. Jewish congregational life is showing signs of stagnation, with few young adults, many older members and more than adequate sanctuary space. The survey, which included responses from leaders in 1,215 synagogues, offers the most comprehensive view of Reform and Conservative movement congregations to date. Conducted by sociologist Steven M. Cohen for the Synagogue Studies Institute of Synagogue 3000, the survey is part of the larger Faith Communities Today (FACT), a national data set of American religious congregations.

Synagogue 3000 is the Jewish research voice in the Cooperative Congregations Studies Partnership, which conducts the semiannual Faith Communities Today (FACT) study, the largest survey of American congregations.In the 2010 FACT survey, S3K did its own oversample of American synagogues. While much has been said about synagogue shrinkage, until now these statements were anecdotal.

Download the full report at http://synagogue3000.org/sites/default/files/Findings from FACTSurvey.pdf

U.S. Jewish congregational life is showing signs of stagnation, with few young adults, many older members and more than adequate sanctuary space, according to a new survey of Jewish congregational life. The survey, which included responses from leaders in 1,215 synagogues, offers the most comprehensive view of Reform and Conservative movement congregations to date. Conducted by sociologist Steven M. Cohen for the Synagogue Studies Institute of Synagogue 3000, the survey is part of the larger Faith Communities Today (FACT), a national data set of American religious congregations.

Synagogue 3000 is the Jewish research voice in the Cooperative Congregations Studies Partnership, which conducts the semiannual Faith Communities Today (FACT) study, the largest survey of American congregations.In the 2010 FACT survey, S3K did its own oversample of American synagogues. While much has been said about synagogue shrinkage, until now these statements were anecdotal.

Download the full report

Passover 5771 may be past, but its lessons return in last week’s parashah (B’ha’alot’kha). Of all our holidays, Passover ranks supreme in that we were delivered from Egypt specifically with Passover in mind. Whatever else we do as Jews follows from this singular event in our past. In Temple days, therefore, the Passover sacrifice was the sole calendrical obligation whose purposeful neglect merited a form of capital punishment called karet – the divine sentence of being “cut off” from family ties after we die.

That point is moot now that the sacrificial cult is gone, but the Talmudic debate on it remains instructive.

Although everyone was supposed to offer the Passover sacrifice, not everyone could – hence the stipulation “purposeful (!)” neglect. Among the circumstances that exempted a person from offering it was being “a long way away” (derekh r’chokah),” too far distant to get to the Temple on time.

But what counts as “a long way away”? How long is “long”?

The Mishnah provides two views: either as far away from Jerusalem as the city of Modi’in with not enough time to make the journey by Passover; or at the very entrance to the Temple, but not yet inside it. The first is logical; the second is not. If the individual is already just outside, asks the Gemara, why don’t we say “Come in!” and expect the person to cross the threshold or suffer the punitive consequences?

At this point, the appearance of the word “long” (r’chokah) in the Torah becomes relevant. In antiquity, and all the way through the Middle Ages, there was no way for a scribe writing with indelible ink on parchment to erase an error. A common convention for noting the mistake was to add a dot or other superlinear mark above the mistaken letter. Now it happens that the Masoretic text (the way the Torah is pointed) displays the word “long” (r’chokah) with a dot over the final heh. The Yerushalmi, therefore, considers the possibility of treating the heh as a mistake, thus reading the word as rachok, the masculine equivalent of r’chokah. Read as a masculine adjective, it can no longer modify the noun “way.” It must, therefore, modify the only other noun in question, not the “journey” that the individual is on, but the “individual” who is on the journey! The Yerushalmi’s conclusion is profound. “It is the person who is distant, not the way.”

Now we understand the Mishnah’s second interpretation. We do not say to those standing right outside the door, “Just come in!” because it would sound more like a threat than an invitation, the assumption being that if they refuse, they will be punished by karet. In actuality, however, they are not sinners; they are just too alienated to take the final step inside. The gemara describes them as “able to do the sacrifice but not doing it” – not out of ill will but (in Maharam’s words) “because of some impediment” that gets in the way.

This rabbinic reading of halakhah effectively removes the punishment of karet altogether, since anyone can claim “some impediment” that gets in the way. Anyone at all can thereby opt instead to keep the second Passover one month later. But the second Passover (unlike the first) is optional. So even if the individual misses the second Passover too, no punishment results.

By analogy, we may say that today, the obligation to hold or attend a seder is absolute – the single most telling expression of identification as a Jew. But Jews who do not keep it should be understood as suffering from “some impediment” that psychologically distances them from their people, not as sinners who deserve our scorn.

If that is true of the seder, which most Jews love attending and for which so many opportunities exist, all the more so is it true of the rest of Jewish life. Take Jews who belong to no synagogue, even though we reach out and say, “Come in.” We should be that welcoming, and many of us are, but when they fail to take us up on our offer, we become defensive and blame them instead of seeing, as the gemara does, that even though they are at our doorstep, they may still be a long distance off.

The most important lesson here is to drop our self-righteousness and keep the door open. Jews with complex relationships to Judaism deserve our support as they figure things out. Passover will come round next year and who knows? Maybe if we are patient, their psychological distance may lessen and they will come in then.

Between the fall of 2009 and the summer of 2010, Synagogue 3000’s Next Dor initiative inaugurated four experiments in engaging congregationally unaffiliated adults Jews in their 20s and 30s. They were set in widely scattered locations across the United States (Washington, DC; St. Louis; Marin County, CA; and Miami Beach). All four adhered to the Next Dor philosophy of providing relational engagement rather than just a series of unrelated programs; but they differed significantly from one another. This report briefly follows each one’s trajectory. It analyzes the demographic characteristics of each site’s appeal, demonstrates significant Jewish growth in all four instances, and urges an expansion of the relational approach as a successful means of long-term engagement.

Download the full report