Re-Imagining Synagogues and Communities, Part 2

[The following article is offered as a partnership between eJP and the Clergy Leadership Incubator program (CLI). CLI is a two-year program to support and encourage congregational rabbis and rabbinic entrepreneurs in the areas of innovative thinking, change management and institutional transformation. CLI is directed by Rabbi Sid Schwarz and is fiscally sponsored by Hazon. Each month CLI offers a Synagogue Innovation Blog. Past columns can be found at:]

By Rabbi Rachel Weiss

Editor’s Note: Part 1 of this article is here.

Most liberal Jews have never learned what Judaism has to say about the social justice passions that often define their most regular Jewish interactions. They know that Judaism advocates tikkun olam, but they have never been exposed to what our texts and customs teach. One way that we can serve our members is to be explicit that it’s okay to “not know.” In fact, it speaks to the deep Jewish value that learning is never complete. Many folks – those who grew up in a Judaism that departed from Orthodox or traditional practice, those who chose Judaism later in life, and those who aren’t Jewish – never had this education to begin with, and contextualizing it in the way that liberal Jewish communities function, we open the doors to learning opportunities and engagement. We have to model that not knowing isn’t reason to refrain; rather, it is a chance for folks to try something for the first time that might be meaningful to who they are now. We need to entice our unengaged members with opportunities to learn about traditions that most liberal Jews never accessed before. Using the framework, What’s Jewish About?, we can draw explicit connections to ways in which our members live their lives – through parenting, protesting, work/life balance, grief, transition – and bring Judaism to them, rather than bringing them to Judaism.

Social Justice activism is a defining feature of most Reconstructionist congregations. When I meet with b’nai mitzvah families, and I ask parents to tell me what is most compelling to them about being Jewish, most comment that the way they most deeply connect to Judaism is through our focus on tikkun olam. However, most folks cannot talk about what Judaism has to say about tikkun olam, or how it connects to them personally. To address this, we begin each Social Justice Committee meeting with Jewish texts and ideas, bringing more Jewish tradition into this work.

Yet our congregation is having trouble engaging our members in our Social Justice committee work. Why would folks come together within their synagogues to call legislators, or participate in climate marches, or volunteer in soup kitchens, instead of doing so through their civic organizations or friendship groups? And if the answer is that they don’t need the synagogue to motivate them or organize them to do what they are doing anyway, how can we be a part of what they do so that they connect the work that they do as activists with their Jewish identities and their spiritual lives. We are thus narrowing the focus to address the question: What is the unique voice that we can offer because we are a Jewish congregation?

We can create portable liturgies for protest marches – blessings for taking to the streets as a form of prayer that anyone can lead when the group gathers. Our psalms – Min hametzar karati yah (Psalm 118:5), Olam chesed yibaneh (Psalm 89:3), and Pitchu li sha’arey tzedek (Psalm 118:19) lead our voices in the streets and adorn our protest signs, and then connect our justice initiatives when we are back inside the sanctuary in worship. We can gather to share a meal, or to share stories about how food is related to our Jewish identities before we work in a soup kitchen. We can study the historic immigration laws and look at our own family histories before we go together to stand vigil before ICE hearings at detention centers. We can mandate that all of our b’nai mitzvah social justice projects be within synagogue task forces, so that our students don’t merely do a one-time project, but rather engage with the larger multi-age community. Many of the kids who do this remain engaged post-b’nai mitzvah, as do their parents.

The Next Gen Challenge

Over the years, our community has done a good job of engaging our members from birth through b’nai mitzvah, and from early parenting through death. There are 20-30 years between becoming bar mitzvah and becoming a preschool parent, (if they have kids), which is 25% of the lifespan. And yet, there are a plethora of organizations that capture the hearts and Jewish souls of folks in this age bracket. Jewish summer camps, Hillel, Moishe House, Avodah to name a few, not to mention Jewish political organizations of every stripe. Rather than cede this cohort to these groups, we need to partner with them. The new generation of unaffiliated, emergent Jewish communities are sexy and intriguing, and rather than submit to our anxiety about competition for membership, we ask: “How might we bring our communities together to strengthen X event, or bring different perspective to Y initiative?” We both have what to offer. We don’t have to become one entity, but neither should we become threatened by other Jewish organizations.

On the Wednesday before Tisha b’Av, I gathered with eighteen folks in their 20’s and 30’s at a local bar to learn about Tisha b’Av and its contemporary meaning. Not all were members of JRC, and not all are going to become members. Some are attached to JRC, and some to Moishe House, Avodah, Svara, Orot, local veggie potluck shabbat dinners, and political activism. The conversation was rich and curious. The eighteen young adults who joined together to study about a Jewish commemoration of mourning brought insights, empathy, criticism, and a deep desire to find the ways in which Judaism feels authentic and real. We discussed activism and what it means to offer tokhekhah – rebuke – of beloved institutions when they no longer manifest the values that we hold.

We discussed our relationship to the Earth – how contemporary environmental elements and native plants in California mirror the Biblical desert vegetation – and how wild edible plants seem to die right around Tisha b’Av, and blossom at Tu b’Shvat – a contemporary cycle of death and birth. We recalled the other calamities that took place on Tisha b’Av, and our mandate to remember them: expulsions from England and Spain; the day Germany entered World War I; the Nazi creation of “The Final Solution”; and the day the Warsaw Ghetto was emptied to Treblinka. We searched for meaning in a holiday that we might not find meaningful or one we may have never learned about at all. We brought in comparisons to the period of Lent in Catholicism – mourning, abstaining from certain pleasures, and ultimately rejoicing – practices with theological similarities to Jewish tradition.

I was deeply moved and engaged by this gathering. What resulted from the gathering was that on Tisha b’Av, we partnered with Hands of Peace, hosting Jewish Israeli, Palestinian citizens of Israel, Palestinian, and American Jewish, Muslim and Christian teens. We shared four different perspectives on being in relationship with one another and we reinterpreted the loss of homeland observed with the destruction of the Temple through these different, parallel narratives. The political becomes personal becomes ritual, and we used the shared emotion of lament as we chanted from each of their stories of loss in Eicha trope. We sang together. On a practical note, few congregants come to a Saturday night program in July to mourn the loss of a 2,000 year-old Temple. But we found that many who mourn the unravelling of the Israel/Palestine peace process found both solace and strength in this observance, and over 100 people attended this past year.

This conversation would not have happened if we told this group that the only way to be engaged in the synagogue and to have a voice is to pay dues and contribute to a building fund. Rather, if they have Facebook friends who are attending a program, if the conversation is good, and if there are opportunities to engage with other Jews, then they feel they belong in the moment. And down the road, if they need a Jewish resource or community, a connection has been initiated.

There is a fine line between coddling an ambivalent generation and providing easy access to a synagogue. We at JRC have chosen to create easy points of access without requiring financial support of the synagogue. There’s no cost or requirement to be a member to attend a learning session and conversation with the rabbi at a bar night, with food provided. To attend all of our High Holiday services, those under 35 can buy a Chai Holiday Ticket for $18. It costs $36 per month to become a member. We have a 25-year-old board member who is a social worker who cannot afford a $400 annual dues payment in one lump sum. But if she pays monthly like she does her gym membership and student loan payment, it’s accessible. She and the leaders of the 20s-30s group who were invited to the annual gala at no charge could not have afforded the $180 ticket, nor would they have chosen to spend their money that way, but all of them spent money on silent auction items once they were there and were able to see folks who pledged $10,000 to the capital campaign. If we bring these young adults to the table and encourage them to affiliate as one of their many communities, we are more likely to keep them involved when they have more money to spend and will want to fiscally support the synagogue. At our recent Phonathon fundraiser, one of our 30-year old members joined the callers, but reached out to everyone in his generation by text – successfully. Similarly, if we show up where they do – at rallies, marches, bars, theater events – then our Gen XYZ members will see that we share their concerns.

By electing a 25-year old to our board, and establishing a committee run by 20- and 30-somethings, we create space and resources within the synagogue to allow them to develop their own programming and articulate their own needs. These folks have a voice at every level of synagogue decision making, which creates buy-in and validates their presence and their opinions.

Our college students receive care packages from me at Rosh Hashanah, and they are invited to lunch with me over winter break. Rosh Hashanah care packages contain requisite apple and honey sweets, but also the packet of reflective readings from our services, and thought-provoking questions for the season of the year. For the student who goes to Hillel, or comes home, or has an exam on Rosh Hashanah and eats dried apples in their dorm room, this lets them know that there is a connection waiting for them. Our high school students are invited to High School Hangout with the Rabbi at a café once a month after school, where the coffee is on me, and the conversation is up to them.

Recently, we discussed their school’s walkout in the wake of school shootings, being Jewish and having white privilege, civil disobedience and relationship to the police who chaperoned the event. Then one teen brought out the tallit she is making for her sister’s bat mitzvah, and the whole group learned to tie tzitzit and talked about the symbols we wear – all in the midst of a local café. It’s an opportunity to bring my rabbinate and our synagogue into the lives of our congregants. When they feel like they need to come in, it’s up to them, but we have intentionally laid the groundwork to make that engagement easy and inviting.

Making it Multigenerational

One role that multigenerational communities can play is to create a community stable enough to provide ever-changing ways for Jewish people to come together and explore what they care about.Congregations need to emphasize the value of community in which members show up for one another, not because we like one another or because we even know one another. We have plenty of chosen cohorts. In multigenerational communities, we show up for one another as witnesses; to fulfill our obligation to one another as fellow Jews; and because synagogues often create families for those who need them. If we are to fulfill our obligations to one another – the simple act of belonging – we must cultivate a communal ethos that says: “just show up.”

Where are the places that we need to show up? We witness the photo exhibition of the eighth graders who looked for examples of hesed (kindness) around the city as part of a curriculum on photography and the Jewish lens. We witness the person ending years of chemotherapy and taking herself off the refuah (healing) list by bentsching gomel (a new tradition for her – the blessing for escape from danger) and dancing. We witness two households saying Kaddish for their young children and being surrounded by arms singing Oseh Shalom. We witness new members having an aufruf (being called up for an aliyah before your wedding – also a new tradition to them) when their family of origin would not support their marriage. We witness a member returning from a trip with the Center for Jewish Nonviolence and sharing her stories of witnessing the Occupation in Israel/Palestine. We witness a funeral where none of the 70 people in the room were related to the meitah (deceased), but three of them performed tahara (ritual cleansing) for her, one was her power of attorney, and many were members of the community who came to sit by her bedside as her health declined. We show up when 20 kids fly across the country to Camp Havaya, ranging from age 8-16, and the older ones call the younger ones’ parents when the flight is delayed. We use Jewish tradition to push against the age of selfishness and individualism by showing all generations the way in which we cannot be Jewish alone, and that there are always new ways to be Jewish.

Partnering with other Organizations

Synagogues have always provided a venue in which Jews across the lifespan can engage with one another. We need to recognize that many members – not just millennials – are looking for meaningful, spiritual, adult Jewish communities. This word is plural by intention – one institution (even a synagogue!) will never be sufficient to meet everyone’s needs. By partnering with other communities, and creating multidisciplinary programs across our different committees, we keep our members engaged and we stay relevant, so that we don’t put synagogues in the position of having to be all things to all people. It’s okay to specialize, but we must stay engaged in what is relevant so that our specialization evolves with our changing world.

It’s not always easy or comfortable to be in a congregational setting with passionate and diverse Jews. Our congregation spans the gamut of liberal political positions. We are a community that feels deeply and acts with conviction, but we live in the tension of how to not let this divide us. Our understanding of Peoplehood propels us to stay connected because it deepens our souls and our community. In a recent response to anti-Semitism, intersectionality, and the Chicago Dyke March, I wrote to my community:

“As a Lesbian, a Jew, and a rabbi, I believe the LGBTQ community needs to be expansive enough to include religious, political, and personal voices. We know from history what silencing can do. The queer community cannot exclude Jews. The queer community cannot exclude those with whom we disagree, no matter how profoundly. For this I am deeply dismayed and saddened at what took place at the 2017 Chicago Dyke March. 

I also believe the Jewish community has to be a big enough tent to include Zionists, non-Zionists and anti-Zionists. We must engage in more conversations, and not exclude the elements we don’t like or even those with whom we deeply differ. Sometimes our own multiple, internal identities are in conflict. I personally am against the Occupation and believe in the right of self-determination and liberation for the Palestinian people. I also believe in the right of the State of Israel to exist and the need for thoughtful engagement and critique when necessary. This is one of those times, and there is no one way to achieve this. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t fit in a single symbol. 

I want be part of real, live community, to engage with people who can disagree with one another, including leadership, and also deeply respect our individual and collective experiences. We must listen, learn, and participate in self-reflection.” 

There are elements of the question of “What might the 21st century synagogue look like?” that are completely new. They push us out of the buildings and our dues structures, and require us to take an active position to engage, rather than being an organization that is necessarily and presumptively supported by our members. On the other hand, we need to be stable and strong and be the people that others can rely on for support, conscience, and inspiration. We must educate, we must act and we must feed our souls and our hearts.

I don’t know everything. What I do know is that the community I serve feels vulnerable, uncomfortable, and filled with nuance. It is also filled with celebration, desire, and yearning. We need to embrace complex feelings and ideas, both ideologies and identities, and create spaces for all who desire a seat at the table for collective liberation.

I truly believe that if congregations are to stay relevant and engaged, we must move from a place of defensiveness to a place of seeking. We must ask our members what they want and what they need, and we must join them out in the world where they are. We must dream together, asking: “How might we?” rather than “Why don’t they?” and experiment, reconstruct, and keep visioning. We must connect one to the other. This includes online, in the streets, in cafes, and yes, in our sanctuaries as well. The container changes and becomes new, but if we are mindful and creative, it remains holy.

Rabbi Rachel Weiss is grateful to be the rabbi of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, IL, which is also the community where she grew up. She is a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and previously served as Associate Rabbi of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York.  She is currently a Fellow in Cohort 4 of the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI). An earlier version of this article appeared in Evolve, the online journal of Reconstructing Judaism.