The Innovation Sector and the Synagogue

by Ramie Arian

Many who are concerned with the continued vibrancy of the Jewish community in North America will be heartened by the recent release of the 2011-12 version of Slingshot’s Resource Guide for Jewish Innovation. The Slingshot Guide highlights 60 innovative organizations – in the words of – “that work to ensure that Jewish life isn’t left behind as the world moves forward.” Indeed, the Guide presents a rich array of exciting projects that span the diversity of the Jewish community, putting forward an inspiring portrait of the so-called “innovation sector” in Jewish life.

Among the Slingshot Guide’s many notable features, one in particular stands out: the near-total absence of any mention of the synagogue.

The synagogue has long been – and remains today – the central institution of Jewish life in North America. The community has billions of dollars invested in synagogues; they are not going to go away anytime soon. Synagogues, and the Jewish communal life that is centered in them, will continue to define much of North American Jewish life for the foreseeable future.

The Slingshot Guide’s omission of the synagogue is hardly surprising. There is little doubt that most of the rising generation has little use for synagogues, and conversely, that most synagogues have done little to attract and engage young Jewish adults in the ever-lengthening life-stage between college graduation and the time of parenting school-aged children. Indeed, the disconnect between this rising generation of young Jewish adults and the synagogue is arguably the most important challenge to the future vitality of the Jewish community.

The absence of the synagogue from the Slingshot Guide (and by extension, from the “innovation sector”) is powerful testament to this disconnect.

Yet encouraging evidence exists that young Jewish adults and synagogues can be connected. Next Dor has piloted successful engagement in six communities which bring young Jewish adults into relationship with synagogues in selected urban communities which have natural concentrations of young Jewish adults. Next Dor (Dor is Hebrew for “generation”) is a project of Synagogue 3000, an independent non-profit with principal funding from the Marcus Foundation. Successful pilot sites include Washington, Miami, San Francisco, St. Louis and Atlanta, in addition to New York.

Next Dor has learned much about engaging young Jewish adults, and in addition to its six pilot sites, its findings are closely followed by a fast-growing group of nearly 40 affiliate synagogues.

It has learned, for example, that the key to building relationships in the next generation is just that: building relationships. In order to be relevant for young Jewish adults, synagogues need to focus on building relationships, not on programming. Utilizing methodology that is borrowed in part from Chabad, from Hillel and from the mega-church movement, the Next Dor pilot groups reach out to young Jewish adults where they are (that is, NOT in the synagogue building, but rather in coffee shops, health clubs or wherever) with dedicated personnel – mainly but not exclusively charismatic young rabbis – whose assignment is to meet young Jewish adults and to build relationships with them. These relationships lead eventually to programs which are facilitated (but not designed) by synagogue personnel. Program design comes, rather, from the young adults themselves, and is therefore suited to their needs and interests and those of their peer groups. Programs generally take place outside the synagogue.

The goal of this is two-fold. First, Next Dor seeks to connect with young Jewish adults, engage them in relationships, and ultimately to move them towards engagement with Jewish life. Second, and equally important, Next Dor seeks to move the central institution of the Jewish community – namely the synagogue – towards becoming a more welcoming place for the rising generation, meeting their needs on their own terms, and ultimately giving them the opportunity to have a role in shaping the program and governance of the institution itself.

Next Dor’s results have been encouraging to date. In each of the Next Dor pilot communities, hundreds of young adults are engaged in community building that mirrors their distinctive interests. In Miami, Next Dor participants gather to celebrate Shabbat on the beach. In St. Louis, busloads of young adults celebrate a cross-denominational Purim with a “Pour-em Party Shul Crawl.” In Washington, free Next Dor services for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur attract more worshippers than their facility can hold.

Synagogue 3000 hopes to expand Next Dor to 24 communities over the next three years, enabling the program to reach the North American urban areas with the largest concentrations of young Jewish adults.

There is every reason to hope that the growth of this important project, and its widespread replication on a congregational level in many additional communities, will help to bridge the disconnect between the synagogue and the “innovation sector,” contributing mightily to the ongoing vitality of Jewish life in North America.

Ramie Arian is an independent consultant who works with Jewish non-profits concerned with building Jewish identity and commitment in the next generation of the North American Jewish community.