Synagogues: Reimagined

Are we willing to be imaginative, to take risks, to fail – in order to keep our communities vibrant and vital – truly alive?
Rabbi Sharon Brous

[The following article is offered as a partnership between eJP and Clal’s CLI program. The Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI) is a two-year program to support and encourage early career congregational rabbis in the areas of innovative thinking, change management and institutional transformation. CLI is the newest program in the Rabbis Without Borders (RWB) family of programs under the auspices of Clal and is directed by Rabbi Sid Schwarz. Each month CLI offers a column called “Innovation and Institutional Change: What it Took; What we Gained.”]

This chapter originally appeared in Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Community (Jewish Lights, 2013) by Rabbi Sid Schwarz.]

By Rabbi Sharon Brous

Once there was a beloved king, teaches Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, whose court musicians played beautiful music before him. The king loved the music and the musicians felt honored to be able to use their talent to bring him joy. Every day for many years the musicians played enthusiastically, and the king and the musicians developed a deep love for one another. But eventually, after years of dedicated service, all of the musicians died. Their children were called into the king’s court to take their parents’ place. Out of loyalty to their parents, they began to appear every morning to perform. But unlike their parents, the children did not love the music. While they could play basic tunes, they did not understand the hidden power of their instruments and in their hearts they believed that they had better things to do than spend time trying to please some king. Each day that they played, their resentment grew. And each day the king became more and more frustrated – as much by their dismissive attitude as by their cacophony.

After some time, for reasons nobody really understood, a few of the children developed a renewed interest in serving the king. They realized that playing beautiful music was the way to connect with him and bring him joy. But since they had abandoned serious practice for so long, their instruments were rusty and out of tune and their skill was embarrassingly inadequate.

So these children set out to remember what their parents had known so well. They arrived early each morning and found a remote corner of the palace to practice together. They began to experiment with sound, rediscover harmony and rededicate themselves to service spawned by love. In the evening, after the other musicians went home, they’d practice more, trying desperately to make their instruments sing.

The king witnessed their efforts and was deeply moved. Their music was different from their parents’, but like them, it was driven by dedication and love. And for this reason, their efforts were received as a blessing.

Many American Jews – third and fourth generation immigrants – carry within them the distant echo of their parents’ and grandparents’ Judaism. They know that there are stories to tell but can’t remember the major plot lines let alone the sacred details. They know that there was a Jewish song that guided and propelled, that healed and held for many generations, but they have no idea how to access the memory of that song. The first time I taught Levi Yitzchak’s story to a room full of Jews – all young, all unaffiliated – one woman stood up and said, with tears, “This is my story!” And many others concurred. Our grandparents and great-grandparents came to Ellis Island clutching sacred books, memories, recipes and traditions. Their children tossed them overboard to become American, go to drive-ins and play baseball. But now many of us, uber-American, find ourselves wondering if there may have been anything in those forgotten books that could help us navigate life’s most challenging questions. For so many young American Jews, the experience of the musicians’ children is all too familiar.

In 1948, just as the world was grappling with the extent of the devastation of the Jews of Europe, Simon Rawidowicz wrote an essay called Am Ha-Holekh Va-Met, “Israel – The Ever-Dying People.”

“The world has many images of Israel, but Israel has only one image of itself: that of an expiring people, forever on the verge of ceasing to be…. He who studies Jewish history will readily discover that there was hardly a generation in the Diaspora period which did not consider itself the final link in Israel’s chain. Each always saw before it the abyss ready to swallow it up…. Often it seems as if the overwhelming majority of our people go about driven by the panic of being the last.”

It was an unlikely argument to emerge in the midst of the post-Holocaust turbulence and uncertainty. Rawidowicz claimed that the pessimism felt in that moment was actually definitional to Jewish self expression and, in fact, a part of the Jewish psyche in every generation. And just as that was true then, it is also true now – more than sixty years later. The past couple of decades have produced major studies demonstrating the shrinking of Jewish community in America (outside Orthodoxy), with sociologists painting an ominous picture: Will the Jewish community dwindle into oblivion? Or worse, into an insular, narrow, extremist expression that hardly resembles normative Judaism? One has to wonder: Is this just the latest iteration of eternal Jewish anxiety or is there something distinct about this round of panic attacks, something that signals a true shift in Jewish consciousness and community?


But unlike their parents, the children did not love the music. While they could play basic tunes, they did not understand the hidden power and possibility of their instruments, and they believed that they had better things to do than spent time trying to please some king.

The thesis of Sid Schwarz’s introductory essay is entirely consistent with my experience working with young, disengaged and disaffected American Jews over the past decade. There is no question that we are witnessing a generational shift, one that manifests itself in a deep and growing disconnect from the institutional loyalty and communal affiliation of previous generations. No longer will young people throw their financial support behind large organizations or institutions that do not move them as spiritual beings, stimulate their intellects, captivate them socially or inspire them to be better citizens of the world. The significant difference between this generation of American Jews and the musicians’ children is that the musicians still felt compelled to show up every morning, even with a bad attitude. Today’s young Jews would rather opt out. In other words, guilt no longer generates synagogue attendance or support for Jewish Federation campaigns.

To be sure, the Jewish community is suffering from a perception problem: many young Jews won’t even look to conventional institutions for answers to the most penetrating questions – from the practical (where am I going to meet my partner?) to the transcendent (what am I supposed to be doing with my life?). But the problem is more than perceptual. If the rabbis believed that the world stands on three pillars – Torah (Jewish core teaching), Avodah (sacred service), and G’milut Hasadim (acts of love and kindness) – the prevailing belief is that twentieth century Jewish communal and institutional engagement was similarly predicated on three pillars: anti-Semitism, Israel in crisis, and intermarriage. And, as argued by Schwarz, the twentieth century communal agenda simply does not speak to a generation of young Jews who see the world – Jewish and beyond – through a very different set of priorities, commitments and attachments.

Alienation from the prevailing values and agenda of the Jewish community is not the only driving social force redefining the Jewish landscape. Just at the moment that so many young people are experiencing a deep and very real sense of disconnect from conventional Jewish organizations and synagogues, they are also experiencing unprecedented access to American social and cultural experiences. Even when I was growing up in the 80s in suburban New Jersey, there were two country clubs in our town – neither of which accepted Jews as members. Youth group was our response to the popular Protestant afterschool dance class. But today it is far too easy to find community, intellectual engagement and spiritual fulfillment outside the insular Jewish communal structure. Today there is Sundance. There’s South by Southwest and Burning Man. Jews no longer need a refuge from a cold and unwelcoming American cultural scene. What they need is a reason to come back into a Jewish one.

This is only one factor in what makes the social and spiritual reality of young Jews today – whether Gen X or millenials – substantially different from any previous generation. I have heard more than one sociologist identify this generation (today’s 20s-early 40s) as the most narcissistic in history. Technological advances and social realities have affected every aspect of their lives – from the intellectual to the spiritual to the political. A couple of years ago, Reboot funded two studies – “Grande Soy Vanilla Latte with Cinnamon, No Foam: Jewish Identity and Community in a Time of Unlimited Choices,” and “OMG!: How Generation Y is redefining Faith in the iPod Era.” While the theses are pretty clearly stated in the titles, the studies concluded that: “If the Baby Boom was characterized as a “generation of seekers,” their offspring, Generation Y, is a “generation of individuals…” For many, pursuing the American Dream simply means, “doing whatever I want.”

The early 21st century is a time of radical individualism and instant gratification. With an iPod a person buys whatever music she wants immediately and deletes it the minute she tires of it. Many have argued that the democratization of news – with instant access to every possible political perspective – has had the unintended consequence of narrowing people’s exposure to ideas and perspectives that differ from their own. When you can special order your music and your news commentary, you bypass a whole world of accidental learning and growth. With parking apps and GPS devices, we never get lost anymore. Technology and access, for all that they have made possible, have also created a culture of narrowness and superficiality in which virtual community has taken the place of real community, in which the newest technology makes the old obsolete in an instant and people put more thought into one line posts to Facebook friends than cultivating meaningful relationships with actual friends.

This is where the culture clash is felt most prominently. How does a culture of narcissism, over-entitlement and personalization manifest itself in terms of Jewish communal engagement? How can an iPod generation find rigorous exploration of Talmud and Jewish literature compelling and life-sustaining? How can those taught to walk away/ delete/ unfriend on a whim be taught to cultivate a serious relationship with Israel, even when it doesn’t always feel good? How can they be stimulated to discover a spiritual practice that actually requires practice? Is there a way to cultivate a sense of obligation, enchantment, spiritual hunger in a generation that is essentially able to log off or sign out in all other aspects of life?

In light of these trends, a growing sense of dissatisfaction and disconnection from conventional Jewish institutions among young Jews should come as no surprise. The last couple of decades have seen a widening gap between the programs and services being funded and offered in the Jewish communal world and the people who need meaningful connection the most.


But after some time, and for reasons nobody really understood, a few of the children found a renewed interest in serving the king.

At the same time that the organized Jewish community is losing marketshare in the under 40 demographic, the past decade has also demonstrated a growing trend toward revitalization in the form of inspired, purpose-driven communities and communal efforts. There is a whole new crop of Jewish leaders – many from the disappearing demographic, putting their best thinking into addressing the question: How can the relevance, power and possibility of Judaism be translated to the next generation? As much as the prevalent trend is toward alienation and disaffection, there is a simultaneous (albeit much smaller) trend toward wholehearted and meaningful Jewish engagement, sometimes manifesting itself within the institutional world, sometimes emerging in autonomous efforts in bars, cafes, living rooms and JCCs around the country.

Schwarz prescribes four essential, defining principles that are necessary for institutions and organizations to survive and thrive in the coming decades. I propose a slightly different framework, with some significant areas of overlap. My sense is that there are three, core definitional characteristics that must form the foundation of vibrant Jewish organizations and institutions, especially synagogues, in the years ahead: authenticity, creativity and moral courage. All of these are grounded in Jewish text and tradition and all are a response to the discontinuity and spiritual disorientation that defines the Jewish landscape today.

Authenticity is the buzzword that studies reveal is the essential ingredient young people are both driven to and most cynical about in the Jewish community. Given the culture of instant gratification, if someone is going to invest her time and money, it had better be for something real. What will appeal is something timeless and rooted, something that offers the potential for transcendence and transformation. When I was a young, disaffected Jew living in New York City, I was desperately searching for a place to learn and I found nearly every synagogue I visited to be cold and unwelcoming. But I was equally repelled by the services in which I knew and understood – even as an essentially illiterate Jew – everything that was going on. Where is the mystery? The challenge? For years, the Jewish community has made the mistake of equating accessible with simplistic. In reality, people are willing to invest in their learning – but the reward has to be not only deep and meaningful, but also challenging.

I once consulted with a Conservative synagogue that was losing families to the local Reform Temple which required only three hours a week of Religious School, compared to their six. They were considering scaling back as well, to stay competitive. My advice: “Why don’t you double the hours of your program each week instead? Make it the most rigorous program in the city with intensive study of Mishnah, Talmud, Hasidut – texts they’d never see in another after-school program. Develop real expectations around Hebrew fluency and speak with them frankly about what it means to be a Jew and a human being in the world. Let the word on the street be that when their kids graduate from your program, they’ll be serious Jews, knowledgeable and engaged. You’ll have a waitlist within a couple of years.” Not surprisingly, they didn’t take my advice. But I strongly believe that our communal instinct – towards ease and convenience – is a recipe for generational disengagement.

The reality is that that same Millenials who we assume will never dedicate the time or energy needed to take themselves seriously as Jews – who will go on a program only if it’s free (because we can’t expect them to pay money for their own Jewish experience), who will only go to Shabbat services if they promise to be short, sexy and conveniently located – these are the same young people who will dedicate many hours each week and significant amounts of money to their yoga practices. They will pre-register for Burning Man months in advance and prepare assiduously for the spiritual desert experience. Why? Because this generation has a finely tuned instinct for authenticity. If a Jewish experience feels cheap and watered down, they’re not going to sit through it and they’re certainly not going to come back. But if it feels real – if it feels mysterious, enchanting and powerful, if it feels like the revelation of truths that have been hidden in the past and might help them uncover secrets about how to live meaningfully today, they will invest. In the 1970s, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel criticized the synagogue for perpetuating the lie of prayer by proxy. Some hired hand – a rabbi, a cantor, a choir master – stands on stage and simulates prayer and the people, by virtue of being witnesses, are excused from any kind of soul-work themselves. This model no longer holds – if nothing is being asked of me, why should I waste my time? And even more to the point, if the rabbi and cantor are not being moved – deeply moved – by the experience of prayer, if they never cry and never dance and never feel that they are pleading before the gates of heaven, why should I trust that they’ll guide me to that place?

When considering what authenticity looks like in Jewish engagement, I often think of Hannah, from the Book of Samuel. Hannah’s heart was broken by her struggle with infertility and in her suffering she realized that she could no longer abide by a religious life that felt empty, distant and meaningless. In her devastation, she cried out to God. She wept, she shook, she accused. And she redefined what Jewish prayer ought to look like. There is no room in a Jewish prayer experience for falsehood or faking, for empty ritual that is devoid of spiritual truth or disconnected from moral action. And for this, Hannah is celebrated and remembered.

Jewish engagement efforts that will be sustainable and long-lasting can’t be shticky attempts to attract young people, but must offer the same young people access to a very old Jewish conversation that remains provocative and enlivening in every generation.

The necessary partner to authenticity is creativity. Imagination. A willingness to breathe something very new into the very old. Torah teaches us that the greatest expression of human freedom is the ability to deny inevitability, to defy expectations and to believe that with creativity and imagination we can create a new reality for ourselves. An ethic of inevitability responds to demographic trends toward disaffection and disaffiliation by saying: “These people are narcissists. None of this is our fault – they’ll come back to us when their kids need a Hebrew school.” But an ethic of imagination, creativity and possibility looks at what’s broken and says: “What can we learn from what we are seeing? What can we do to shift the trends?” Thomas Friedman argues that there really are only two kinds of countries in the world today – not developed and developing. Not first world and third world. Today there are only nations that harness imagination and those that do not. And the same is true about synagogues, federations and day schools. Are we willing to be imaginative, to take risks, to fail – in order to keep our communities vibrant and vital – truly alive?

When IKAR began its search for space to hold its religious services I insisted that we find a space in which the chairs were not rooted to the ground. No theater seats and certainly no pews. I had the sense that physical fluidity was absolutely essential to spiritual fluidity. People had to be able to get up and dance without first saying “excuse me” to the 14 people between them and the aisle. And we needed to be able to experiment. To set chairs up in circles and straight lines and arcs and diamonds and even sometimes to uproot in the middle of a service when the vibe isn’t working and try something completely new. I learned this as a Rabbinic Fellow at B’nai Jeshurun (BJ) in New York. One Thursday afternoon, in my weekly meeting with the rabbis, I suggested that we rearrange the seats in a certain formation that I suspected might be more conducive to communal prayer. I grabbed a Post-It and quickly sketched out my idea. The moment passed and we went on to discuss something else and I thought little of it until I showed up for Kabbalat Shabbat the next night. To my astonishment, eight hundred chairs in that sanctuary had all been moved to match my little scribbled model from the day before. It was breathtaking – and one of the most important lessons I learned going into the rabbinate. The service was awful. The spiritual vibe was off, people felt uncomfortable and out of sorts and the next week they went back to the standard set-up. But I loved that they tried – and I am still convinced that BJ’s extraordinary success in capturing the hearts and minds of thousands of disaffected Jews is because their modus operandi is to think creatively, experiment, flow, fail and then to try again. This is a mandate that we at IKAR have taken very seriously in building our community over the past eight years.

Finally, our organizations have to be defined not only by a sincere rootedness in the tradition and a simultaneous commitment to building a culture of experimentation but also by the recognition that creative and authentic religious practice must necessarily lead to a broadening of moral concern and moral action. Our tradition is un-ambivalent about the need for concrete acts of compassion and justice to flow from our religious practice. It is clear to me that for a spiritual and religious life to be authentic, it must strive to catalyze a kind of spiritual activism.

At IKAR, we talk about Judaism as an inheritance of willful opposition, Torah as an eternal challenge to the status quo. Our community organizes around a Shabbat experience that is both rich in spiritual and ritual practice and dedicated to awakening the Jewish heart to work toward social and political transformation. We work to cultivate a kind of holy audacity that calls us to do better, to fight harder, to manifest our core values on the street. I see this as the great Jewish legacy, woven through Biblical and Rabbinic texts over the past 4000 years and a standard bearer for a Jewish life of courage and conviction.

This is the moral courage of Abraham, who refused to acquiesce to God’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gemorrah. Instead, Abraham takes God to task, arguing with deep certitude that it is unjust and unbefitting of God to punish the innocent with the guilty. This is a classic act of chutzpah klappei sh’mayachutzpah thrust toward the heavens – the ultimate in spiritual audacity which seems to delight, rather than enrage God when it comes from a place of humility and love. Later in the Torah, God is apoplectic when the Israelites build a Golden Calf, just days after witnessing the miracle of the Sea. It is then that God prepares to destroy the entire nation but Moses pleads for mercy. According to the midrash, he refuses to leave God’s presence until God relents and reverses the decree. Both Abraham and Moses demonstrate extraordinary chutzpah in their refusal to allow God’s worst instincts to prevail. But there are many others who similarly demonstrate a severe and unyielding posture when it comes to overturning social structures and fighting injustice.

There is Rebecca, who refuses to accept birth order as destiny and helps Jacob trick his father into receiving the blessing of the first born. Tamar refuses to accept her permanent imprisonment under unjust laws binding a woman to the family of her dead husband. The Prophet Natan berates King David (the King, afterall!) for having an adulterous relationship with Batsheva and then killing her husband, Uriah. The Jew as bearer of moral courage is ubiquitous in our text and literature. Some of the central moments and characters of Israelite and Jewish history are characterized by a holy refusal to accede to social norms or their presumed fates. It seems clear that as much as Judaism is about obedience to God and mitzvot, it is also about a legacy of willful defiance against unjust social, political and religious structures, and even at times against God.

Jews are known in America to be bold and courageous, to challenge unethical laws and norms and to stand at the forefront of movements for social change, from civil rights to labor and immigration. But all too often, this holy assertion does not translate into our Jewish lives – precisely the place where it ought to be nurtured. The Jewish posture in synagogue is about sitting quietly, not disturbing the order – “Please rise, please be seated, and please turn to page 82 for Aleinu.” Don’t dare mention anything too “political” – people might be alienated. And God forbid don’t say a word about Israel that indicates anything short of unconditional support, regardless of government policies, radical actions of fringe elements and religious-secular struggles, all of which may undermine the Jewish and democratic nature of the State.

Cultivating a community that is driven by moral courage requires the full integration of the spiritual and the political, the social and the ritual. We daven with all our hearts and souls because we believe that Shabbat is a spiritual revolution – it temporarily relieves us of the world as it is and allows us to think and dream again about the world as it could be. This is not only a spiritual value, it is a call for social and political change and it must be at the heart of a deep and meaningful Jewish practice and at the core of a vibrant Jewish synagogue or organization.


Their music was different from their parents’, but like them, it was driven by dedication and love. And for this reason, their efforts were received as a blessing.

So how can Judaism remain relevant and vital in an instant gratification world? My sense is that there are three prescriptions: 1) Speak an eternal message – one that helps us to understand what it means to be Jew and a human being in the world and do so in a real voice – strong and vulnerable; 2) imagine what is necessary but not yet seen and then work creatively to manifest something new. Take a risk; and finally, 3) expand your heart beyond what is comfortable. Recognize that, as the Slonimer Rebbe teaches:

“…Much is required of us. Though we do not fully understand it, we intuit that we live in a very great time of history. We need to recognize the importance of our mission, our obligation, and our task in this generation – we need to utilize what has been given to us – so that we not despise the King’s gift, God forbid. …This generation calls us to great things. Rabbi Moshe of Kobrin commented on the verse: ‘The day is vast. It’s not a time for gathering cattle. The great and awesome day is approaching.’ This is not a time to gather up ‘cattle’ and worldly possessions.” (Netivot Shalom, Awareness ch. 6)

In small pockets around the country, for reasons we don’t fully understand, musicians have been coming together because they have found a renewed interest in serving the king. They come early and stay late to practice and tune and try to find a way to do something beautiful, something heartfelt that is rooted in their parents’ and their grandparents’ music. Sometimes it sounds completely new. They often have to practice in some obscure corner of the palace because our community is not one that encourages innovation. If these musicians start to find success in their art, they are often scorned and dismissed. The other musicians worry that these holyrollers are only trying to steal marketshare (membership) or attention from longstanding, conventional efforts. Others fear that adaptations and improvisations will compromise the sanctity of the music. But these musicians persist, and hopefully will for many years to come, because it is from those obscure corners of the hallways and palace galleries that we are learning about what the future might have in store for us. Not the panic-driven-ever-dying-people version of the future, but the hope and possibility version of the future.

The failure of institutional Jewish life to capture the imagination of young Jews today is irrefutable but not immutable. We have the ability to bridge the disconnect between the needs and interests of young Jews and the organized Jewish world – from synagogues to Federations. I believe that the greatest response to disaffection of a generation of Jews is to reclaim the power and the fire of our tradition, to find a way to think creatively about the future and take risks and to remind ourselves of a profound an unrelenting truth: We who have been blessed with a legacy of moral courage must find our courage anew. We must work together – through acts of love and kindness, justice and courage – to turn the tide of history.

Rabbi Sharon Brous is the founding rabbi of IKAR, a spiritual community dedicated to reanimating Jewish life through soulful religious practice that is rooted in a deep commitment to social justice.  She has been noted as one of the leading rabbis in the country in Newsweek/ Daily Beast, and has been listed among the Forward’s 50 most influential American Jews numerous times.  She serves on the faculty of Wexner Heritage and REBOOT and sits on the board of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.  She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three children.