The Innovation Sector and the Synagogue

by Ramie Arian

Many who are concerned with the continued vibrancy of the Jewish community in North America will be heartened by the recent release of the 2011-12 version of Slingshot’s Resource Guide for Jewish Innovation. The Slingshot Guide highlights 60 innovative organizations – in the words of – “that work to ensure that Jewish life isn’t left behind as the world moves forward.” Indeed, the Guide presents a rich array of exciting projects that span the diversity of the Jewish community, putting forward an inspiring portrait of the so-called “innovation sector” in Jewish life.

Among the Slingshot Guide’s many notable features, one in particular stands out: the near-total absence of any mention of the synagogue.

The synagogue has long been – and remains today – the central institution of Jewish life in North America. The community has billions of dollars invested in synagogues; they are not going to go away anytime soon. Synagogues, and the Jewish communal life that is centered in them, will continue to define much of North American Jewish life for the foreseeable future.

The Slingshot Guide’s omission of the synagogue is hardly surprising. There is little doubt that most of the rising generation has little use for synagogues, and conversely, that most synagogues have done little to attract and engage young Jewish adults in the ever-lengthening life-stage between college graduation and the time of parenting school-aged children. Indeed, the disconnect between this rising generation of young Jewish adults and the synagogue is arguably the most important challenge to the future vitality of the Jewish community.

The absence of the synagogue from the Slingshot Guide (and by extension, from the “innovation sector”) is powerful testament to this disconnect.

Yet encouraging evidence exists that young Jewish adults and synagogues can be connected. Next Dor has piloted successful engagement in six communities which bring young Jewish adults into relationship with synagogues in selected urban communities which have natural concentrations of young Jewish adults. Next Dor (Dor is Hebrew for “generation”) is a project of Synagogue 3000, an independent non-profit with principal funding from the Marcus Foundation. Successful pilot sites include Washington, Miami, San Francisco, St. Louis and Atlanta, in addition to New York.

Next Dor has learned much about engaging young Jewish adults, and in addition to its six pilot sites, its findings are closely followed by a fast-growing group of nearly 40 affiliate synagogues.

It has learned, for example, that the key to building relationships in the next generation is just that: building relationships. In order to be relevant for young Jewish adults, synagogues need to focus on building relationships, not on programming. Utilizing methodology that is borrowed in part from Chabad, from Hillel and from the mega-church movement, the Next Dor pilot groups reach out to young Jewish adults where they are (that is, NOT in the synagogue building, but rather in coffee shops, health clubs or wherever) with dedicated personnel – mainly but not exclusively charismatic young rabbis – whose assignment is to meet young Jewish adults and to build relationships with them. These relationships lead eventually to programs which are facilitated (but not designed) by synagogue personnel. Program design comes, rather, from the young adults themselves, and is therefore suited to their needs and interests and those of their peer groups. Programs generally take place outside the synagogue.

The goal of this is two-fold. First, Next Dor seeks to connect with young Jewish adults, engage them in relationships, and ultimately to move them towards engagement with Jewish life. Second, and equally important, Next Dor seeks to move the central institution of the Jewish community – namely the synagogue – towards becoming a more welcoming place for the rising generation, meeting their needs on their own terms, and ultimately giving them the opportunity to have a role in shaping the program and governance of the institution itself.

Next Dor’s results have been encouraging to date. In each of the Next Dor pilot communities, hundreds of young adults are engaged in community building that mirrors their distinctive interests. In Miami, Next Dor participants gather to celebrate Shabbat on the beach. In St. Louis, busloads of young adults celebrate a cross-denominational Purim with a “Pour-em Party Shul Crawl.” In Washington, free Next Dor services for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur attract more worshippers than their facility can hold.

Synagogue 3000 hopes to expand Next Dor to 24 communities over the next three years, enabling the program to reach the North American urban areas with the largest concentrations of young Jewish adults.

There is every reason to hope that the growth of this important project, and its widespread replication on a congregational level in many additional communities, will help to bridge the disconnect between the synagogue and the “innovation sector,” contributing mightily to the ongoing vitality of Jewish life in North America.

Ramie Arian is an independent consultant who works with Jewish non-profits concerned with building Jewish identity and commitment in the next generation of the North American Jewish community. 

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  1. says

    This is a lovely shout-out to Next Dor – a program that is certainly very exciting!

    As one of the rabbis of a synagogue featured in Slingshot, I did also notice the absence of other synagogues. I am one of the rabbis of – an online synagogue – founded by Congregation Beth Adam – a bricks-and-mortar synagogue. I have the privilege of working for congregations that are bold, visionary, and eager to evolve to meet the changing needs of the Jewish community. Our mission, vision, and values guide everything we do, and we are a place that values innovation.

    In contrast, many synagogues are not motivated by innovation. They prefer to do what they have always done – and as a result get the same results they’ve always gotten. And thus we have more than 50% of American Jews unaffiliated.

    Synagogues should live their values (which for some will mean wanting to be innovative and for others will mean not wanting to be innovative). That is a choice that each will make – and it should be internally consistent with their philosophy and vision. I’m looking forward to continuing on the path to innovation with my congregation.

  2. Wendy Light says

    It is very important that we not put down and discredit synagogues that have served our people well for many years. For those who choose to affiliate there is meaning. Levels of comfort and familiarity and a particular prayer style are seen as a positive feeling for a particular generation, but if that isn’t what you are looking for there are other choices one can make.

    On the Top Ten most influential communities on Slingshot’s newest list mention of IKAR, a Los Angeles based spiritual community led by Rabbi Sharon Brous. This kehillah excites and engages the younger demographics that synagogues long to attract. Young Jews today have lots of choices. They are not joiners through necessity. Instead they are looking for meaning and purpose. They are looking for spiritual communities that make them dig down into their souls and come out a better person. They do not want to be entertained by the ‘sage on the stage’ and be ‘sung to by the choir’. Instead they want to understand how Judaism compells them to pray, to learn and to work hard not only grow their spiritual connection but to actively, to connect with the community and reach out to the world to help to make it a better place.

  3. says

    Others may want to comment on Slingshot’s consistent inclusion of synagogues and spiritual communities like IKAR, Kavana, Hadar,, and others, but there simply is no evidence of a “disconnect between the synagogue and the ‘innovation sector’.” From page 15 of The Jewish Innovation Economy:

    The top five areas of focus for North American Jewish startups are Jewish education (53%), community building (31%), spirituality (28%), ritual (26%), and 20s/30s engagement/development (25%). Overall, religious groups make up one fifth of the total; 23 11% of the total are lay-led independent minyanim and 6% of the total are rabbi-led congregations.

    As reported on page 29 of the same study, 4% of respondents had participated in Synagogue 3000’s Jewish Emergent initiative and 1.7% of respondents in the S3K NextDor Initiative. S3K has worked with us on both surveys to ensure inclusion of JEI and NextDor organizations in the survey samples.

    Joshua Avedon and I remain indebted to Ron Wolfson, Larry Hoffman, and the entire Synagogue 3000 family for their support of Jewish innovation. Indeed, it’s fair to say that the idea of an “innovation sector” originated within the world of innovative Jewish spiritual communities (startup synagogues, minyanim, and other programs) and went on from there. S3K deserves credit for helping launch the very idea of an innovation sector via the Jewish Emergent Initiative, the S3K/Mechon Hadar National Spiritual Communities Study, and ultimately the spinout of Jumpstart, whose mission in part involves understanding and advocating for the sector.

  4. gerald bubis says

    More and more synagogues “get it”. Difficulties abound. If the boards are strong and relish and hold fast to the past, rabbi’s hands are bound. Certainly young rabbis are aware of these needs and ways to move. Do they have the sanction needed to do so? how can smaller congregations do this when the rabbi is doing everything by her/himself?
    Ikar and Rabbi Sharon Brous are rightly frequently mentioned as an example of how to each out. The Kahal is indeed an often magical and always an uplifting place. The reality in Los Angeles is that there are 10’s and 10’s of thousands of Jewish young adults. With all the wonderful and wonderous things accomplished at Ikar, only a few hundred of young adults are attracted.
    Kol hakovod to all who continue to go against the tides. This 87 year old observer of Jewish life continues to kvell and kvetch-to me, the yin and yang of what Jewish life and continuity has always been about. I believe the vitality and creative manifestations of today’s Jewish activists will find answers and yet never rest. After all, they are doing God’s work.
    Gerald Bubis