How to Make the Synagogue a More Relevant Institution in Jewish Life

How to Make the Synagogue a More Relevant Institution in Jewish Life: A Review
Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today: Creating Vibrant Centers of Jewish Life
by Rabbi Hayim Herring (The Alban Institute, 2012; $17)

Can you imagine being so excited about a book that you could not wait to write the review and let other people know about it? Well, that’s exactly how I felt reading Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today by Rabbi Hayim Herring. This is a book that every synagogue rabbi and president should read and study, as well as anyone else who is connected to synagogue life in America and concerned about its future. Once they have become familiar with it the members of synagogue boards of directors should not only read it but also plan to have a board retreat to deal with the issues that Rabbi Herring raises and discusses throughout the book.

Rabbi Herring challenges the synagogue community to clarify the value they place on the role of the synagogue in Jewish life and the role of the rabbi in the synagogue. Although there have been isolated attempts to recreate spiritual and ritual life, there has never been an attempt to re-define the role of the synagogue for the 21st century. The havura movement and the development of decentralized prayer groups within synagogues, both 20th century models, did not introduce a process whereby basic questions could be confronted about how the synagogue responds to members’ needs and assumes a leadership role in the spiritual and ritual lives of its congregants.

The book’s structure is user friendly. Rabbi Herring, the former Executive Director of STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal), as well as former senior rabbi at a major congregation in Minneapolis, Minnesota, begins by documenting trends in synagogue life, including decreasing membership and increasing expenditures. Most synagogues are facing the challenges of a changing time and the impact of an advanced technological age on the structure of organizational life. There is a brief description of today’s demographic changes, i.e., intermarriage, age of affiliation, among others. He discusses the implications of these trends on synagogue life and the importance of becoming relevant to the Jewish communities and Jewish individuals and families in the 21st Century.

Rabbi Herring moves into a discussion of the essential elements necessary for a synagogue to be successful today. He succinctly identifies 10 aspects of the way the synagogue needs to function. For example, he points out that synagogues must acknowledge that they are no longer in control of their message in an age of social media and instant communication where anyone affiliated with the synagogue and with access to the Internet has the ability to communicate about his or her experiences (good or bad). For that reason, organizations today must have complete transparency in regards to their programs, governance and finance. Synagogues are no different. Each synagogue must make an effort to renew their vision. This process often strengthens the members’ connection, commitment and involvement in the institution. If the synagogue is going to attract people and grow then it has to share knowledge and leadership. If a small group within the synagogue seeks to control it then they will be limiting themselves and send a message to other people that it is a closed organization.

In order to move successfully into the future, the synagogue has to redefine itself as more than a place that holds religious services. Yes, it has to meet the religious and ritual needs of its people, but its perspective has to be one of serving the community in an open and creative fashion. Its mission statement has to reflect a sense of it being “… a community engaged in important, purposeful work that affects all.”

Rabbi Herring challenges communities to adopt what he refers to as “strategies for growth.” The salient components are examining the roles of the synagogue staff and lay leaders, developing outreach programs, upgrading the use of technology and expanding collaboration with other synagogues and Jewish communal organizations regardless of their affiliations and ideologies. The name of the game is reaching people through partnerships and sharing in the holy work of reaching out to the Jewish community at large.

Collaboration means learning to let go and have sole ownership over involving Jews in the ritual, spiritual and educational aspects of Jewish communal life. Synagogues and other communal organizations are uniquely positioned to pool their resources and expand the meaningful impact they can have on the community. Among other functions they can share back office tasks, develop shared programming, consider merging declining synagogues and overall, create strategic alliance that enable the synagogue to play an important role in strengthening Jewish identity through its activities.

Rabbi Herring introduces us to not only the role of the synagogue, but also the role rabbis play in synagogues and in the community. He offers a way of looking at the various roles a rabbi in the 21st century needs to fulfill in the community. The rabbi has to not only be a spiritual leader, but also implement the role with passion whether it is in regards to education, prayer or leadership development.

The Rabbi has to be someone who can empower and inspire others in the community to work with her in meeting the community’s needs. As Rabbi Herring reminds us, there has to be a shift in roles for professional and volunteer leadership in the congregation. Rabbis cannot fill all the roles and it is a challenge to train congregational volunteers to develop themselves while serving the synagogue community.

The Jewish community is looking for a new model for Jewish spiritual leadership and this book provides us with a glimpse of what that looks like. As he so aptly points out, rabbinical organizations do not mandate their rabbis to undertake systematic continuing education in order to remain members in good standing. A rabbi receives ordination and then is out in the world. Just as many other professionals are required to continue to learn and develop their skills rabbis should also be held to that standard and have access to educational practical experience that will challenge their understanding of their roles in the synagogue. They should have the chance to renew themselves and when appropriate, re-conceptualize how they view their role and implement it in the community.

In the final chapter, “You Have the Wisdom To Find The Way,” Rabbi Herring challenges us to begin the process with our own synagogues and communities. If we do not embark on this new path we will unfortunately prevent the synagogue from fulfilling its potential. It will continue to decline and perhaps render itself obsolete.

This book makes the case that every synagogue should begin a strategic planning process to provide its leadership with an opportunity to clarify their values and develop an approach that will strengthen the unique role of the rabbi and the synagogue in the Jewish community. After finishing the book, the reader is left with a feeling that we must take up the challenge now and we will be making a contribution not only to our specific synagogue, but also to the larger Jewish community. This is the reason why I think that this book is a must read for every rabbi and synagogue leader before they embark upon a strategic planning process!

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.