It’s time for the Suburban Synagogue … again

By Rabbi Danny Burkeman

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck its a synagogue.

10 years ago, I became a Rabbi and over that time I have to confess that I have frequently broken one of the Ten Commandments. I have coveted. I have coveted as I have seen the attention and accolades that have been given to Jewish communal startups. I have coveted as I read about the programs and experiences that these communities were able to offer. And I have coveted as I have read about the foundations pouring money into these emergent Jewish communities, all the while reinforcing the conventional and frequently incorrect wisdom that synagogues are dying. Newsflash: We are not dying – in fact many of us are thriving!

When I emerged from five years of Rabbinical school, I was committed to working in a synagogue. I grew up in a congregation that was a home away from home for me and my family, and I wanted to be part of sharing that with a community of my own. I began my rabbinate in a mega-urban congregation with a primary focus on young adult engagement. And in that role, I borrowed from, and was inspired by, the work of many of these emergent Jewish communities, some that I had experienced personally and others that I had read about. The important distinction for me was that this work was taking place in a synagogue community, a place that these young adults could join in their 20s and 30s and hopefully eventually share with their own families.

I loved the work, but I was aware that whatever success we might have had with the local young adult population, the majority of them would not walk into a synagogue (or any other Jewish institution) until they began their own families (as is the traditional flow of Jewish life). I wanted a different type of connection; and so, after two years I moved to work in a suburban synagogue. In my urban synagogue it had often felt like the day began around 4pm as schools finished and people started to arrive at our door. I wanted to be a part of a community engaging with people morning, noon, and night. I found this in the “traditional” (suburban) synagogue. The young adults were still in their 30s but now they frequently had children and sometimes mortgages, and I had a community to serve from across the generations, engaging with people of all ages and stages of life. This was the sacred work that I wanted to do; but I still looked over my shoulder at the emergent communities, gaining ideas from the work that they were doing.

My frustration came from the fact that rather than simply supporting the work of these emergent communities; many academics, analysts and opinion leaders and the foundations they influenced seem to advocate an anti-synagogue agenda. These groups took pride in rejecting synagogue as a part of their identity. And it felt like the Jewish community was preparing itself for a new dawn with the death of the synagogue and something new emerging. In one fellowship in which I had the privilege of participating, I felt that there was an agenda for the Rabbis to quit our pulpit positions and develop the next Jewish startup. It was never said explicitly, but it was there implicitly in so much of what was done and shared.

Many of these new communities rejected the label of synagogue because they said that they weren’t going to have a membership dues structure. It wasn’t right to call them synagogues because they were not providing the Religious school or other programs that are a staple of synagogue life. Or often (and it seemed to be a badge of honor) they weren’t synagogues because they didn’t own their own buildings. I’ve been coveting, but I’ve also been watching, and today many of those communities (like synagogues) have membership models around a structure of (dues) contributions. As the participants of these programs and communities have gotten older their needs have shifted and traditional “synagogue programing” has been added for their families. And now in some cases we’ve even seen the purchase of property and real estate.

I can understand why they didn’t want to be called synagogues (especially as a means to fundraising), but if it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it’s a synagogue.

A revolutionary institution frozen in time.

When we look at the full span of Jewish history, at all those moments of innovation, change, and revolution, I think one can make a compelling case that the development of Rabbinic Judaism and the creation of the synagogue were the two most radical moments of all. Our Biblical Jewish structure was centered around the Temple, around a specific geographic place, and it was led by a single group of people, the Priests, who had dominion over the religious life of the community. And while this structure served us well for several hundred years, it was ultimately doomed, and with the destruction of the Second Temple there were very real questions of how would and how could Judaism survive?

It is into this context that the Rabbis emerged, ready for a revolution. At the beginning of Pirkei Avot they wrote a new history as they imagined it (and as they needed it to be). “Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly” (Pirkei Avot 1:1). Their rivals for dominion over Judaism, the Priests, were written out of the story and instead they imagined a straight line from Moses to the Rabbis. They even adopted him as one of their own, no longer would he just be Moses, but now he was Moshe Rabbeinu – Moses our Rabbi.

The innovations were not limited to the leadership. Without a Temple, without a center, the very structure of Judaism and the Jewish community had to change – the radical and revolutionary innovation was the synagogue. As the Jewish Encyclopedia notes: “The origin of the synagogue, in which the congregation gathered to worship and to receive the religious instruction connected therewith, is wrapped in obscurity.” It probably began to develop in the time of the Babylonian exile, when the people needed a way to maintain their religious life outside of the land, but it became THE structure as the rabbinic center, and especially after the Second Temple destruction.

We cannot underestimate how a decentralized, communal space for the worship of God, open to all people, was a truly radical innovation, not just in the history of Judaism, but for all religions. The synagogue ultimately served as the model to be emulated by both the Christian Church and the Islamic Mosque. If we go back far enough, then the original synagogues probably were emergent Jewish communities. They challenged the pre-existing structure of the Jewish community and they brought about tremendous change in how the community functioned and was structured.

Ahad Ha’am famously said: “More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.” He may be correct, but I would suggest one could also say: More than the Jewish people have built synagogues, synagogues have built the Jewish people. We imagine the synagogue as a monolithic structure, when, throughout the generations the synagogue has always adapted, developed, and changed to provide the central communal institution that the people needed. The synagogues of the early rabbinic period were markedly different from the synagogues found during the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, which in turn were different from the synagogues of Eastern European Jewry in the 17th and 18th centuries, which are different from the synagogues in America today.

The synagogue has always been an innovative institution, it’s just that in this most recent moment of Jewish history that innovation has (perhaps) taken a bit too long in coming. In the American Jewish community, we have gotten stuck in a model of the synagogue that served our people in the 1960s and 1970s. It was so successful in that context that the structure and institution was frozen in a moment of time. Finally, we are seeing the ice beginning to melt, and I believe a reimagining of what the synagogue could and should be. We stand in the midst of a moment of innovation and change: Reimagination, renewal, and revolution of what the synagogue can be, but not a rejection of it.

These non-synagogue synagogues have certainly helped fuel a conversation. These emergent communities have offered us new and innovative models for what synagogue life can look like and they have offered us inspiring and engaging models. But they also leave us with a significant challenge that needs to be addressed today.

A rising tide lifts all boats or does it?

Startup Jewish communities in our urban centers have changed the expectations for what the Jewish community can offer. Programs and offerings that synagogues are seeking to provide today have been inspired by the work of emergent communities. With the changes in the Jewish community over the last two decades there is a question about what level of program and service people are expecting. For 20 years we have invested in emergent Judaism in our urban centers, but we have forgotten about the life blood of the Jewish community. We have neglected the suburban synagogue and now we have a problem, or at least a challenge.

As a Jewish community we have focused on startup communities and we have focused on our urban centers. Studies have been used to demonstrate the importance and growth of our urban Jewish community, but they only tell half the story. In the Greater Boston Jewish Community Study of 2015, they noted “there has been a reurbanization of the Jewish community; that is, a smaller share live in the suburbs and a greater share live in the urban and increasingly urbanized areas.” The suburbs still accounted for 37% of the Jewish community, but the telling statistics were in the age breakdowns; while of 18-34s only 29% lived in the suburbs, the numbers rose to 47% of 35-49 and 57% of 50-64. We know that people are having children later and therefore moving to the suburbs later; this means that the percentage share of the suburban community may have fallen, but the direction remains the same – move to the suburbs when you have children.

But when these families move to the suburbs what do they find? Over the last couple of decades we have ensured that the Jewish communal experience in our urban center has developed, innovated, and grown through generous philanthropic investment. At the same time the suburban synagogue has been left to its own devices – for many, (incorrectly) a dinosaur ready for extinction. There has always been a disparity between what could be offered in an urban center and what could be found in the suburbs, but over the last couple of decades that gap has widened significantly.

Today, when families move to the suburbs, to what kind of Jewish community are they going to belong? These people in their late 30s and early 40s are unlikely to build the same communities that they helped to create in the city. With the commitments of family and this next stage of life they simply don’t have the time to invest in building the next startup in the suburbs. And when they explore what many synagogues are offering, they find a Judaism and a program that has failed to keep pace with their expectations for what the community they want to belong to should look like. Their choice, on the surface, seems to be nothing or less than they would want.

Tikva – The hope for the suburban synagogue again

But there is an exception to the rule. Some suburban synagogues have tried their best to keep pace. I consider myself blessed to have served congregations in New York’s suburbs and now in the Metrowest of Boston that have sought to offer a modern and relevant Judaism for today’s Jewish community. These communities have not received the kind of financial backing that would be available in the city, but with a dedicated membership and a committed leadership we have found a way to offer a Judaism that is on the cutting edge, innovative, and relevant for today.

When I was looking for a synagogue community to serve and in which to lay down roots, I knew what I wanted. I was interested in finding a community that was willing to go on a journey with me as we reimagine what the synagogue can and should look like today. I wanted a synagogue community that was willing to take risks and invest to offer a relevant and modern Judaism. Most of all, I was searching for a congregation to which I would want to belong and that my family could call home.

It is easy for communities to say they are willing to take risks and that they are prepared for failure, but to believe it you have to see it. At Temple Shir Tikva, when the JCC decided to withdraw from providing an Early Learning Center (ELC) at the synagogue, the cheapest and safest choice at the time would have been to close it altogether. But Shir Tikva recognized the need to invest in young families, to take a chance, and be ready to fail. They therefore took over the running and management of the ELC, owning it as a synagogue endeavor. In the first year they budgeted for a loss, which never happened. Instead the ELC has grown to such an extent that there is now a waiting list; the gamble has well and truly paid off. We need synagogues that are prepared to take risks, that are not afraid to fail – I saw that in this community.

Today we know that people are looking for different models of Jewish engagement and connection. While for some, the traditional service structure and experience still work, there are others who have been inspired by external traditions to seek an alternative Jewish path. At Shir Tikva I found a community that had invested in starting a Spirituality Center, looking to provide an opportunity for its members to experience different elements of Jewish life.

Today, we at Shir Tikva are clear in our vision to make Judaism relevant in the 21st century and to be the heart of Jewish living and practice in Metrowest. To that end, we have put our money where our mouth is and removed the major barrier to synagogue membership – finances. We are confident that people who walk through our doors and give us a try will stay, and so for that first year we have introduced a Complimentary Membership Program. I acknowledge that there is a degree of luck that we find ourselves in a geographic location with the potential for growth, but in so many places it goes unrealized. Here, with a commitment to providing a modern synagogue model, in two short years we have seen our membership grow by over 20%. It doesn’t show any signs of slowing down yet, but we need help to keep pace.

For the last decade we have focused on entrepreneurship within the Jewish community and invested in people who have sought to build something new, but we have neglected intrapreneurship – those people who are innovating, in our existing institutions. There are so many synagogue intrapreneurs doing exceptional work to ensure that their communities remain vibrant, modern, engaging, and relevant places for today’s community. But we have neglected to talk about them enough and to celebrate the renaissance that is taking place. And there are even more synagogues that have the capacity to innovate and flourish that are being ignored and left behind, unable to reach their enormous potential.

The challenge for the future.

The synagogue was never meant to be one thing; there was never only one model of what it could be. Today we are simultaneously in a moment of crisis and opportunity. Some synagogues are in crisis. Those communities who remain stuck in a model that is no longer relevant or meaningful are disappearing – the people have spoken. The synagogue model of the 1960s and 70s no longer speaks to the Jewish community of today (and if we’re honest it hasn’t spoken to the Jewish community for quite some time now). This is a painful moment because people remain committed to their institutions and their structures and it is difficult to say goodbye and let go.

But this is not the only model of synagogue. The academics and analysts who speak about the death of the synagogue have looked exclusively at these communities and used them to dismiss all congregations. But there is another way; there are synagogues that have evolved, adapted, and innovated, to not only survive, but to thrive. They offer us models of the synagogue today and for the future. There is a tremendous opportunity to invest and develop those suburban synagogues who are moving with the times. There are synagogue communities that are growing and developing, congregations that are providing meaning and connection. Synagogues who have declared “hineini” we are here for the challenges, the needs, and the wants of the Jewish community today. We are blessed to have a Jewish world that is made up of a beautiful patchwork of institutions offering successful approaches to communal engagement. The synagogue is not the only way for people to connect to Judaism, but over 2,000 years of history it has been by far the most successful. And with the correct support, our synagogues can continue to innovate and provide a community that will resonate with an ever-changing Jewish population.

When I look at the world and so many of the challenges we face, I passionately believe that people need synagogues now more than ever. When we look at the loneliness of the isolated society that has developed around us, the opportunity to belong to a religious community offers an important antidote. When we consider the challenges of the modern world and our 24/7 culture, we know that Judaism offers so many responses and remedies that can be meaningful and helpful. And as we witness a sense of powerlessness and fear about the direction in which our world is moving, the synagogue community can provide the anchor to weather life’s storms.

If the last decade of Jewish communal giving was defined by an investment in startup Judaism and emergent communities, I believe that this forthcoming decade needs to be defined by an investment in the synagogue. This is a tremendous moment of opportunity. The people in whom foundations invested while they were living in the cities now need to be supported as they build their lives in the suburbs. We have seen what is possible in the development of a new urban Judaism and now it is time for that same level of investment in the suburbs. In synagogues like Temple Shir Tikva and others the work has already begun. Many of us are ready to partner on this sacred work, we are excited for what the future holds, and we are ready for the suburban synagogue to be the radical and innovative institution it once was … again.

Rabbi Danny Burkeman is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, MA., where he aspires to make Judaism relevant and meaningful in the modern world. He has a weekly podcast Two Minutes of Torah, which has been running for over 7 years, and was a member of the inaugural cohort of the UJA Federation of New York’s Rabbinic Fellowship for Visionary Leaders. He is married to Micol, a Jewish Educator, and together they are parents of Gabriella and Benjamin.