Synagogues Are Not Helpless

“Seeds of Hope” – YouTube screen capture

By Rabbi Joshua Rabin

Synagogues make easy scapegoats. For over a generation, the synagogue has been propped up as a symptom and symbol of everything not working about Judaism today. At the same time, unless Jewish communal leaders, professionals, and philanthropists consider the opportunity cost of speaking about synagogues as institutions incapable of redemption, far too many congregations will lose the ability to approach the challenges of the stormy present with an optimistic and resilient mindset.

I travel across North America to work with synagogue leaders in my role at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ). While I am always energized to meet synagogue leaders who feel optimistic and energetic about the future, sadly collective optimism is the exception, not the rule. Of course, it is difficult to look at falling numbers, graying membership and rising costs and assume that everything will be fantastic; that’s naivete, not optimism. However, if synagogue leaders do not think strategically while dreaming optimistically, then the Jewish community will fail to unleash the kind of creativity that comes from adversity.

1. Martin Seligman and the Power of Explanatory Style

Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania is known as the father of “positive psychology,” pioneering research on how fostering positive attitudes affects human flourishing. In Learned Optimism, Seligman argues that the major difference between optimists and pessimists is how each explains bad events, what Seligman calls “explanatory style.” A pessimist experiences a setback and ascribes it to “permanent causes,” such as stupidity or inaptitude, whereas an optimist ascribes a setback to “temporary causes,” focusing on context, rather than assuming that setbacks are due to immutable and unfixable traits (Learned Optimism, 45).

Seligman’s distinction between optimism and pessimism should sound familiar to anyone who follows the dominant literature written about synagogues today (in a separate piece, I wrote about how pessimism uniquely affects Conservative Judaism). Words like uninspiring, boring, unwelcoming and dysfunctional may be accurate descriptions of some synagogues some of the time, but the Jewish world needs to consider how using those words affect the capacity of synagogue leaders to dream and dare. Seligman writes:

“Your habitual way of explaining bad events, your explanatory style, is more than just the words you mouth when you fail. It is a habit of thought, learned in childhood and adolescence. Your explanatory style stems directly from your view of your place in the world – whether you think are valuable and deserving, or worthless and hopeless” (44).

The words used to describe synagogues affect the way synagogue leaders see themselves and their place in the Jewish world, and by extension affect their ability to construct visions that are challenging, but attainable, inspiring, yet realistic. Furthermore, when communal conversation focuses on synagogues as largely archaic, cloistered Bnai Mitzvah factories that hurt Jewish life rather than help it, it should surprise no one that certain synagogue cultures internalize those narratives and believe that nothing can be done to fix it.

However, today a common thread in thriving Jewish organizations is an optimism about what they aspire to and believe they can achieve, a recognition that realism about the challenges of the present does not eliminate the ability of those institutions to believe in their vision and capacity to carry it out. As a result, when thinking about synagogue change, this suggests to me that rather than trying to rip the synagogue structure out from beneath, the first thing that we need to do is help synagogue leaders no longer be afraid to hope.

2. The Synagogue that Feared to Hope

Five years ago, my colleagues Kathy Elias, Robert Leventhal, and Rabbi Charles Savenor created the Sulam for Emerging Leaders (SEL) program, a leadership development curriculum from USCJ that has already helped synagogues cultivate over 1,500 new leaders in Conservative synagogues, with almost 60% of graduates now serving on their synagogue board. My favorite exercise in the curriculum is called “The Congregation that Feared to Hope,” a true story of a synagogue paralyzed by a gloomy vision about their future, and where the cohort is tasked with changing the language that the leaders use. In the case study, when asked to provide an optimistic vision about the future, the synagogue leaders gave responses like:

  • Kids wouldn’t drop out after Bar Mitzvah. They would care more about Judaism.
  • Families wouldn’t just be consumers.
  • The same people wouldn’t have to do everything.

Each of the above examples may be an accurate statement of the problems facing this synagogue or any synagogue. However, Martin Seligman points out that pessimists tend to use words like “always” and “never” to describe problems, as if they face unfixable and permanent challenges (44). The very fact that this congregation’s leadership could only speak about a vision in terms of doom and gloom says something about the culture of the congregation and their explanatory style, and thus directly affects their capacity to do realistic work to strengthen and transform their community. Seligman calls the kind of language used by these synagogue leaders as “learned helplessness,” the feeling developed over time that one is helpless in the face of adversity, an attitude that sadly infects too many congregations today. And if that is the kind of language that leaders use to describe their highest aspirations, it seems unlikely that anyone would want to engage with them.

3. The Wall of Wonder

When USCJ staff visit synagogues to work with their professional and lay leadership, one of our most frequent exercises is a visioning workshop that we informally call the “Wall of Wonder.” Facilitated by our staff, the leaders of the synagogues must stand up and state their highest hopes for how the synagogue can maximize how it does prayer, study, community, governance, and other core areas of community life. No one is allowed to critique someone else’s aspiration; all ideas go up on the wall. The wall is the beginning, not the end, of the planning process.

If we want to transform how synagogues pray, learn, do justice and gather together, leaders need to help them unearth the “great plans, the dreams, and the hopes” Seligman argues all people need to “accomplish anything difficult or intimidating” (114). Too many synagogues are afraid of failure, and all of us contribute to this state of affairs by assuming implicitly or explicitly that it’s not possible for synagogues to succeed. The synagogue foundation is unstable, yet the seeds of hope can begin to be planted through a change of language. Language alone will not transform synagogue life, but if leaders do not believe that they can make a change, no one else will either.

Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Director of Innovation at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and is the Program Director of the USCJ Convention. You can read more of his writings at www.joshuarabin.com.