Are there Too Many Congregations? Debunking a “Polite Fiction”

by Rabbi Aaron B. Bisno

“There are too many congregations,” some lament; and we understand.

After all, who but the most myopic can look around the Jewish community (writ national or local; I write from Pittsburgh) and fail to see how much duplication of effort there is and how many of our communities’ finite resources we collectively squander with so many congregations doing so many of the same things.

Already it was more than a year ago that I first wrote of our community’s need for a “Courageous Conversation.” And in the intervening 12+ months, while we have acclimated to our present reality, the challenges inherent to congregational life only grow more pressing. In recent years, our communities have achieved a great deal. Rabbis and lay leaders, working hard, are rightly proud of all we’ve accomplished; yet, surely, we’re anything but satisfied with what we’ve become.

Consider what Marc Lee Raphael makes clear in The Synagogue in America:

The Jewish community of the early 21st Century looks far different than was true when our communities (and congregations, in particular), were founded and built. Further, many of the expectations we’ve had for our congregations at given times in American history have themselves evolved in keeping with the needs and mores of the Jewish populace as well as trends within the greater polity.

As a result of our congregations having succeeded wildly in the second half of the 20th Century and these first years of the 21st, today we find that many of the country’s key centers of Jewish life possess a larger institutional footprint than is necessarily required; exhibit financial and human capital costs that are growing at a rate that can little longer be justified; and boast styles of decision-making and creative-thinking that work at cross purposes to the greater good of our communities as a whole.

Are there, then, too many congregations? The answer’s not so simple.

Many of us both tell ourselves and insist to one another that, “there are not too many congregations;” indeed, many tend to suggest “it’s probably about right.” For good measure, we might add, “each congregation offers something unique;” and we feel “fortunate to have as many Jewish options as we do.”

Respectfully, as familiar as I am with these replies and as much as we might wish they were the beginning and end of the story, these over-simplified answers belie a deeper truth that must be identified for what it is: polite fiction.

According to Wikipedia, “a polite fiction is a … scenario in which all participants are aware of a truth, but pretend to believe in some alternative version of events to avoid conflict or embarrassment … Polite fictions can [readily] slip into denial.”

Now, I know we like what we have (truth to tell, we love what we have). But at a time when there is a growing realization that our communities’ demographics are dire (cf. changing Jewish family structure; affiliation patterns; high rates of Jewish illiteracy; wide-spread disillusionment with the prohibitively high costs associated with full-participation in Jewish life; to say nothing of the folly many feel it would be to continue funding outdated structures into a next generation), it ought be clear to any one paying attention that, whether one believes there are or are not too many congregations, our congregations’ present modus operandi is no longer tenable.

Consider the most significant intangibles of continuing to indulge the fiction that our congregational landscape accurately reflects what serves us best:

1. Communal leaders will continue to see their respective congregations as ends in themselves, each of which is necessarily more important than what serves the “global good of the community.”

2. Congregational leaders will feel it necessary to maintain a congregation’s identity as distinct from its neighbors; each rabbi and board of trustees focused on accentuating congregational differences over commonalities.

3. Congregations will all need to continue staffing, programming and paying for separate and unique youth groups, religious and Hebrew schools, bnei mitzvah and confirmation programs, as well as adult education programs, interfaith activities, social action efforts, pastoral care, leadership training and development agendas, etc. (as well as regular maintenance demanded by buildings and day-to-day budgets).

4. Communal resources of all kinds will be depleted, with future funding all but imperiled for an inability to step outside narrow parochial interests, as opposed to our all working together to solve our common challenges and to address our shared missions and to achieve our self-same goals.

By perpetuating the polite fiction that we are well-served by as many stand-alone congregations as we have currently, congregations everywhere will continue to be all-but-forced to allocate precious, finite resources in a quest to be all things to all people. For if they don’t make this investment, the thinking goes, ground is being ceded to the congregation around the corner.

In this way, we will continue to exhaust the limited dollars we maintain on our balance sheets; but more tragically, will we even-more-rapidly burn through an asset more precious than dollars. I speak of people.

We are not only spending too much money on duplicative activities and programs within given communities, but we are also all working harder than ever and with fewer resources. This is certainly true for the clergy colleagues and Jewish professionals I know; everyone is doing more with less.

Yet because the demands on our time have grown gradually, too often we fail to appreciate how much we ask of our limited pool of congregational leaders (and I speak here not only of rabbis and other professionals, but of our hardest working volunteers and lay leaders!).

How often are our boards and key decision makers doing the same things? And, relying on so many people to populate so many boards (with all congregational boards addressing the same external pressures and many of the self same internal matters), how much longer can we treat this finite pool of volunteer talent so cavalierly?

For not debunking the polite fiction identified here, I fear we will continue to spend and work ourselves into an ever-greater frenzy. And counter-intuitively, it need not be so.

Every time we look at the erstwhile competition and rue their success, or worry they’re nipping at our heels, or are concerned about what the future will hold so long as we’re not talking to one another, consider all we could achieve if we were to work in partnerships (to co-labor) rather than our foolishly playing out a zero-sum game of attrition that is to no one’s overall benefit.

Significantly, our congregations all share mission statements that, I hazard to guess, are not nearly as far apart in our outcomes, objectives, goals and vision as we might imagine or desire to have everyone believe (here another polite fiction).

So why should we continue emphasizing how distinct we are from one another, rather than choosing to collaborate (co-labor) on creating a value proposition that would see everyone benefiting from what can only be achieved by our opening a community-wide conversation about what could possibly come to be.

Just imagine the possibilities were our most dedicated congregational leaders to share their hopes and dreams, as well as their wisdom, with one another. Just imagine how congregational leaders sitting together – with or without rabbis in the room – could bring our entire community closer to our shared desire to solve for our community’s/communities’ most pressing challenges writ local or large.

My friends, it seems to me that given the stakes are so high and the iron’s so hot for new possibilities, for new ideas, if we are willing to get out of our own way, there just might be space for a new paradigm and for the sparks of real change.

Clearly, this will require a new way of thinking our way through that which is before us. But encouragingly and prophetically, if it’s courage and creativity this moment demands (and, surely, it is), then we ought take heart: the solution we seek will in all likelihood be found in our taking the first steps in its direction.

As Jonah Lehrer writes in his new book Imagination: How Creativity Works, insights and solutions to otherwise intractable challenges often come as a direct result of both our transposing our ideas as well as our changing our assumptions about a given domain or familiar set of challenges.

Or in the words of our ancient Rabbis, “Shinui makom, shinui mazal – Change your perspective, and you change your possibilities.”

It’s time we acknowledge that accomplishing our goals depends on debunking our community’s most cherished polite fiction: “our congregational constellation is as it should be.” Not so.

“Are there too many congregations?” Maybe yes. Maybe no.

Either way, it’s the wrong question. Ask not, how many congregations.

Ask rather, how collaborative and creative, our thinking? Are we more interested in congregational bragging rights or in communal outcomes? How open are we to innovation and change? How willing are we to admit all we cannot know?

Clearly, the most important work and biggest tasks we have before us can only be accomplished by our all working as partners across, within and between the traditional lines. The old way of thinking about our work is yesterday’s news.

Judaism’s central purpose is not to be found in any given congregational entity, neither in the teachings and care of any one rabbi, nor in the experiences shared in any particular building. All these are true and beautiful, to be sure, yet they are temporal and fleeting; to believe otherwise is to hold onto, politely, a fiction.

Our legacy is defined, not by who sits in our pews today, nor in what we have accomplished up ‘til now. Rather, the raison d’etre of the synagogue is nothing less than that which augurs best for our contemporary Jewish community going forward.

So in assessing the size and strength of our community, and in measuring our success going forward, let it be this metric – all we shall realize collaboratively in days to come, rather than a numerical counting of congregations – that will give us the best sense of how well we are responding to our own day, even as we are preparing our people for the future.

In every age, this – and this alone – is our sacred task.

Rabbi Aaron Bisno holds the Frances F & David R Levin Senior Rabbinic Pulpit, Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Rabbi Bisno’s article, It’s Time for a Courageous Conversation can be found here:

Across the country and cross-denominationally, there is a vital and transformative conversation underway. It’s an early conversation, to be sure, but it’s dynamic and bold; and already there is a strong sense the conversation is long overdue. To be sure, not every rabbi and lay-person is yet on board, but the most forward-thinking and creative Jewish leaders are actively participating in what professors at the Harvard Business School deem a “courageous conversation.”