Vital Synagogues

By Rabbi Aaron Spiegel

Synagogue vitality is so difficult to define that it is nearly an oxymoron. I have long envied churches who had a clearly defined, concrete vitality benchmark – worship attendance. This yardstick does not work for synagogues who put far less importance on weekly worship attendance than churches. But, benchmarks change – worship attendance is no longer seen as the primary standard for church vitality. New measures need consideration and the vitality definition gap between synagogues and churches is shrinking, as evidenced by the recent Faith Communities Today (FACT) Special Report on Vital Congregations, which interviewed leaders from 10 different faith traditions, including Judaism.

One of the problems in comparing diverse religious communities is coming to any common definition of vitality. While the definition remains a moving target, there is an important consistency: vitality and sustainability are not the same. Historically, synagogues considered themselves vital if they were sustainable, i.e. financially viable. In contrast, a dictionary definition of vitality is “the state of being strong and active; energy … the power giving continuance of life, present in all living things.” The ability to remain in existence (sustain) is clearly not the same thing as remaining vital. Similarly, maintaining membership numbers were a measure of sustainability, but again, not necessarily one of vitality.

From a UJA-Federation funded project, Brandeis University created The Thriving Synagogue Learning Tool. As defined by this tool, “…thriving synagogues are vital today and show promise of a strong future… A thriving synagogue readily attracts, involves, and retains members and participants. It is financially sound. Thriving synagogues are dynamically heading toward their future. They have a clear sense of purpose and a vision and plan for fulfilling it. They are on the move, and members and participants are excited about the possibilities for the future of their synagogue.” This definition makes clear that vitality is a measure of a congregation’s present and future, one that is sustainable because it is dynamic, has a clear sense of purpose, and a plan for its future. As one synagogue leader remarked in the FACT special report, “If it’s not broken, break it! The difference between being in the groove and being in a rut is simply perception.” Another stated, “Congregations that are spiritual, and are meeting the needs of their members and helping them find meaning in their lives, they’ll be sustainable.”

Not surprisingly, the FACT report shows that vital communities are alike across religious traditions. The study clearly showed that members of religious communities want engagement in their community. Moving from programming to engagement is the most cited result of the Synagogue Studies Institute’s (formerly part of Synagogue 3000) research from the late 2000’s and spawned major changes in the liberal movements, as well as in local synagogues. The FACT report is clear that one of the primary movers of a congregation from low to high vitality is moving from minimal to deep engagement. And, key to this engagement move are leadership, relationships, and practices, as further defined below.

  1. Relationships: Building strong, respectful and loving relationships among members, and between leaders and members, was key in every faith community. Most faith traditions also emphasized the importance of building relationships between the congregation and community around them.
  2. Leadership: Leaders should be capable of sharing vision and building consensus or motivation, and be willing to experiment and try new things (within the restrictions of the tradition). They should have an attitude of servanthood and humility, be trustworthy, patient, loving, good listeners, and work well with others.
  3. Practices: Each tradition had a variety of practices designed to cultivate faith and action among members. Some traditions emphasized spiritual practices to form deeper faith, which would hopefully turn into action. Other traditions focused on taking action in the neighborhood or world outside the congregation. Most faith traditions did a combination of the two.

None of these key factors appear earth-shatteringly new or complicated. All these key factors seem obviously Jewish.

Respondents were asked, “What is a spiritually vital congregation?” As one of the participant researchers, I must admit that I was nervous about asking synagogues specifically about spiritual vitality. My fears were unwarranted, however. “Remarkably, leaders from each tradition gave very similar responses, which lent themselves to a single broad definition or description of a vital congregation: Spiritually vital congregations are places where people come together for a common purpose of divine origin.” More importantly, respondents reported that high congregational vitality, “… compel(s) the people to authentically engage both within the congregation and with the world around them.” In other words, congregations that are spiritually vital compel adherents to high participation both in the congregation and with the outside world. What is more authentically Jewish than taking learning and relationships from synagogue to the world?

Rabbi Aaron Spiegel is Information Technology Director, Center for Congregations, Inc., Indianapolis, IN.