Don’t Give Up the Shul
By Rabbi Hyim Shafner
Despite new alternatives to the synagogue model, I believe no other Jewish institution can equally build strong, encompassing, spiritual communities. The following are some guidelines, based on my work at Bais Abraham (Bais Abe) in St. Louis, for utilizing creativity and open-mindedness in generating more vibrant and engaging synagogue communities.
It takes a large spiritual toolbox to encounter an infinite God. Sometimes these tools feel foreign, but often they are part of Judaism itself. One example (though there are many) is meditation. When I was a young adult I came across a book on Jewish meditation which was a foreign concept to me at the time. I was quite surprised to discover in its pages that mindfulness, visualization and mantra meditation were Jewish tools of prayer. At Bais Abe we are utilizing these tools through Deepen Your Davening, a short weekly meditative service, which meets concurrently with the regular Musaf service on Shabbat mornings.
Prayer is hard but most Jews still want the experience of embracing community a synagogue provides. Today more than ever, synagogues must, in addition to prayer, function like Jewish community centers, engaging lay leaders in creating social, intellectual, and educational programming for all ages and demographics.
Synagogues must also be wider communal institutions, a vital part of our neighborhoods and cities. One important way to do this as a synagogue is to volunteer in the larger community. Bais Abraham periodically spends an evening studying about an aspect of chesed from a Jewish point of view and later that week putting this into practice as a community, painting a house, serving food to the homeless, reading to children, etc.
An Extreme Culture of Welcoming
I believe that a synagogue’s culture must be so embracing it has almost no barriers to entry. This results in a pervasive feeling that whoever is present, is the community.
I remember a certain non-Jewish homeless man in an electric wheelchair who once came on Shabbat. He charged his chair and spent the entire day eating and interacting with people in our synagogue. He was, at that moment, in an organic way, made to feel that he was an integral part of the community. This is only possible in a culture whose greatest pride is the diversity which results from extreme welcoming. Such culture is the only way to make our communities feel truly embracing to all who enter.
Alternative venues are a good way to engage Jewish people who are wary of entering Jewish communal spaces and are also a way of productively disrupting congregations’ tendencies toward monotony.
In engaging the wider Jewish people, atmosphere is just as important as content. Alternative venues not only bring Judaism to people who are hesitant to enter the synagogue but brings the community outward.
Bais Abe partners with another synagogue in the community and together we use hiking in a local forest as a way of preparing for the High Holiday season. We hold classes in local bars, and utilize venues such as the art museum as a way to integrate Torah and Jewish discussion with local cultural activity.
In this age of online shopping and instant messaging, Synagogues must be flexible enough to meet the varied needs of the Jewish people with quality and speed even if it involves creating services and products to which we are unaccustomed.
Several years ago a secular Israeli family approached us with an observation. There were a growing number of secular Israelis in St. Louis whose children attend secular public schools and have no Jewish education. These Israelis find themselves in a larger society which is not Jewish and feel disoriented and bereft of their previously, Israeli state provided, Jewish identity.
We immediately took steps to establish a weekly Hebrew school which would focus on reading and writing Hebrew, thus serving the needs of this population on their own terms. Our goal was ultimately not just to teach Hebrew but to teach Judaism and to engage them in the Jewish community. It was flexibility and lack of bureaucratic procedure which enabled us to engage this new population with alacrity and responsiveness.
If Jews are not fully connecting to synagogues, then we must be willing to tweak the institution.
In the Orthodox community one example that comes to mind today is the increase in female orthodox religious leadership. Programs at Yeshiva University, Derisha Institute, Nishmat and Yeshivat Maharat, are training Orthodox women to be guides, teachers and decisors of halacha within Orthodox communities.
Fear of change, even when something is halachically permissible, stops us from speaking to the needs of the Jewish People in the moment. This does not mean the halachic answer is always yes, but there is a limit to unduly sanctifying the status quo and the prevalent religious culture, whatever your denomination.
If we are willing to open ourselves and our communities to embrace a wider and more varied range of Jewish ideas, Jewish spiritual tools, and Jewish people, our synagogues will quickly become the spiritual beverage of choice, once again, for the younger generation of Jews who are so thirsty for the word of God.
Rabbi Hyim Shafner, is the rabbi of Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis, Missouri. Formerly he was the Rabbi of the Hillel at Washington University in St. Louis for eight years and the Rabbi of India for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. He has Rabbinical Ordination, an MSW in social work and an MA in Jewish philosophy from Yeshiva University in New York.