As a rabbi of an online congregation, I am often asked about whether people have “real” Jewish experiences online. Some argue that you can’t have a meaningful Jewish experience unless you’re in a room with other Jews.
I disagree. I have seen time and time again how having an online community like OurJewishCommunity.org gives people an opportunity to connect to Judaism, to other Jews, and to rabbis.
I was thinking about this as I watched the Super Bowl last night. There may have been 80,000 people in the stadium watching the game, but another 118 million watched on TV – and I’m pretty sure their experience was equally “real.”
Is watching at home the same as watching in a packed arena? Of course not! I know there is nothing quite like the feeling of being in an arena full of fans. You can see the action up close (if you have good seats), you cheer loudly among others, and you feel part of the action. But watching from home also has advantages. You can watch alone or with friends, you can listen to the commentators, and you can see the commercials (either an advantage or a disadvantage depending on your perspective!).
Watching the Super Bowl on TV and participating in Shabbat and other holiday services online have many similarities. Here are five:
1. Most people were not watching the game alone. The myth is that if you watch High Holiday services online, it must be isolating. But I know many people who have the equivalent of Super Bowl parties for Jewish holidays! Often, someone will invite over a dozen friends for a Rosh Hashanah meal and then they’ll gather around a flat screen TV with our live services streaming. They’ve printed our unique liturgy and are participating as an intimate community, as part of an even larger community.
2. Not everyone can afford to go the Super Bowl, not everyone has a stadium nearby, and some people who have shown up to games in the past haven’t felt welcomed. It’s the same with Judaism. Some people have physical limitations, geographic barriers, financial obstacles, or other reasons they cannot attend synagogue. For them, an online community is a perfect connection to Jewish community.
3. Some people had to be at work or take care of other responsibilities during the game – and I’m betting many of them DVRed the game to watch later. So too with services. Not everyone can take time on a Friday night to go to synagogue – but everyone can find a break in their week to create what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called a “sanctuary in time.” That’s why OurJewishCommunity.org makes its services available on-demand. I know one of our community members is an ER physician and works on Shabbat – so she makes her “Shabbat” on Tuesday and is able to participate in our services then.
4. Some people prefer the anonymity of the screen. If you don’t yet know the difference between a touchdown, a field goal, and a two-point conversion and you can’t tell the offense from the defense, you may not feel comfortable showing up with other fans to talk about the game. By watching on your own, you can learn. Many have commented to me that they feel more comfortable asking a rabbi questions online than in person. For some people, watching online is a way to dip one’s toe in before walking through synagogue doors.
5. You can have community across miles. Seahawks fans felt a kinship with one another last night, as did Patriots fans. Participants in OurJewishCommunity.org who have never met feel a connection to one another because of their shared values and philosophical approach to Judaism. During services, we rabbis even encourage online chatting – which means conversations happen between people in different states and on different continents – adding to the diversity of our Jewish conversations.
Technology also means families can have shared holiday or sports experiences, even when separated by geography. During many March Madness basketball games, I’ve sat on the phone with my dad as we each watched the final moments of a close game. After many exciting Wimbledon tennis matches, I would often call my grandmother to debrief the game. While we didn’t live in the same cities, the shared on-screen experience allowed us to enjoy a game together and connect with one another around it. The same thing happens at OurJewishCommunity.org.
One of my favorite emails from a participant in OurJewishCommunity.org came in after our first High Holidays (in 2008!):
I came to work and my partner took the kids to services. I thought I’d be fine, but I was so isolated and getting really upset. I did a google search for a live streaming service, and there you were… So, for details – first, my mother also did not go to services yesterday for her own reasons. She was also sad and called me just before the shofar blew. I quickly sent her the link and we sat on the phone, DC to Florida, and listened to your shofar together. It was an amazing moment for us. I know neither of us would have words of appreciation grand enough to capture what we felt.
When I read that email, I knew our online community was offering something that a bricks-and-mortar experience simply couldn’t offer. Would this mother and daughter have preferred to be in synagogue, sitting with one another that day? Probably. But, the circumstances didn’t allow for that. So, thanks to technology, they enjoyed a holiday together.
Is the Super Bowl the equivalent of a Jewish service? Absolutely not! But they both have in-person and online components – and variety is good.
For those Jews who prefer bricks-and-mortar synagogue experiences, I am glad they have found a place that feels comfortable. And for those who prefer an online Jewish experience, I’m glad those options exist as well. What could be wrong with having more access points to Jewish connection? I’d say that’s a winning proposition!
Last month Rabbi Yamin Levy (note: I studied with Rabbi Levy when I was a rabbinical student at YCT Rabbinical School) wrote a thoughtful article, The Rabbi and His Board. In the article he details the challenges and opportunities for rabbis and the board of directors of congregations. The relationship between a rabbi and the board can be a delicate and highly orchestrated dance of vision, power and politics. A peculiar aspect of how American Jewish congregational life is organized is that the rabbi is simultaneously a “spiritual leader” of the congregation and an employee of the board of directors. How should congregations organize their leadership? Who sets the vision? Who articulates the synagogue’s goals and direction?
In many synagogues throughout the country it is the board of directors who set the vision. it is the board of directors who lead and articulate the goals and directions of the congregation. The rabbi is sometimes a minor partner in that process but more often simply an executor of the desires of the board. I submit that this system is entirely ineffective. It needs to be turned on its head.
It is the rabbi who studied for years Jewish law, ethics, history and philosophy. It is the pulpit rabbi who has dedicated his or her life to the professional leadership of synagogues. Synagogues term their rabbis “spiritual leaders” but the meaning behind that title is often empty and void. It is time to fill that title with purpose, leadership and direction.
This is not to say that rabbis should act autocratically. It is not in the best interest of the rabbi to be a dictator. All the best research in leadership teaches that the vision and direction of a leader is best implemented when it is done collaboratively and through consensus building. However, the person seeking consensus should be the rabbi for their vision from the board and not the reverse. It is the rabbi who envisions, who sets the goals and who leads. It is the board who empowers the leader they hired to actually lead.
This not only makes the most sense from a practical point of view, the rabbi is the trained professional with the expertise and the board are volunteers representing other professions and different training. It is also makes sense from the perspective of Jewish values. Just as one stands for a Torah scroll there is a mitzvah to stand for a Torah scholar. The Talmud (Makkot 22b) expresses bewilderment of people who stand for a Torah scroll but not for a Torah scholar. The honor and respect we invest in the Torah and its scholars and rabbis is due to the wisdom, values and direction the Torah imparts for us in the way we lead our lives. Would it not make sense to give true leadership to the rabbis, the Torah scholars of our communities, who we invest so much in financially, personally and organizationally? Once again, not as autocrats but let them be the vision makers and articulators of goals and let them build the consensus and actualize that vision.
In an era of increasing challenge for synagogues to remain relevant to a new generation of Jews and boards are struggling with decreasing membership and under-utilized buildings, one piece of advice would be: “Let rabbis lead!”
Membership is lagging, we haven’t been able to convince the preschool families to join the synagogue and sales in the gift shop are down. What are we to do? Blame the rabbi!
Members are not receiving their donation thank you letters in a timely fashion, the receptionist is not always friendly on the phone and the office forgot to print my great-uncle’s yahrtzeit in the weekly newsletter. What are we to do? Blame the executive director!
People make mistakes and that includes the professionals of synagogues, whether the rabbi, executive director or preschool director. A letter can wait in the outgoing mail box for too long. A receptionist might be having a bad day. It is natural to feel frustrated when bad things happen and to want to locate the person who is at fault. When our synagogues attempt to operate as a command-and-structure type of organization individuals will look up the chain of command and point the finger at the highest link they can reach.
However, most of our synagogues nowadays do not operate with strict hierarchies. The decision making of our congregations has evolved to a more a distributive fashion yet the way we communicate about our synagogues has not evolved with it. There are few synagogues where the current mode of operating is the senior rabbi says “jump” and the only question the rest of the staff and board of directors have is “how high?”. Staff, clergy and lay leadership operate in a collaborative and cooperative mode. We know this from experience and we know this intuitively but when things begin to break down and mistakes are made we revert to viewing our system as a solid command structure and view the source of the problem solely in the lap of one individual. Why?
I believe part of the problem is that we have not fully embraced our new way of operating. Is it made clear in the vision statement of the congregation? Is it communicated in board meetings? Is the membership informed of how the synagogue operates? When something goes wrong do board members point the finger at any one individual or do they look at it through a systemic lens?
There are so many advantages to distributive decision making. The starfish, a vulnerable creature to predators, can lose a limb but still function because it does not rest all of its functioning in one place. As we enter 2015 the landscape for synagogues is still a vulnerable one. The case for synagogue membership is a hard sell for many people. Many synagogue facilities remain both under-utilized and in need of major repair work. The place of the congregation in the fabric of modern society is less and less obvious for vast segments of the American Jewish population. Our synagogues are like starfish: beautiful, complicated organisms that are deeply vulnerable.
The time has arrived to not only transition to a more starfish-like way of operating — a distributed, holistic and balanced power structure, but to assertively and clearly communicate that to our membership. When something goes wrong, and something will always go wrong, the challenge is not to look for which clergy, staff member or board member to blame, but to understand how the system as a whole can operate better in the future. A Starfish Synagogue is a healthier synagogue and a healthier synagogue is a more attractive place for people to pray in, socialize in and ultimately become members of.
* Inspiration for this blog post comes from The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom
“Thank you for visiting our website. We are a vibrant congregation with daily and Shabbat services. We offer young adult programming, empty nesters and seniors groups, adult Jewish learning opportunities and many other exciting programs. Please contact our membership director to schedule a time to visit our congregation.”
This is a fictional welcome message on a synagogue website. However, messages like this can be found all over the Internet. They can be found in introductory pamphlets and can be found printed in weekly and quarterly newsletters. This fictional message expresses WHAT the synagogue does. It offers services and a lot of programming. Yet, it fails to express WHY the synagogue does what it does.
In the well regarded book Start with Why by Simon Sanek (watch a TED talk Simon delivered on the topic) the point is made that all too often our businesses and organizations sell themselves to the wider community with primarily what they do or what they produce. Apple makes excellent computers but that is not why they are the industry leader in personal electronic devices. They don’t market their iPhones as simply great phones or their Macbooks as simply great computers but rather they invite the consumer to “think differently” and to join them in fighting against the status quo. Their first and primary message is why they do what they do and only after conveying “the why” do they tell you “the what” it is they actually produce.
What would it looks like for our synagogues to put forth their why before their what. Why do you exist as a synagogue? What is it that you believe as an institution? Why do you have daily services and adult educational programming and Bnai Mitzvah lessons? Imagine a welcome message that looked something like this:
“Thank you for visiting our website. We are a congregation that believes in the vitality of the Jewish people. We believe in working towards a better world and cultivating personalities that are deep with spiritual intention and Jewish wisdom. We do that by offering daily services and adult educational opportunities. We offer empty nesters and seniors groups because we are committed to building the fabric of community that connects one person to another and breaks down the walls of loneliness and isolation. We would love for you to visit our community. Please stop by or send an email to our staff to schedule a time to come by for a conversation on how you can join us in impassioned Jewish living.”
Jewish communal life organized around the why can be a powerful vehicle for Jewish engagement and revitalization of our synagogue and institutional Jewish world.
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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.
Much of the Eastern and Midwestern U.S. is ensconced in a ferocious cold spell today and tomorrow. Known as the “polar vortex,” a blast of air from the arctic is producing temperatures colder than the South Pole in some parts of the country. This got me thinking: 120 years ago, where would poor, marginalized Jews (i.e. most Jews) go to escape the cold? To Jewish relief organizations such as Jewish hospitals, Jewish soup kitchens. In the era before FDR, before a government social safety net, Jewish communities across the country were responsible for talking care of one another. Mutual aid societies and landsmanschaften (hometown societies) provided this critical source of support, ensuring not only the well-being of poor Jewish immigrants but also creating community connections.
70 years ago, where would Jews go to escape the cold? To synagogue-centers and JCCs. Emerging into the middle-class, “second generation” Jews were eager to flee their urban areas of settlement for the expansiveness of the suburbs. They frequently found, however, that secular American society still harbored a good deal of anti-Semitism, so Jews created new hubs for social interaction. The notion of the “shul with a pool” was born, with traditional synagogues expanded to include social, educational, and even athletic programming.
Today, where do we go to escape the “polar vortex?” Starbucks. The public library. The local gym. Or we just stay at home and tweet about how cold we are. The rise of the welfare state (I mean that as a descriptive, not a perjorative, term), combined with the rapid erosion of institutional anti-Semitism in America, has rendered obsolete much of the social architecture of American Jewry. Jewish Family Services, perhaps the closest vestige to the traditional Jewish welfare organizations throughout the country, often serve more non-Jews than Jews! The same is true with Jewish hospitals and even JCCs. While we are truly blessed to live in a society as open to Jews as 21st century America, that blessing comes with a cost: no longer having a need to come together, our Jewish connective tissue is atrophying. As the recent Pew Study illustrates, only 28 percent of those polled believe that being part of a Jewish community is essential to Jewish identity. Continue reading
It used to be that most Jews affiliated with a synagogue. My parents’ generation supported their synagogues and the organized Jewish community because they believed we were “one people”, responsible for each other. They honored their congregations’ rabbis and looked to them for guidance. Yet, these norms have now evolved into entirely new realities, with changing values and assumptions.
My young adult children live in a very different world from the one in which I was raised. Few of their generation choose to be members of synagogues, and they dislike rabbis who lecture them about what to believe or do. But they are just the crest of the wave that includes many of my boomer generation, who increasingly reject commitment to synagogues. They respect rabbis only when they inspire and serve them in intensely personal and meaningful ways, often ‘in the moment.’
It used to be that rabbis who served Jews independently (derisively called “rent-a-rabbis”) were not highly respected within the community. Yes, some individuals do call themselves rabbis yet lack communally recognized rabbinic ordination or appropriate knowledge and expertise.Yet, it is also the case that some very fine rabbis of upstanding credentials and experience are now functioning independently, serving unaffiliated Jews in a variety of ways.
Some rabbis consider this to be unfair competition with synagogues. Rightly so, they feel that Judaism is not a commodity that is bought and sold – it is a commitment to being part of the Jewish people, found within community.
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.
Synagogues will certainly remain essential for Jewish community. Along the way innovative leaders are creating new modes of Jewish belonging and inspirational spiritual experience for the Jewish people and fellow travelers.
Now rabbis who are providing personalized, independent rabbinic services are spiritual leaders who are meeting people where they are to help them find Jewish fulfillment and connections. With skilled rabbis helping Jews and fellow travelers to find their way within the Jewish community, so much more is possible. With professional rabbis offering this service to individuals and fellow travelers, there is room to build on the pride that 94% of surveyed Jews express at just being Jewish.
That is why I am excited to be going independent. Amidst Jewish communal hand wringing about the dramatic decline in affiliation rates, I am shifting into another gear as a rabbi. It is time to teach, guide, facilitate, officiate and lead from outside the box.
I will soon launch a new center for Jewish learning and experiences. Through it, I will also seek ways to collaborate with local rabbis and communities whenever possible. We are all in it together. “The times, they are a’changin.” The Jewish people and our fellow travelers need us.
Jewish Outreach is a buzz term nowadays. Every organization seeks to do outreach in order to demonstrate relevancy to its board and donors. In addition, outreach is an effective way to increase participation in the organization and financial support in an era of struggling economic times and growing disaffection with organized Jewish life. Indeed, outreach is about taking one’s message public and sharing it with a larger disconnected audience. We should support genuine outreach in our communities.
As someone who has served both in a campus context and in synagogues I have seen numerous Jewish outreach organizations. In fact, during my time as a campus chaplain I developed close friendships with Christian outreach professionals as well. The one thread that united all the genuine outreach organizations was honesty and integrity.
There is nothing inherently wrong with being a Christian Evangelical outreach professional on campus. Do I need to make sure my students are educated about their own faith and confident in their own beliefs? Absolutely. Yet, I cannot rightfully condemn a open and honest Christian from spreading her or his beliefs. I can only do my best to teach and inspire my constituents.
However, as many times as I have encountered genuine outreach organizations I have encountered illegitimate ones as well. What makes an outreach organization not really genuine? These are some of the indicators that I have observed over the years:
- Where do the outreach professionals or rabbis spend most of their time? Do they linger in existing Jewish institutions like synagogues or the local Hillel where they will only encounter already affiliated people?
- Where does the outreach organization set up shop? In the heart of the affiliated Jewish neighborhood or in a place where many Jews live but few who are connected to Jewish life?
- Do the programs the organization run exist in consonance with the values of the people who lead the organization? For example, if the Jewish outreach organization is a black hat yeshiva do they do programming that violates their principles or core beliefs, like a non-gender segregated religious service?
- Who is a successful “graduate” of their outreach? Where do they end up in their Jewish journeys? Be careful to pay attention to the diversity in lifestyles among the graduates and not the newcomers.
It is very important to identify genuine Jewish outreach organizations from the others. Genuine Jewish outreach organizations spend their time not in the Jewish neighborhood and work with people who have no existing Jewish connection. Their programming reflects the values they hold important and they do not compromise their core values in order to attract new participants.
Oftentimes, groups or individuals seek to co-opt the term Jewish Outreach when what they really mean is Jewish Redirection. In other words, their aim is to disaffiliate people currently connected to Jewish life and re-affiliate them to other organizations they deem more “kosher.” They do not exist in a holistic relationship with the rest of communal Jewish life but rather are in a constant state of competition with it.
The more informed we are about the various Jewish organizations within our communities the better choices we can make about what to attend and participate in and who to support. Jewish outreach deserves our support, Jewish redirection does not.