Wednesday, February 25, 2015


Went to my own shul for the first time this calendar year.  Normally I stare into space from Torah reading onward, which is why I hardly ever go unless I have business to conduct for shabbos, in this case yahrtzeit.  The Rabbi invited his Rabbinic friend to deliver the Dvar Torah, which he did exceptionally well by any standards, not just our own.  After the service I chatted with him briefly about a small part of his sermon, an obscure linguistic one, which he discussed briefly and to the point.  I returned at mincha to try to make a minyan for our Hazzan who had yahrtzeit but with serious snow coming down we fell one man short.  Sitting across from the guest between mincha and maariv, we did some small talk about his home congregation where some of my friends attend.  I learned he is relatively new to our region and had functioned as a both a Rabbi and attorney before marrying and relocating. His current shul is Orthodox but he had no difficulty functioning in our mixed seating sanctuary.  His obvious talent prompted me to find out more of his Jewish background after havdallah.  I expected ties with JTS, which he had as an undergrad, but smicha came from the Union of Traditional Judaism, with which our Rabbi personally affiliates.  I knew very little of the organization though prominent members had been the final pulpit Rabbis of my own Bar Mitzvah congregation and a childhood friend who is both JTS grad and physician gave his allegiance there as well.  Yet when Forward did a recent article on where college talent was pursuing their ordination, UTJ came completely under their reporters radar.  It's probably to the detriment of the Jewish community to suppress real talent, as much as some of the machers and organizational types try, so thought I'd try to figure out where this part of Judaism fits in the American mosaic, particularly since it impacts on my own congregations whose fortunes have been on the decline for some time now.

UTJ keeps a low profile, to say the least.  They have a web site and a Wikipedia entry which seems a good deal more transparent than the web site.  They describe themselves as transdenominational which may be a less emotionally laden way of saying dissatisfied Conservative, yet their origins are only partly devoted to ridding themselves of the mediocrity of much of the Conservative synagogue experience.  What they really seem to set out to do initially was preserve the synagogues of the 1960's, those worthy competitors of suburban debate nights where representatives of the Conservative and Orthodox offerings of a community receiving young families with GI home loans would tell why theirs merits affiliation.  The Conservatives did quite well for a while, building synagogues and related institutional infrastructure.  Definitely worth having something more robust than a USCJ Hebrew School.  But the divide was really not over the quality of experience but over the expanding role of women, making UTJ's hidden face one not of superior learning but of non-egalitarianism.  There were op-eds on the site but few later than two years ago.  They have training programs for clergy but no description of who their graduates are or what they have achieved.  There is no listing of affiliated synagogues.  How could an organization that positions itself as a competitive hashkafa not have a list of communities that promote that ideology?  But there is a very long list of Board Members, though not a hint as to where they are from or where they worship or activities that they promote. 

So while folks like me, imprinted in that environment fifty years back, can recognize the quality that once was a shabbos morning at my childhood synagogue, competitive with any place else in our growing town, the longing for its return does not seem something that a lot of people aspire to.  Even within, as much as the people have to offer, it reads more of a closed shop, developed from within but shielded from people who might be looking for something more traditional and mentally upscale from what they have now but might have a few arrows to sling on gender positions that keep UTJ from making more mainstream inroads than they have.

Image result for union of traditional judaism

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Creating Synagogue Value

Somebody sent me a nicely written essay, one that apparently deleted the comment I had intended for it on so I editorialize in my own forum.
Black= original text, Blue=comments

Michael Paulson reported in The New York Times on the “Pay What You Want” model that some synagogues are implementing to reduce the financial barrier to membership. Paulson estimated that about 30 synagogues across the United States are trying voluntary dues.

These changes, Paulson wrote Monday, have come from “an acknowledgement that many Jewish communal organizations are suffering the effects of growing secularization, declining affection for institutions, a dispersal of Jewish philanthropy and an end to the era in which membership in a congregation was seen as a social obligation.”


It has increasingly been seen as a consumer purchase. Need to send tykes to Hebrew School for Bar Mitzvah.  There are competing purchases, of course.  Day school, summer camp, psychiatrist to talk about Mom, trip to Israel, all Jewish in their own way with different assessments of economic value.   As a consumer purchase, the shul often seems overpriced with marginal return on expense.

With those realities, a massive change in the dues structure is necessary, but is it sufficient? Changing the financial requirement for membership without addressing the widespread lack of interest in attending synagogue or engaging in a Jewish life is going to yield more of the same long term: low participation and apathy.


I do not agree that the dues structure needs to be revised as much as the product being sold needs to be improved, if synagogue expenditure is to be a viable consumer purchase.  A more productive path, though, would be to have it something other than a product to be traded for cash.


Full disclosure: My husband and I are members of three synagogues. We’re members of my husband’s childhood Conservative synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minn., where our kids went to preschool, and we’re active at a newly revived Orthodox synagogue. We also consistently go to Chabad (where voluntary dues has been in place for decades). I was raised Reform, and we are not Orthodox. Are we an anomaly? Perhaps. Do we have to be? No.

We stay at all three synagogues because of the relationships we have with the rabbis, their families and with the other congregants. We have also studied with Reform and Conservative rabbis, Aish Hatorah teachers and with our local kollel leaders. Like many modern Jews, we’re not tied to one denomination.


Or becoming 21st century Hellenists.  In reality, not all Rabbi’s have engendered great loyalty, nor have a lot of the baalebatim.


“I’m hyper-affiliated,” I say whenever someone wants to know where I stand. Though I prefer, “I’m Jewish.”

After reading Paulson’s article, I asked friends on Facebook what keeps them from wanting to be more Jewishly involved in and out of synagogues. I admit that I already suspected money had little to do with their hesitation. The discussion went on for 12 hours, yielding more than 100 comments from Jews across the country. One friend summed up the issue succinctly: “Many [Jewish leaders] are asking, ‘How can we get people more involved in our synagogue?’ as opposed to asking ‘How can we get people more involved with Jewish life?’”


Be nicer to them.  Value them. 


Only a small fraction of the answers focused on the expense. I received numerous versions of “Services are at bad times for little kids,” “It’s too cliquey,” “Everything is geared to young families” and “I feel out of place as a single person.” The grievances mostly focused on Shabbat services.


those aliyah sound bites drive me nuts.  As one of the Baalebatim told me, no place is better than our shul on Shabbos morning.  Scientist that I am, I went to shul a few times and stayed home a few times.  He was right.  I could upgrade my Shabbos experience by going no place.



Adina Frydman, the executive director of  UJA-Federation of New York’s Synergy program, which recently published a study on congregations with voluntary dues, said, “Changes to the synagogue dues system are just part of a much bigger picture, namely the ways synagogues can continue to evolve to be places that create a deeper, more authentic sense of community.”


That's the role of the Rabbi and the baalebatim.  It is very much a community though a much smaller one than the baalebatim would like.  Unfortunately, I have attended many a board meeting both as a board member and as a board observer in which the purpose of expanding membership as a primary initiative is to provide financial stability to do more of the same programming.  If we like what we do, somebody else will like what we do just as much, and other delusions.  Not everybody there is on the A-list.  Invitations to participate for me have been few and far between, nearly all bimah activity, while for my wife they have been plentiful.  They just do not think of new people as sources of energy or creativity.  It is often a fine line that separates a resource from a threat to stability.



My experience with a wide variety of synagogues and Jewish organizations tells me that the pressing challenge now for non-Orthodox synagogues is creating communities where congregants care about Judaism and therefore see their synagogues as valuable. 


Important for Orthodox synagogues as well. They just don't have to pay their Rabbi's as much or hire as much staff or run Hebrew schools.  And they cater to a community that regards Shabbos as central, one that will put up with other indignities if Shabbos is a meaningful experience.  Once Shabbos is no longer a focus, those leadership generated indignities and expense begin to matter more.


That is not to deny a real need for dollars, but the financial insecurity is a symptom of a Jewish population that does not see how the Judaism offered by the synagogue has anything to do with their lives. If the perception of the product or the way it’s delivered (low rabbi-to-congregant ratio) does not change, how will a lower cost or even a free membership make people want to spend time, their other highly protected currency, at synagogues or in any aspect of Jewish life?


At the risk of going off on a tangent, but an important one, revision of the dues structure assumes financial neutrality with revenue provided by either voluntary offerings as many Protestant churches do, or by tithing or income based fees as the Mormons do and Jews did at one time.  The expenses continue but the means of meeting those expenses is redistributed.



Provide value and people will pay. Show members the joy of Judaism and empower them to bring that joy home. Engage members with discussions on how to be a better person, a better parent, sibling, spouse, friend, and a more ethical businessperson, and they will come back for more. If congregants do not see how Judaism can be relevant in their homes and everyday lives, then they will go somewhere else in search of meaning and take their dollars with them.


However, I am hard pressed to think of any synagogue officer or Rabbi who thinks their congregation’s mission now is anything other than imparting meaning to people’s lives through Judaism.  They may be misjudging how well they think they are performing and serving the Jewish public, often rationalizing any negative feedback on this, right down to people voting with their feet.  It is much too common for leaders or mature Jewish institutions for the last fifty years to regard people who do not take a liking to their institution as being inferior in some way.



I’m not implying that synagogues have it all wrong. Organizations don’t die because they provide no value; they die because they fail to provide enough value to enough people.


It depends on your perspective.  The synagogues have an inherent life cycle of birth, growth, maturity and senescence.  Demographic matter a lot. Social and economic shifts cannot simply be dismissed as inconvenient.


As Rabbi Avi Olitzky, co-author with his father, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, of the forthcoming book “New Membership & Financial Alternatives for the American Synagogue” (Jewish Lights Publishing), told me, “There has to be harmony between the synagogue’s mission and its agenda. A synagogue cannot just be in the business of being in business.” When I told him that so many of us want community but don’t always know how to define it, he described community as a circle to which you feel you belong that will miss your presence.


I’ve not attended Shabbos services at my shul for six weeks.  Thus far nobody has asked what I did on Shabbos morning instead.



The reality for synagogues is that members – and those not even considering joining – can find  community in any number of places from yoga studios to the racquetball court to their careers, or their kids’ schools and sports teams. If we can’t give people a reason to infuse that circle with Judaism (not just with Jews, but with Judaism), then sadly I don’t see a future for synagogues whether they cost money to belong or not.


My communities right now are the pageant of work and Sermo.  I’m part of both, technically expendable at both, but when I make a statement of some type to upgrade the operation or impart knowledge, people respond.  My last three inquiries to the baalebatim at my shul on the Shabbos experience did not even merit a response by email.  Sometimes no response is the most telling of all.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015