What does the synagogue of the future look like? Today synagogue affiliation rates are dropping, as are affiliation rates across all religious denominations in America. This fact combined with the current economic climate is causing many synagogues to close or merge. Rabbis and lay leaders across the country are trying to reinvigorate their synagogues and attract new members. Much of the conversation focuses on the rabbi. What skills do rabbis need today to lead a successful synagogue? How do rabbis acquire those skills? What new roles can rabbis find outside of the synagogue walls?
Hayim Herring’s new book Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today strives to answer these questions. Rabbi Herring does an admiral job of describing the changing context of American synagogue life and exploring the issues synagogues must look at to strengthen their core functioning. He advocates using social networking and collaborative programs to increase a congregation’s reach. His assessment of how to create a strong organizational system is right on target. He then goes on to address the question of the rabbi.
Here, I think Rabbi Herring gets a lot right, but also makes a few missteps. I agree whole heartedly with his assertion that rabbis today need to be passionate leaders who can speak to the issues of the day and enhance our understanding of our world by using Jewish wisdom. I also agree that today’s rabbis need to be entrepreneurs. The Rabbis Without Borders program, which I direct, focuses on giving rabbis the skills they need to be entrepreneurs. We need rabbis who are thinking out of the box and using Torah in new and creative ways which will help people make meaning in their lives. I was turning each page of the book, saying to myself, “yes, yes, you got it right,” I then hit a page which surprised me.
The heading on this page is “Reducing Some Current Rabbinic Roles.” The first role listed is: pastoral counseling. What? I was so shocked I had to stop reading for a few minutes to absorb the thought. Rabbis should do less pastoral counseling? Rabbi Herring writes, “This is one area where they can scale back. Rabbis can partner with Jewish Family Service (JFS) counseling staff or develop a “train the trainer” approach, and train Jewish metal health professionals to provide a Jewish spiritual dimension to their counseling.”
I must respectfully disagree with Rabbi Herring on this point. Not all rabbis have a talent for pastoral counseling, and those who do not, are well advised to refer people elsewhere. However, pastoral counseling is an incredibly strong tool for a rabbi to use in making a significant impact in both an individual and a communities life. I experienced this first hand when I was the Director of the MetroWest Jewish Health and Healing Center in West Orange NJ. The program was a join program between the JCC, JFS, and local chaplaincy group. In my role, I was available for pastoral counseling for the community at large. After introducing myself to the area rabbis, and leading a few workshops with the social workers at JFS so that they could understand my role and how it differed from theirs, I expected referrals to start coming in, which they did. Social workers are not trained to handle spiritual matters. In fact they are advised to steer clear of them. Even after conducting in service trainings with them, most of the JFS social workers were uncomfortable adding a spiritual assessment to their intake or addressing spiritual issues in their session. Several started referring clients to me for counseling. Together we were able to serve many individuals and help them work though mental and spiritual issues. In addition, rabbis, who did not feel comfortable counseling also, referred their congregants to me. My partnership with the area rabbis also worked well. I could serve their congregants needs, but not steal them away since I did not lead my own congregation.
But the greatest surprise came from the number of unaffiliated people who called me for counseling. A good 80%-90% of the people I saw for counseling were unaffiliated Jews. These were people who needed to a rabbi about an issue which brings up spiritual questions like bereavement or illness and had nowhere else to turn. Because I was based in a JCC, and not a synagogue I was easily accessible. Once I met with someone a whole host of questions and needs would be presented. I was able to skillfully introduce people to Jewish prayers, texts, stories, and meditations which could help them. Clients were amazed that Judaism had so much to offer. And in many cases, after meeting with me they expressed a desire to learn more and be connected to the community. I was then able to match them up with synagogue communities, or other leaning opportunities.
Pastoral counseling is a means to growing the larger Jewish community. There are some questions about the meaning of life and death which cannot be found through a Google search. Pastoral counseling is a unique skill and training which some rabbis and other clergy possess which is markedly different from what a mental health professional can offer. Rather than dismissing pastoral counseling as a skill rabbis can do without, I would instead argue that rabbis should receive better training in pastoral counseling and chaplaincy. When a rabbi is able to connect with an individual at a time of need, then that individual will have an emotional connection to that rabbi and by extension the Jewish community which will last a lifetime. We need to find entrepreneurial ways for rabbis to offer more pastoral counseling not less.
When I was in rabbinical school in the mid to late 1990s the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical School, did not knowingly admit or ordain gay or lesbian rabbis. I say “knowingly” because there were some students in the closet. Being a supporter of gay ordination, I did everything I could to try to move the process forward.
I will never forget the day that myself and another student met with the then Chancellor Ismar Schorsch. The two of us began to passionately speak about the Jewish values which informed our belief that gays and lesbians should be ordained. After only a few sentences had left our mouths, the Chancellor interrupted and said, “Let me stop you there. Gays and Lesbians will not be ordained at JTS while I am still Chancellor. It is not going to happen.” Then, he escorted us out of his office.
The experience left me a little shaken and very sad. I could not believe that he would not even listen to us. He had no interest in even discussing the topic. None! I hated that I was attending a school which did not uphold one of my core values. The Bible tells us time and again “Welcome the strangers in your midst because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” I hold the value of welcoming, inclusivity and acceptance as one of the highest Jewish values. As a Jew growing up in Austin, Texas, I often felt like a stranger. As a woman studying to be a rabbi, I often felt like a stranger. I think most people feel like a stranger at some point in their lives. In my mind a Judaism that is not open, welcoming and accepting is not a Judaism that I want to practice.
Chancellor Schorsch retired in 2006. One year later, The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) voted to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis. I was thrilled and excited by this change. Aaron Weininger, a Rabbi Without Borders Student Fellow, became the first openly gay student admitted to The Seminary. And last year Rachel Isaacs became the first out lesbian to be ordained by JTS. (She transferred in to JTS and graduated a year ahead of Aaron who will be ordained this May.)
While I celebrated this progress, I heard from rabbinical school students that The Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies in Israel, the Conservative Movements Rabbinical School in Israel would not admit gay students. This posed a problem since all JTS students are required to spend a year studying at The Schechter Institute as part of their rabbinical school training. The gay and lesbian students were again being made to feel like strangers, unwelcome in the Movement and Institutions they wanted to study in. Gay and lesbian JTS students had to find somewhere else to study for their year in Israel. To my mind, this was an unacceptable situation. I lamented the fact that while admitting gay student JTS did not seem to be capable of thinking through all of the various needs of these students and could not find ways to support them.
Then, just last week, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, The Schechter Institute board voted to admit gay and lesbian students. The significance of this decision coming in Holocaust Remembrance Day cannot be understated. Both Jews and homosexuals were singled out by Hitler to be exterminated. Jews wore a yellow star while homosexuals were forced to wear a pink triangle. Gay Jews were of course twice cursed. I would like to think that the vote of the Schechter board, coming on the day it did, was an acknowledgement that past discrimination against homosexual students was wrong. I would like to think that Jews, gays, women, and other minorities are all in the same boat. We must look out for one another, support one another, and advance each other’s goals. To do any less would be an abdication of our responsibility as Jews.
While this decision is momentous, I know that the fight for full acceptance of gay rabbis is not over. Many synagogues will not hire a gay rabbi and some other rabbis will not accept gay rabbis as equal colleagues. Women rabbis still face this issue and JTS began ordaining women over twenty five years ago!
I strongly believe that the Conservative Movement needs to stand behind each and every rabbi they ordain. The Movement has a responsibility to these rabbis to support them in their job searches and career growth. Lay leaders and Jewish professionals across the country need to have conversations about diversity and acceptance. If we cannot practice this in our own intuitions how are we to promote acceptance of difference, particularly religious difference, with a clear conscience. How can we fight against anti Semitism the world over if we do not accept the minorities within our own communities?
“Never Forget!” is said each and every year on Holocaust Remembrance Day. We must remember those who died due to discrimination and prejudice and we must make sure that we ourselves do not employ discriminatory practices. Each one of us was created in the image of God. We are all holy beings no matter the color of our skin, our gender, or who we love. God loves each one of us and we need to love ourselves.
Yashar Koach (Right on!) to the Schechter Institute for making this decision. Let’s continue to support each individual who wants to study, teach and lead the Jewish people.
I was recently in an awkward social situation. My husband and I were invited to dinner at the home of friends along with third couple whom we didn’t know. As introductions began, I asked the new acquaintances where they live. I mentioned that I know their town pretty well. “How?” they wondered. I explained that many members of our synagogue live in that town. They asked which synagogue we were from and that launched them into a long discussion of their experience in synagogue life. I assumed from this conversation that they knew that I am a rabbi, but soon learned that I was wrong.
The couple shared lots of reactions to things their rabbi and cantor (but mostly the rabbi) had recently done, and their critique was expansive. It wasn’t an angry conversation, but more like banter about their disagreements with their clergy. I mostly listened, but when the reflections circled back to one particular grievance regarding a change in the synagogue worship, I said that surely that change had been vetted with the leadership and the board (meaning –it is not only the rabbi’s responsibility.) Our dinner companion then turned to me and said, “What…. are you a synagogue president or something?” I said, “No, I’m a rabbi.”
This created some confused and embarrassed sputtering and apologies for gossiping about rabbis. I diffused it quickly by telling them I was amused by the conversation, even as I wondered to myself what my congregants would be saying about what I had done that day as they sat at dinner parties. I laughed it off and the subject was quickly changed (for a while at least, until the “Well, you’re a rabbi, can I ask you….? started up.)
I could have been critical. I could have told them about about the challenge of leadership of the American synagogue, especially during changing times. I could have chided their criticisms as selfish. I could have cited Jewish texts that command us to refrain from speaking ill of others and gossiping. But none of those responses would have been constructive. Instead, I chose to support them for taking sufficient interest in their congregation as to want to talk about it.
While gossip can indeed be breed negativity and divisiveness, I chose to see this exchange not so much as about gossip as being like a Talmudic exchange. In the Talmud, the rabbis who shaped the Judaism that we inherited speak in a discourse of disagreement, often quoting their colleagues to support their own positions. It is in the dialogue that Jewish ideas, values, beliefs and practices take shape. The Talmud sets the stage for a long tradition of questioning and critical thinking.
One of the greatest gifts left us by Talmudic sages was the Passover Seder. They managed to create a very structured ritual that is designed to be an open educational experience. They understood that the best way to learn is to ask questions and vigorously discuss ideas and lessons from every angle. They wanted us to enter the world that they modeled for us, where dialogue, debate and personal opinions open worlds of possibilities for growth.
There is an enigmatic story in the Haggadah, the book we use for the Seder. It tells of a group of rabbis sitting up all night learning — discussing meanings and ideas. Historical analyses aside, this story is so cryptic that we have no choice but to wonder out loud, “What were they doing?” “What were they thinking?” “What does this have to do with me?”
If we skip this opportunity for open discussion, we have missed the point of the seder. Just as our dinner acquaintance wanted a forum for discussing the “what was he thinking?” question relating to their rabbi, and no doubt these conversations happen in many a synagogue parking lot, our sages gave us a nod of encouragement to engage.
I hope we use the dinner table of the Seder to banter, to discuss, to question, and to think. “What were they thinking?” becomes “What are we thinking?” It’s more than entertaining; it’s about meaning. I wish you an engaging, enlightening, meaningful Pesach/Passover.
We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome someday;
Oh, Deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.
The words of this song reverberated in my head on Friday night as I attended a service in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Both men are being remembered this weekend. Though from very different traditions, they became friends and fought for justice and civil rights together in the sixties.
The power of their work and the words they preached hold a special significance for me this year. Earlier in the day on Friday, I attended a meeting about female rabbis and their job placement issues. Last spring, all rabbis faced a very difficult job market, but women, older rabbis, and single rabbis had especially hard times finding jobs. Congregations gravitate towards male rabbis in their thirties who are married and have young children. The meeting I attended was to help brainstorm ways to cut through this narrow image of what a rabbinic leader looks like. Many ideas were shared; one was to have a “Diversity Shabbat” during which time congregations would learn about women rabbis. I interjected “and gay rabbis too” another woman said, “and single rabbis.” “Well, wait a minute” a voice said, “I don’t know that we want to lump together women and gay rabbis. A gay rabbi can hide that he or she is gay on a resume, but a woman can’t. We need to stand up for ourselves and protect our interests.”
I was shocked by this response. The Conservative Movement only recently decided to ordain openly gay rabbis, and it is still controversial in some circles just as women’s ordination was almost twenty years ago. (And some will argue still is.) However, I strongly believe that once the Movement decides to ordain a particular class of rabbis like, women and gays, then the Movement must support all of its rabbis and help them find jobs. For a woman rabbi, herself a minority to stand up and say that we should not be concerned with the plight of gay rabbis is abhorrent to me. We are all in a very small boat together. If we do not protect and stand up for each other, then we are all going to sink. Dr King’s famous line: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” speaks to me loud and clear.
Add to this that the meeting took place in a congregation in Bergen County New Jersey. Over the past few weeks four synagogues in the county have been vandalized. In the last event, a rabbis home was firebombed while the rabbi and his children slept inside, just as black activists homes where firebombed in the south in the sixties. Luckily the rabbi and his family escaped with only minor injuries. http://abclocal.go.com/wabc/story?section=news/local/new_jersey&id=8498756 As a result of this criminal activity police are actively patrolling the streets around every synagogue in Bergen County.
Seeing a police car sitting outside of both the synagogues I attended this shabbat was at once reassuring and anxiety provoking. The anxiety came from the fact that the police felt we needed protection, and then, the fact that they were there was reassuring. It was a strange mix of emotions. I would rather the need for them to be there did not exist at all.
But there is a need. There is still a need for Jews to be protected in this country. There is still a need for African Americans to treated equally. There is still a need for homosexuals to be seen as created in God’s image like every other human being. And there is still a need for women to fight for their rights. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere!”
On this day when we remember the great Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King we need to stand up and fight for justice, for equal treatment, equal opportunity, and equal pay. We cannot let minorities turn on each other as they fight over a very small slice of pie. And we cannot let hate and fear take over our communities. I hope you take some time today to both remember and to take action. What injustices affect your life? Start there and then work to help others.
We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome someday;
Oh, Deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.