The world has changed and so has the zeitgeist from which our present community infrastructure was born.
By Rabbi Scott Hausman-Weiss
The question is not and cannot be, “What can we do to save our synagogues?” even though to not ask that question raises so much angst over what might happen to our beloved institutions. These places matter. These are places that our grandparents’ blood, sweat and tears brought to fruition; where our parents and our children’s pictures adorn the walls; where our deceased relatives’ names light up the hallways; where our memories are held in sacred trust, even as so many of our lives’ are rarely lived out there anymore.
This synagogue world that we have built over the last 70 years is nothing short of a miracle. Post-immigration, post-assimilation, post-glass ceilings, post, post, post, the American Jewish community is a marvel. We are the kind of community that the great Jewish sage, Honi, could have woken up to after eons of sleep and never truly believed was real.
It is amazing the way in which our Americanized synagogues grew from 200 to 500 and some to 1000 and 2000+ families. And there is no question about it – our visionary leaders and committed communities are responsible. However we must also acknowledge that this was also made possible in large part by cultural winds and external circumstances that graciously but perhaps unintentionally propelled our growth. Similarly, today we cannot continue to ignore these factors or risk simply staying stuck in the survival doldrums.
Imagine you have been sailing a large sailboat for a long while, with the trimmest of sales, perfect alignment with the wind, traveling at the fastest clip ever recorded. And imagine that this entire time, one of your instruments isn’t calibrated and therefore isn’t detecting an additional wind that was providing substantial momentum. And then, little by little, that wind slows down. And so do you. No matter what efforts you take, you can find nothing that will return you to that speed. Great frustration grows. You find yourself blaming the sail manufacturer or perhaps your ship’s mate. Maybe you’re just too heavy and you find yourself haphazardly heaving stuff overboard. Ultimately, perhaps, you blame yourself, the boat, the supplies, even the water for causing you to come up short.
This unrecognized and misunderstood speed and forward motion that sustained for decades but has now slowed significantly, is the story of the American Jewish community from the 1950’s through today. It is not however because we are less-adept or less committed or less skilled that our growth has slowed so much. It is that the wind at our backs, about which we remained unaware and still to this day have given very short shrift, has slowed to almost a complete halt even while we keep fighting with and blaming ourselves for so much we have never controlled, but did for at least a generation work to our advantage. It was in large part thanks to the baby boom, equal opportunity and most importantly, the American cultural zeitgeist of joining and belonging that turned Rotary Clubs and Lions Dens, as well as churches and synagogues into country club look-alikes. Today these cultural winds have shifted and we in the Jewish community cannot ignore the influence of such significant external factors.
The world has changed and so has the zeitgeist from which our present community infrastructure was born. American Jews are Americans and their desires, dreams and tastes are far more informed by the Enlightenment than Sinai. And yes, for some this is so scary; for our institutions, it feels at times like a death sentence. Instead though, if we are willing to reframe our expectations, we can indeed find ourselves again at the helm that celebrates and embraces individual innovation, creativity and freedom – these are today’s cultural winds if only we can learn how to capture them for the sake of our communities. Our sails can once again be taut.
Step #1? “Stop spending so much time talking about how we are going to figure out how to get them to pay.”
If anything is going to lead to the death of our institutions, particularly amongst our next potentially inspiring generation, the Millenials, it is this. Any conversation or discussion or strategy that functions with this end in mind is poison to Millennials. They are a generation that is obsessed with the “means.” They are fully wrapped up in the journey and not the destination. As long as the sustenance of the institution is the pre-text, main text or sub-text, our efforts will be lost on them. If however our focus returns to ideas and ideals, to frameworks, community building and problem-solving writ large, then we may very well find them not only a part of the community once again, but as leaders. The Millennials represent one of the most innovative generations in the history of the world. The Internet is their domain – not only as subscribers but as generators. The borderless, boundary-less, unfettered access the Internet provides is not only the process by which the World Wide Web functions. It is how today’s generation of young leaders think. Any discussion of financial support falls on deaf ears unless its focus is on supporting why, in our case, a synagogue can matter (the “continuity card” not withstanding!)
While not a Millennial myself (at least by age), I am a “recovering” congregational Rabbi. My new congregation, Shma Koleinu, Houston, TX (founded December 2013) holds as its primary slogan, “Join us, you already belong.” We are supported by 100% voluntary contributions and there is nothing we offer that isn’t available to anyone who seeks it out, whether a financial contributor or not. Our mission is simple: to provide opportunities for meaning, purpose and connection to Jews, Jewish families and those who love them. Our first High Holy Days were sought out by 1000+ people; our leadership team is a “flat” hierarchy that runs by consensus; our B’nai Mitzvah families work closely with me to create for themselves personally moving ceremonies; and our Shabbat services which take place throughout the city of Houston, begin with an oneg of beer, wine, and hors d’oeuvres BEFORE we sit down to pray and sing and celebrate. With over 300 individual financial supporters already in our first year, our “experiment” continues to catch the wind in new and exciting ways. As for plans for a building, yes, maybe down the road; but not one that would ever be large enough to hold a High Holy Day crowd. Nor would Shma Koleinu be interested in occupying a building alone. Any building we pursue will be one akin to the metal box of a computer – a place to hold stuff, but for the sake of reaching beyond our perceived limits.
A friend of mine recently quoted the words of Bootsy Collins (of Parliament and Funkadelic fame). Bootsy said, “You can’t fake the funk or your nose will grow like Pinnochio.” The funky Jewish spirit is still very much intact. The dreams of the Jewish people are still dreamed by our children. The Jewish hope for redemption is still yearned for by Jews in every corner of the globe. Funk runs through our veins. And by “funk,” I mean “authenticity.” Our synagogues need to bring a sled to that slippery slope that all are so afraid of and take a ride. Our synagogues need to meet our people where they are – in mind, body and spirit. For as long as “tradition” (be it ritual, communal or historical) are the pretexts for a synagogue’s decision making, we will be stuck in these survival doldrums. However, if we can summon the courage to trust our people and to build Jewish life around them rather than the other way around, well then anchors away!
Rabbi Scott Hausman-Weiss is the Spiritual Leader of Congregation Shma Koleinu in Bellaire, Texas (Houston metro area).