A New Pathway to Synagogue Growth – Villages

By Rabbi Beth Lieberman

As we are learning from the pandemic, synagogues need to reevaluate what “being in the building” is worth. While doing so, Jewish communal leaders might want to invest in a new pathway to retain and integrate current and future members – synagogue villages.

It is likely that many reading this article will live to the age of one hundred. According to Laura Carstensen of the Stanford Center on Longevity, this new longevity is our “21st century miracle.” Two new life stages – middlescence and the third chapter – have emerged, encompassing the often vibrant, transformative, purpose-driven years of ages 55 and beyond.

Many Boomers are at these new stages. We are changing in surprising ways – more driven than ever to connect, grow, and serve – but most of our synagogues fail to recognize or embrace this. Which is why, soon after the last child leaves home, too many Boomers drop out of congregational life. At this point, synagogues often lose us for good, while we head off in other directions where we are actively embraced during the multiple transitions that life now offers us.

A parallel phenomenon currently taking shape across North America is the rise of “villages.” Pioneered in 2002 by a handful of neighbors in Boston’s Beacon Hill, a village is a member-resourced, peer-led network that harnesses participants’ talents and experiences to deepen companionship, support, and meaning. It functions like a virtual old-fashioned neighborhood. More than 240 villages now exist across the country.

Combining the skills of community organizing with organizational smarts honed over decades of building institutions and companies, Boomers are now rushing to form villages. This phenomenon is about to change the synagogue landscape in a major way. Those who want to stay connected to Jewish life within our synagogues are creating overlay networks – called synagogue-based villages – focused on the needs of our age group.

The first Jewish village – Chai Village LA – exists in Los Angeles. Four years young, cultivated from the vision of Rabbi Laura Geller, Richard Siegel (z”l) (of Temple Emanuel) and Rabbi Zoe Klein-Miles (of Temple Isaiah), Chai Village LA has been such a success that other Los Angeles-based synagogues are now starting their own.

A team of lay leaders at Congregation Or Ami, based in Calabasas and serving the West San Fernando and Conejo Valleys, is organizing Or Ami Village.

I am one of those organizers, along with Nancy Cole, Judy Friedman, and our fifteen-person steering committee. Or Ami Village’s mission is: “to be an intentional community of adults 55+ that embodies the unique character of Or Ami. We will nourish the mind, heart and spirit of our partners with compassion, warmth, support, diversity, dignity – and joy. We will strive to achieve this through focused programs that connect, educate and inspire our community.”

Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Or Ami’s spiritual leader, extols the revolutionary potential of Or Ami Village: “Now more than ever, Boomer populations are seeking meaning, companionship, and purpose. With the time, energy, and resources to invest in recreating themselves, visionary synagogues would do well to embrace them, activate them, and then step out of the way.”

After an intense twelve month planning period during which we were nurtured by the Synagogue Village Network (which was supported by the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund), Or Ami Village is about to launch. We gather virtually, of course, as we are still sheltering in place. Our gatherings including movies, group study, TED-style talks, and service opportunities planned for the near future will take place online until we can go on real outings to meet again in person. In preparing for the Or Ami Village roll out, our lay leaders produced a marketing video to introduce the concept to the whole congregation. We are self-motivated, energized, and prepared to transform our synagogue experience in exciting ways.

Jewish Boomers are betting on these synagogue-based villages to harmonize congregational life with our new longevity. We are already seeing it begin to reshape our lives and the lives of the next generations. By placing faith in these villages, we all – Boomers and synagogue leaders – anchor the present in a plan for future growth, one that helps synagogue communities to be truly inclusive of all generations.

You can visit Or Ami Village at https://orami.org/village.

Beth Lieberman is a rabbi based in Los Angeles, California, specializing in national community organizing and publishing initiatives. She can be reached at rabbi.bethlieberman@gmail.com.