Synagogue Innovation is the Key to Strengthening Jewish Life

pedicabBy Rabbi Rick Jacobs

If conventional wisdom reigned supreme, it would be easy to imagine that many of our venerable congregations – those steeped in history and tradition – are, by definition, ill-equipped to adapt to the complex and sometimes confusing trends in contemporary Jewish life.

Supposedly enlightened students of contemporary Jewish life regularly suggest that when it comes to congregations and denominations, “large” means “lethargic” and “old” means “obsolete.” To their way of thinking, “new” means “noteworthy,” and “small” means “sustainable.” The Jewish future, they claim, belongs to small, innovative start-ups.

In my view, their thinking is misguided and I’d like to challenge it.

But first let’s be clear about what innovation looks like.

A few weeks ago, I was trying to get across midtown Manhattan at rush hour. The streets mimicked a parking lot, the sidewalks were mobbed. As I tried to navigate the crush of rush hour, a guy in a pedicab honked his horn, asking if I wanted a ride.

The glorified rickshaw beckoned, offering me a clever – maybe even an innovative – way to be green, beat the gridlock, and take in the sights of NYC. As I calculated whether the pedicab was, in fact, my best option, I realized this new mode of transportation shares several characteristics with the Jewish start-ups popping up all over. Both have low overhead and are value-driven and socially responsible.

But as one person in one pedicab, I wondered: could the March on Washington have happened with this sole mode of transportation?

We all know the answer.

To press the analogy a bit, Jewish life needs to help people go forward on their journeys so in addition to pedicabs, we need planes, trains, buses, cars, and subways to keep Jewish life moving. The pedicab may be a novel way for a few people to go a short distance, but it’s not a viable, long-term strategy to transform Jewish travel.

Don’t get me wrong; the Jewish community is in serious need of innovation, and pedicabs – in the form of Jewish start-ups and groups that experiment with new models of community, spirituality, learning, and social justice – can play a role. At the same time, we must foster and appreciate innovation – especially when it’s happening in our own congregations.

I see amazing innovations and creativity in our congregations across North America all the time.

Here are a few examples.

Many congregations – both large and small – are experimenting with new financial models. These, among others, have successful voluntary dues structures:

Others are innovating around family engagement and retention:

These and other congregations are leading the way in disabilities inclusion efforts:

  • Temple Sinai in Atlanta, GA, offers lifelong learning and support to members of all ages with disabilities, including mental health disabilities.
  • Clergy at Temple Beth-El in Northbrook, IL, ensure all worship is accessible and integrate everyone, including those with disabilities, into services.

In the realm of leadership and governance, Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA, decreased its board from 40 to 18 members as did Temple Beth El in Aptos, CA. Both congregations also created a broader leadership or program council, ensuring the board can govern and lead without also having to manage.

Audacious hospitality is evident in the membership rolls – and the pews – of Oak Park Temple in Oak Park, IL, where Jews of color – a component of the Jewish community not often seen – are deeply engaged in synagogue life. In fact, Jews of color comprise between 10 and 20% of our community, and this congregation invests in the holy work necessary to welcome into their spiritual home those too often found on the margins of Jewish life.

Leaders and members at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield Hills, MI, our largest congregation, are experimenting with a new rabbinic position that engages millennials outside the congregation’s walls. Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, CA, and Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metairie, LA, have undertaken similar endeavors.

I could go on, but I think you understand that innovation is alive and thriving in our congregations. Through this work, we are well on the way to moving millions of people forward in their journeys while also transforming Jewish life and our institutions in wonderful, creative, and novel ways.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Cross-posted on URJ’s Inside Leadership Blog