I recently had the privilege of listening to Professor Ron Wolfson give several talks to my community about his new book, Relational Judaism. Professor Wolfson’s thesis, as he explains here, is that Jewish institutions are failing us, and hemorrhaging affiliated members as a result, because they focus on “transactional Judaism” rather than he what terms “relational Judaism.” Transactional Judaism connotes a fee-for-service approach in which institutions offer programs, activities, services, and schools, in exchange for money. Instead, Wolfson argues that institutions and their leaders need to focus more time, energy, and financial resources on building face-to-face relationships, micro-communities, and programming with a relationship-generating component built in.
There is a lot of wisdom in Wolfson’s book, and I commend it as critical reading for all Jewish professionals, from rabbis to federation leaders to school principals. Making synagogues more welcoming of visitors, taking the time to meet parents of students or JCC members one on one, and cutting back on committee meetings will make Jewish institutions of all sizes and locations more vibrant and personal. But as I read through the case studies in his book, and heard him speak, I kept feeling a sense of disquieting disconnect: the Jewish world he describes in his book does not equate with the Jewish world I experience out in the hinterlands of Connecticut.
There are two different worlds of Judaism in America today. There are huge Jewish demographic presences in the big cities (New York, LA, D.C., Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Atlanta, Miami, and a few others) and their surrounding suburbs (the Valley, Westchester, areas in New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia), where the variety of religious expression and opportunity is incredibly rich, perhaps richer than ever before in the history of the Jewish Diaspora. Here, relational Judaism can be a huge benefit to large synagogues and other organizations that have lost their personal touch. Relational Judaism can serve as an effective way to re-vivify places that have grown cold, sterile, and indifferent. Larger federations can and should hire Jewish concierges to help steward new members of the Jewish community and existing members passing from one life stage to another (e.g. post Bar/Bat Mitzvah or new empty nesters) to various organizational presences and opportunities. Synagogues with multiple clergy should deploy them in more interactive ways, such as having a rabbi meet religious school parents in the parking lot to ameliorate the nefarious “drop off” effect or creating an alternative Friday night service in congregants’ homes.
But, as I told Professor Wolfson, I remain unconvinced that relational Judaism can work in small communities where resources are so scarce that institutions spend most of their time just trying to run basic programs and keep the lights on. On Shabbat morning, the rabbi of a small synagogue—who is the only clergy—cannot simultaneously greet people who come in during services and lead the congregation in prayers. When the religious school director is also a teacher, in order to make the budget work, he or she cannot both teach students and engage with parents post-drop off or pre-pick up. A federation that cannot sustain its local day school or JCC does not have the funds to hire a concierge, and communities here are so territorially sensitive that it is not clear a concierge could even work.
I should add at this point that I remain committed to the vision that relational Judaism espouses. To me, the issue of relational Judaism’s application to smaller Jewish communities leads directly the broader question of the future of these communities as presently constituted. I think we need to begin having far more candid conversations about merging older institutions and achieving economies of scale that enable the kind of vibrant, personal, creative Jewish expression that millennials—and many other Jews—crave. Where I live, there are four Conservative synagogues and two Reform synagogues within 20 minutes of one another. None have more than a few hundred members; some have far less. These synagogues are competing with one another for scarce members, replicating administrative and other staffing costs, and fragmenting rather than unifying the Jewish community. This is crazy! Imagine what kind of places they could be if they came together: imagine how spirited and uplifting services could be if several hundred people showed up each Shabbat, and how many opportunities there could be for multiple minyanim; imagine how many friendships could be created in a religious school with 100 students rather than 4 schools with 20-30 in each; imagine how large and effective a bikkur holim (visiting the sick) society could be established to reach out to those in need within our communities; and on and on.
As you probably know, this kind of community-wide view of local institutions is highly implausible today. Donors want the organizations they have supported to remain open in their current forms, even if doing so is short-sighted. What we truly need is the leadership and courage of our community leaders, in small Jewish communities across the country, to engage donors and other local decision-makers in the process of re-visioning the future of these communities. Perhaps through a relational approach–engaging these decision makers in one to one conversations and small group meetings–we can plant the seeds for the growth of relational Judaism in communities both large and small.