Shifting Paradigms in Synagogues

This week marks the 200th anniversary of a foundational event in Reform Judaism, the dedication of a Temple in Seesen, Germany. With the aim of reconciling Jewish tradition with modernity, it embraced a different aesthetic and modeled a new practice for Jewish worship. Today’s non-Orthodox synagogues face a different challenge – not to adapt their ideology to the present day, but rather to transform their institutions.

The Jews of twentieth-century America celebrated their achievements partly by erecting magnificent buildings that conveyed the solidity and success of the communities they served. The staff and operations of the synagogues, which often became correspondingly large, were supported mostly by member dues. Although synagogue attendance may not have been frequent, members paid their dues out of a sense of obligation and as a badge of affiliation with their local Jewish community.

That desire for affiliation and the feeling of obligation have weakened in the last couple of generations. Of course there are still many vital synagogues where the participants enjoy their experiences, feel a strong connection to the community, and are proud to be members. Generally, however, choice is now valued more highly than obligation. Jews shop for the best synagogue value based on the needs of their families, and those needs are often very specific.

It’s not that American Jews are necessarily less interested in the religious aspects of Jewish life, or that they feel less obligated to live ethical lives. The difference is that they now have more choices for spiritual pursuits, for engaging in action to make the world a better place, or simply for being with other Jews. Where young Jews a generation ago might have responded to the Prophets’ call for justice through charitable contributions or local volunteering, they now might work with refugees in Africa or help with disaster relief in Haiti. They may support environmentalism by biking with Hazon. It is hard for synagogues to make the case that member dues are as compelling as that kind of personal commitment, or that hearing sermons about social justice is as powerful as taking action.

Nonetheless, many synagogues assume that what they offer is a necessary part of the Jewish experience and see the challenge as finding the revenue to support it. They may add activities to seem more relevant but they keep the basic structure. That business model, however, is out of step with a membership that is primarily interested in lifecycle events, High Holiday services, and occasional pastoral services. It also doesn’t respond to the many competing opportunities for Jewish engagement.

Each synagogue needs to map its own destination, and there are no shortcuts to getting there. But there are some general directions to avoid getting lost.

  • Don’t blame the congregants. It’s not their fault that the synagogue isn’t responsive to their needs. They’re not being selfish or irresponsible because they don’t become members. Look instead at how to give them a synagogue experience worth supporting.
  • Imitate success. The most successful religious organizations in America are the ones operated by Chabad and by evangelical Christians. What they have in common is one-on-one outreach that leads to committed community members. Instead of scorning these movements, learn from their experience and offer what evangelicals call “fellowship” – not a vague “warm and welcoming” feeling, but a tightly embracing community of specific shared values.
  • Make choices. One of the cardinal rules of marketing is that you can’t be all things to all people. Yet synagogues try, often because they mistakenly confuse “inclusiveness” with not taking a position. Chabad is aggressively inclusive, but it is very clear about what it is and what it is not. Religious institutions, like other kinds, inspire involvement to the extent that they stand for something.
  • Say little and do much. When a congregant calls the rabbi’s office to request an appointment and is told that the first available date is two months away, something is badly wrong – and the synagogue’s Vision Statement won’t compensate for the congregant’s resulting unhappiness. Don’t pass new resolutions. Just make sure that the synagogue responds quickly, routinely, and successfully to its members’ individual urgencies.

Synagogues, like other service organizations, ultimately can’t last unless they fill a particular need and keep their costs in line with revenue. They can start by doing a better job of anticipating and recognizing young Jews’ religious interests, redesigning the organization to respond to those interests imaginatively and effectively, and questioning all the rest. The transition won’t be easy, but the alternative is obsolescence.

Bob Goldfarb, a long-time consultant and a Harvard MBA, is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles and Jerusalem. His Twitter feed about Jews, the arts, and Jewish culture is at