Synagogue Transformation Revisited and some thoughts on “k’dushah”

Richard A. Marker

December 2002

Three years ago, I penned an article for Sh’ma calling for the transformation of the synagogue as we have known it in post-War [WWII, that is] America. The article posited the impossibility of any one synagogue effectively delivering service in all of the areas it arrogates to itself. By attempting to do so, I argued, mediocrity is virtually guaranteed.

I also challenged the idea of the “destination” synagogue edifice to which people went on special occasions, but which is physically, and thus psychologically and spiritually, removed from the daily life of most members.

At the time the article was published, the proposal which inspired the greatest animus and confusion was the suggestion that synagogues should be located in malls. This and other “out of the box” proposals received a brief flurry of public attention from synagogues and federations – some affirmed the ideas, others challenged them. But my 15 minutes of fame passed as others added their own proposals on synagogue transformation and renewal.

However, at the recent General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities in Philadelphia, several people told me how that article had influenced their own thinking. I discovered that the ideas in the article “have legs.” So, I have decided to articulate how my thinking about the synagogue and rabbis has further evolved.

This is an opportune moment to clarify my bona fides. While my own rabbinic career has never included a pulpit [except for High Holiday and scholar-in-residence assignments], I have been extensively involved with synagogues. I served for a decade as the [lay] vice president of one, have visited and spoken at synagogues throughout the USA and in many countries throughout the world, and today regularly daven at several. And, while I have my theological and stylistic preferences, I am eclectic enough to attend those representing all of the streams.

It is also an opportune moment to acknowledge that over the last few years a growing number of synagogues have begun to address some of their own shortcomings – particularly in the area of liturgy. The hard work of groups such as Synagogue 2000, the selective prodding of the STAR consortium, the productive work of ECE and several local initiatives has begun to take hold. Experiments in family education have begun to be more widespread, changing the nature of how families experience the synagogue. Openness to more “spiritually sensitive” music and prayer experience is visible across the denominational spectrum. More synagogues have “welcome brochures” or “greeters.” It is more common to find multiple prayer options. More synagogues are asking how their own can be better.

Three years after the previous article appeared, a yasher koach and kol hakavod is due for for the many innovations and greater openness which have happened since.

However, the basic premises of my article still apply. The ideas I presented address an underlying set of questions that these initiatives have only skirted.

Moreover, resistance to change remains very real. My experience in speaking about this topic has been instructive. Not uncommonly, the response of synagogue audiences has been: “you are so correct, but not here!” I learned that every place, those which are objectively thriving and those which are not, has devotees for whom the status quo is satisfying. It is only fair to find ways to legitimate those who are satisfied even as one pushes for radical changes. And there are many rabbis who look at their own full schedules as ask “what more can I do?” So if one is an advocate for a restructured synagogue, it is only fair to address these underlying issues.

The Overworked And Lonely Rabbi

In a series of focus groups throughout the country conducted by STAR in its formative year, several concerns were repeated by rabbis of every stripe and affiliation. They decried that they were overworked, underappreciated, and were expected to do too many things. Some of these rabbis are extraordinarily talented and creative; some are charismatic and founders of wonderful synagogues; some work in large multi-staffed institutions, others in smaller communities or synagogues; no matter – the plaint was consistent. It is not to be dismissed lightly.

The complaint of many rabbis, that they are overworked, does not play well with lay people. This is not because rabbis don’t work hard but because so do the lay people. Most people work 10-20 hours more each week than they did 15 years ago, and they also volunteer at their synagogue and elsewhere during the shrinking disposable time that they have left.

It is a terrible indictment of American society that we celebrate “24/7” and that we brag about our not taking our due vacations Most Rabbis do work hard and long but they are respectably well paid professionals facing similar pressures to those facing their congregants. And, in fact, many rabbis have far more discretion over their own time than do those who are employees in the business world. It is more than appropriate for synagogues, through rabbinic leadership, to address lifestyle issues – for rabbis and for their congregants – and to explore ways to ameliorate the pressures which emerge from them. But it is not convincing to focus on the amount of work.

A more real and important challenge is the absence of priorities and clarity of vision for the congregational rabbinate. It is simply unreasonable to assume that any professional can do everything well. Some rabbis may be great teachers; others are inspiring preachers; still others are caring counselors; and still others excel at community building. What rabbis and synagogues must accept is their own limitations. If no one rabbi can do everything well, what other ways or resources exist to make sure that the rest is done well? For example, bikur cholim [visiting the ill] is not a commandment only for rabbis; it is for all. Teaching and leading teens is a rare and precious skill, not necessarily one learned or taught at Seminaries. Many congregations are blessed with highly educated congregants whose Jewish knowledge and speaking skills may exceed that of a particular rabbi who, in turn, may be unmatched in his/her community- building and community relations acumen.

When we begin to unpack the expectation that one person can be all and do all, we can move to clarity of mutual expectation. It is a sobering but ultimately liberating exercise for both sides; both rabbis and congregations will be the stronger for addressing this dilemma.

Which leads to a more structural issue, the issue of rabbinic loneliness. I have often wondered why rabbis should be expected to have their offices within the synagogue. An office within a synagogue surely emphasizes the rabbinic centrality to that place but it underscores their aloneness. Why don’t we have rabbinic suites for rabbis from several synagogues, perhaps with other professionals? These suites could be in centrally located business or shopping areas, making them more easily accessible to most congregants. For the congregant, it would probably make consulting with the rabbi a more convenient and less symbolically loaded experience.

As most other professionals know, working in an office with peers has many benefits. It can help remove the sense of isolation. Not incidentally, this new collegial relationship can help keep rabbis informed about innovations, the strengths and insights of colleagues, and might well lead to new kinds of collaborations. Rabbis and their synagogues would be the better. And while some might worry that this would have a negative impact on the unique and special relationship between rabbis and congregants, I believe that this greater accessibility would enhance that bond.

My suggestion stems from observations of other professionals and from my own experience. Early in my career, I worked on campuses for 14 years. I made it a point to maintain an office with the other chaplains as well as one at Hillel. Even though it was a mere two short blocks between the two, it was miles in terms of approachability. Over the years, literally hundreds of students and faculty found their way to the chaplains’ offices, in the center of campus. Right or wrong, many were reluctant or too intimidated to seek me out in the confines of what was even then a very active and thriving Hillel House. And I benefited from the daily contact with other professionals who had comparable responsibilities but different skills and personalities from my own.

The Overstretched Synagogue

If it is true that rabbis cannot do everything well, why might we think that synagogues can? While I addressed this issue in the previous article, it has proven to be remarkably difficult to redress. Synagogues, in an attempt to be full service institutions, too often settle for mediocrity in much of what they do.

I can illustrate with one example [of many]: When I spoke at a synagogue one Sunday morning, the rabbi took me on a tour. The most crowded room was dedicated to a family education experiment. The synagogue had been able to locate a superb educator and quickly that program had become far more impactful and popular than the rest of the supplementary education program. The rabbi told me, though, that the educator was leaving after that year and the program would probably end, despite its success, because of the difficulty of finding a well trained successor.

He was correct, of course. The right educator makes all the difference. But he was wrong. Why should his synagogue compete with all the many others in his area to find such an educator? Just imagine if the resources of that synagogue were combined with those of the others within striking distance to find the right educators and to develop an educational program of excellence which would serve all of them. Unfortunately, many believe that every synagogue should be both full service and self contained. This rarely works. It is rare indeed that a synagogue has the requisite financial resources and access to the human resources to be able to achieve excellence in every area.

Toward A Decentralized Synagogue

The most controversial comment in the earlier piece was the proposal that synagogues should be located in malls [or like places] which are a part of the everyday life of Jewish people. The objections suggested that the synagogue should indeed be seen as “other” than the place of commerce and business, and should be an oasis of spirituality and values. It therefore benefits from being removed from all daily temptations and experiences.

It is my view that this is argument is at odds with the historic role and locus of the synagogue. Until the advent of the automobile and the resulting suburban culture, synagogues were not destinations away from the hustle bustle of life but were typically at its center. Implicitly, the location of a synagogue communicates a message about where it fits in people’s lives. When a synagogue is at a remove from the places where we live, it suggests that it is a place for refuge and meaning away from the shallowness of daily life. Or probably more typically, a place to visit only on special occasions.

When a synagogue is not at the periphery but rather at the center, convenient and proximate to where one goes to the bank or dry cleaner or bakery or work, it suggests that the synagogue, and by extension, Judaism, is a part of normal daily existence.

The obvious reality is that synagogues are committed to their current real estate. No one can reasonably suggest that these millions and millions of dollars worth of facilities close and relocate. But just imagine how many more people might stop in to study or pray or who knows what if there were store front branches of synagogues in malls or in town centers. The phenomenon of downtown luncheon study groups in law or business offices is now quite pervasive throughout the country. All of us recognize that this “outreach” technique works. Bringing Judaism to where people are does not mean that one is compromising Judaism. I simply propose to carry this proven method one step further.

And, I believe it will help the synagogue regain its more historically authentic role and function.

Synagogue Funding

The STAR focus groups also revealed that synagogue leaders feel financially trapped and strapped. Many rabbis and lay leaders argue that they are committed to new visions of their own synagogue, acknowledge that the majority of their membership [to say nothing of the majority of American Jews who are unaffiliated at any one time] are not being served, and would welcome innovations which would inspire, engage, and educate. The limitation is money.

There is much to be said and written about this question, but the underlying issue is that synagogues are now like private clubs. Their membership determines what they do, how much they will pay, and what services they will provide. Far too many exist on the backs of their supplementary schools, culminating in bar/bat mitzvah. I address this question below, but this financial dependence overwhelms any objective planning.

It is time to deconstruct the funding question as well. We must revisit the question of the synagogue as a membership organization. Perhaps synagogues should be viewed as one of the panoply of Jewish institutions which are under the auspices of a central funding and planning body. This would allow numerous new possibilities which are quite difficult in the current funding structure.

Community wide membership, applicable to any of the synagogues.

Community wide educational offerings [with tracks to accommodate denominational demands]

Facility planning in coordination with other institutions in the community – to ensure that there is some relationship of space to real need

Various service and prayer offerings which transcend the approach or style of any one synagogue

Efficiencies of “back-office” services such as data base management, purchasing, etc.

It is my belief that the gross national synagogue budget is probably adequate to serve the needs, but that the tradition of the fully independent synagogue [based on the Protestant Free Church tradition] means dollars are not as effectively used as they might be. Obviously this approach might have tradeoffs of autonomy but could pay for itself in increased quality and innovation. And more coordinated planning might well engage more of those for whom the current synagogue is simply too intimidating or alienating.

In proposing this neo-kehillah model, I do so with caution. Centralized planning can squelch creativity and innovation. One would not want to lose the entrepreneurial spirit which leads to experimentation of size, structure, or style. Most innovation emerges outside the mainstream, becomes successful or fails, and then is co-opted or adapted. A centralized membership and planning model must account for and even encourage these ventures.

But such a model would go a long way to address an endemic problem – that every synagogue now feels that it must now turn beyond its membership to raise funds to do its work. There is something wrong if the basic organizational model of this crucial institution cannot pay for itself. Having headed a foundation committed to the renaissance of Jewish life, I can attest to the number of synagogues which have tried to obtain funding for their “unique” funding problem. But foundations view synagogues as local, so all such proposals are rejected. The more proposals I read, the more convinced I became that the model itself needs to change.

Perhaps there is another funding model besides the neo-kehillah model which I propose. But one thing is certain – the current model is not up to the task at hand and requires a radical re-think, not simply tampering.

Bar/Bat Mitzvah

For many years, there have been those who have raised the issue of the role of the bar/bat mitzvah in the American synagogue; yet it continues to be an abiding question of what the synagogue should be. It is so central that it must be addressed. For too many synagogues, it is the tail wagging the dog. It is time to find ways to put the bar/bat mitzvah back in a healthy and appropriate context – for the benefit of synagogues, the families, and the Jewish people.

Even after all these years, if one visits many synagogues, one comes away feeling that the real reason for a Shabbat service is the bar/bat mitzvah. Others [non-guest daveners] who may be there seem incidental. The dominance of the bar/bat mitzvah surely must limit a synagogue’s flexibility in thinking through the Shabbat experience to say nothing of the disenfranchisement of the regular members. And while these rites of passage can be beautifully done, it does not seem the ideal way to build community.

The bar/bat mitzvah is still perceived as graduation from Jewish education for too many. There must be a way to transform that graduation into a commencement – the beginning of adult learning, not the end of marginal Jewish education. There are some intriguing initiatives to address this: One impressive example is the B’nai Tzedek program, conceived by Harold Grinspoon, which provides a small philanthropic endowment for B’nai mitzvah – to learn that with maturity comes responsibility and the honor of giving. This program now exists in 20-30 communities throughout the USA, with very positive results. Another program, about which I have just learned, is in connection with MAZON. I am quite sure that there are other initiatives with equal promise.

There must be concomitant community wide reshuffling of priorities for Jewish education subsidies. If adolescence is the time when young people are most influenced by peers and are learning to make social choices which may last into adulthood, why are we not providing major incentives to engage that population? It is clear that we have it backwards – at the time when the major influence is the home, we send them to supplementary or day school; at the time when they are influenced by peers, we let them opt out.

The bar/bat mitzvah must, therefore, be reconfigured to play a different role in the life of the family, the life of the synagogue, and the life of the individual. Any real change will require a major national commitment so that many synagogues opt in. Therefore, while I am not typically a proponent of national conferences to solve problems, in this case I feel that a trans-denominational conference committed to the question of rethinking the bar/bat mitzvah experience may be the only way that individual synagogues can be empowered in their commitment to explore changes in their own practices.

Some Concluding Thoughts On K’dushah

K’dushah – holiness or sanctity – is the goal of the Jewish tradition. The Jewish people are a “holy nation;” “you shall be holy;” much of Torah and rabbinic literature is an extended mandate to imbue one’s life and the life of the Jewish people with sanctity. What might this mean in the context of our topic?

The word itself suggests a legitimate tension: The root meaning is “to separate.” Therefore one might argue that the way to achieve k’dushah is to separate oneself from the secular. The ideal is to live at a remove from the everyday, the secular, the unholy and impure. Synagogues and rabbis must make sure that the experience of the synagogue elevates us and reminds us that there is a higher meaning and more holy life than that which occupies the everyday. The very physical experience of the synagogue, to say nothing of the spiritual one, should help elevate one’s sense of purpose.

For this reason, the professionals who work in the synagogue are affectionately referred to as klai kodesh, vessels of holiness. The rabbi and shaliach tzibbur/cantor play an indispensable role in achieving this desired higher state. They are indeed vessels, carrying the communal spirit, conveying communal longing, bearing the communal leadership – through their voices, their words, their actions, and their teachings. The congregants, indeed the Jewish people, need their religious leaders to symbolize the holiness to which we all aspire.

There is, though, another way to understand the mandate to be a holy people and to pursue sanctity. It is to bring sanctity, meaning, and holiness into the everyday. In this view, the challenge is not to reject olam hazeh, this world, but to make it a more holy place. There is nothing inherently tainted about the everyday – it is normal, neutral, awaiting value. The Talmud and Jewish Law tell us that the rules of how one does shopping are to imbue that most necessary societal behavior with a sense of ethics and meaning. Human beings are in the image of their Creator; their actions should reflect that. Money is collected in the synagogue, twice daily [during the services!] and then immediately given to people who will return to the street to live on that money. There is no separation between the immanence of the holy and the immediacy of human need.

I ascribe to this second view – that the Jewish world-view is that sanctity is “not in heaven,” but it is in fact in the hands of all of us. And thus it is incumbent upon the Jewish institution that represents the chain of the Jewish tradition, the synagogue, to demonstrate that. Sanctity must not be reserved to the synagogue any more than it is restricted to moments of prayer. The message of the synagogue must be in homes, and streets, and offices, and shops. There must be an integration of values and a transcendence of space so that all of human endeavors reflect the pursuit of sanctity. When lives are so compartmentalized that holiness is seen as limited to the moments when one is in the “holy place” in the presence of “holy vessels” then Judaism and the Jewish people are the lesser.

That is why I am such an advocate for the conceptual deconstruction and decentralization of what happens in the modern synagogue. The synagogue is a primary transmitter of values and teaching; the synagogue is a primary locus of spiritual pursuits; the synagogue is a primary institution for community building; the synagogue is a primary institution for conveying Torah and the Jewish Tradition. But it is not the only place for any of these, and when the synagogue becomes the destination and not the source, it limits its own effectiveness and deprives the Jewish people of the true meaning for which it stands. Let k’dushah flow forth from the pews and the pulpits – and let it flow to the streets and the dining rooms and the board rooms and the chat rooms and the fitting rooms of our lives. Only when the synagogue is a part of our lives, physically and metaphorically, will it achieve its true purpose.

Richard A. Marker has been an academic, a consultant, an executive of a philanthropic foundation, and had various executive roles in the not-for-profit world. He has lectured in 21 countries and throughout the United States, primarily on issues of Jewish renaissance. Currently he serves as a philanthropic advisor to several foundations and teaches philanthropy at NYU.