Jessica Carew Kraft, “Design Thinking in Synagogues”

kraft-jessicaNote: This article originally appeared in

An iterative problem-solving protocol seems like the exact opposite of the Ten Commandments inscribed in stone. It verges on heresy to conceive of religion as a “product” that needs to be branded in order to sell. But for one rabbi in San Francisco, combining the spiritual with the commercial was exactly what was needed to attract more people to Judaism.

American Jewish organizations have struggled with engagement for decades, as younger generations increasingly choose secular lives. Many resources have been devoted to solving the problem outside of the synagogue, including hundreds of millions of dollars to fund free “birthright” trips to Israel, bolster Jewish life on campus, and build summer camps for the pre-bar mitzvah crowd.

But until the creation of The Kitchen, a non-denominational “startup synagogue” in San Francisco, the question of how to drive Jewish religious engagement among under-40s had never been asked and answered in the context of design.

Rabbi Noa Kushner likens it to an argument of form and content; software and hardware. “The essence of religion — its software, if you will — is generally good,” she says, “True, there are some bugs, but there is still lots of value to be found in the way religious thinkers, both traditional and modern, approach the world. It’s the hardware, the way we’ve been transmitting religion, that’s been messed up badly. It’s like an outdated social network.”

Kushner believes, from her conversations with hundreds of people, that there is a genuine need for what religion can offer contemporary life. “When people say they don’t like religion, but they like Jewish culture, they are making an arbitrary distinction,” she contends. “Most of them like the moving music of prayer, they want to be with their family on special holidays, and they like an emphasis on social justice and a reason to do good deeds.”

So Kushner is finding ways to bring them what they want in a way that isn’t perceived as overbearing, judgmental or alienating. In the process, she and her team of clergy, lay leaders and creatives — including thought leaders at IDEO, the global design and innovation firm—are redesigning the way San Franciscans are “doing Jewish.”

Kushner provides a charismatic bridge between the culture of Silicon Valley (even quoting from the hit HBO comedy of the same name) and her 4,000-year-old tradition. As the 43-year-old daughter of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and wife of Rabbi Michael Lezak, she has a deep understanding of how American Judaism operates, and a powerful connection to the meaning that Jewish prayer and practice can offer individuals. In order to “make this religion too sticky for its users to ignore,” Kushner knows that she needs to engage her community the way Apple does.

It’s neither a synagogue nor a kitchen, but it’s extracting the essence of both in a new mash-up. As a social hub centered on food, The Kitchen draws on the best of the Bay Area local scene, offering post-service meals from trendy restaurants like Wise Sons Jewish Deli, DOSA, and Local Mission Eatery.

As a religious community without a building (they’d rather raise money for more rabbis than real estate), The Kitchen also partakes of the sharing economy by renting space for weekly Shabbat services from the San Francisco Friends School. Holiday celebrations happen at various iconic locations like Ocean Beach and Golden Gate Park. But the place where community members can always find The Kitchen is, of course, the Internet.

“We are religion in the cloud,” explains Kushner. “What we put out on the web is very important. Email is not secondary, it’s primary.”

Along with The Kitchen’s executive director, Yoav Schlesinger, and designer and brand strategist Josh Levine, Kushner understands that over the past three years since founding The Kitchen, she has been launching a brand. And it’s a brand that is strikingly distinct from other Jewish institutions, which are not usually known for their bold aesthetics or digital accessibility. Here, Grandma’s Russian chintz from the old country has gone into the recycling bin along with anything smacking of sentimental nostalgia or kitsch.

“When we talk about The Kitchen’s brand points, we think of it as being edgy and contemporary,” said Schlesinger. “It has a bold energy that is content-driven. We try not to use many graphics, but instead emphasize the typography.”

This part of their strategy isn’t without historical precedent. They’re channeling the Jewish designers who helped to shape the Bauhaus style in the 1930s, others who pioneered mid-century Modernism, or built the streamlined city squares of Tel Aviv.

In addition to maintaining a spare, yet informative website, The Kitchen’s print production includes a prayer book for weekly services and a special text, called a machzor, that guides services on the High Holidays. Both chart new territory, eschewing the mainstays of Judaic design. No Stars of David, no mystical watercolors or cartoon-style Biblical characters. “We had a strict ‘no Judaica’ policy,” said Levine, the designer. “That’s the whole shtick here — it’s very Jewish content, but the format is not like anything you’d find elsewhere.”

For instance, the machzor pages for the Shema — the central Jewish prayer affirming connection to God and the Jewish people — are illustrated with a gritty, high contrast photograph of an overcrowded utility pole on a residential street. The prayer, concretized through hundreds of generations of repetition, is printed in a sans-serif font in Hebrew and English, with transliteration for those who don’t read Hebrew. The metaphors evoked by this juxtaposition are plenty: that prayer is a connection point to a higher power; that praying taps us into a current uniting all beings; and that everything, including gritty street corners, can be sacred.

In fact, almost anything that The Kitchen publishes has a noticeably on-trend voice. A sign posted outside the recent Yom Kippur services advised attendees to quiet their cell phones with: “Shut it off. God rarely texts.”

A phrase like this is like the rabbi’s voice visualized, notes Schlesinger. “We are trying to stay away from trite, familiar language. Our messaging is self aware, with a slight irony,” he says.

While The Kitchen insists that its innovations are not meant to critique any other mode of Jewish observance (and Rabbi Kushner left her last job at a conventional temple very amicably — her husband still leads it), it does seem to be disrupting some key American Jewish beliefs, particularly around who can be a member.

In most Jewish denominations, in order to belong to the synagogue, an individual must have some degree of Jewish ancestry, or undergo a conversion. This is a hot-button issue as increasing numbers of Jews marry non-Jews and have kids who might not meet one or another community’s pedigree requirements.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein, who leads Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Los Angeles, has long been involved with Rabbi Kushner and contributes to The Kitchen’s educational program, frequently flying up to the Bay Area. He’s known for pointing out what might seem—from the outside—absurd about Jewish life. “In order to practice yoga, did your father and your mother have to practice yoga before you can get on a mat and get all of the benefits of that practice?” he posited. “No! that’s ridiculous. Anyone can do it. So why do we say that in order to participate in this tradition, you have to have this long genetic history?”

Acting on this novel idea, The Kitchen positions itself not as a place where Jews get together to do stuff, but as a place where people — any people whatsoever — can get together to do Jewish stuff. “All that matters is that you show up, and you want to be here,” said Feinstein.

Started in 2011 on Rabbi Kushner’s initial idea to rethink the synagogue-as-institution, The Kitchen has now amassed an email list of 1,500 and regularly gets 100 members coming to its Shabbat services. Over the most recent high holidays, over a thousand people stopped in for at least one prayer service. Schlesinger estimates that about 80 percent are 20- and 30-somethings, many with young families. Its “kitchen cabinet” (in less pun-inclined circles it would be called a board), is stocked with high-achieving Jewish cultural players and CEOs of investment banks and non-profits. The congregation membership is no less accomplished — it’s hard to attend a Kitchen event without running into an Ivy League Ph.D. or a V.C.-backed tech entrepreneur.

Yet despite their initial success, the leadership still worries about staying relevant to younger generations. During yet another discussion on the issue, spurred on by the release of a Pew Report officially documenting the decline in interest in Jewish religious life among millennials, Schlesinger suggested that The Kitchen talk to IDEO, the global design and innovation firm.

“IDEO is great at finding innovative ways of getting communities engaged and they don’t have a bias,” said Kushner, who explained that the field of design, as IDEO practices it, has scaled out its focus from objects to systems. So if a client wanted to build a better grocery cart, IDEO wouldn’t offer a shiny new model, because it might turn out that a better solution would be to re-tool the whole way we shop for food. “So it wasn’t crazy to think that IDEO might have something to say about redesigning religious practice,” she added.

With a few IDEO employees among their membership, the connection was easy to make, and the two organizations convened for a two-day workshop in the spring of 2014 to strategize solutions to a new design problem addressing the priorities of the millennial generation. The question they asked got to the heart of what Kushner had heard from so many Jews who had turned away from their religion because it didn’t speak to them individually. So the teams asked, “How might we allow people to customize and add religious content to their lives in their own ways?”

Twelve Kitchen members and eight IDEO creatives emerged from a flurry of post-its and prayer books with fresh prototypes for “doing Jewish,” the bespoke way, without an intervening institution: An AirBnB-inspired Shabbat dinner would allow people to sign up online for a Friday night family meal with great food and provocative discussion topics; a pop-up retail space would sell ritual items like white tablecloths, candlesticks, challah and wine. Meanwhile, in the back of the shop, Jewish “geniuses” (à la Apple store) would provide workshops on how to bless children, give support for creating phone-free events, or offer classes on cooking chicken soup and brisket. Rudimentary plans were drawn up for a Jewish ritual iPhone app and a Judaica vending machine. One group proposed a traveling Shabbat dinner table that could captivate San Franciscans with interactive street theater on tough moral issues like human trafficking or the prison-industrial complex.

There’s an old adage, “Ask two Jews, get three opinions,” but the contention it suggests wasn’t present in The Kitchen’s design-thinking process, reports IDEO’s Suzanne Gibbs Howard. “Noa and Yoav are deeply in touch with what people want, in terms of religion today,” she says. Howard’s role in the workshop was to help participants get inspired and informed about what drives involvement in a community and what inspires passion. “We looked at diverse influences like Stanford football, or the Mini Cooper,” she says.

Howard says that IDEO wants to help create large scale positive change that sticks, and doesn’t look for the next gizmo or viral marketing gimmick. In the case of collaborating with Jewish engagement organizations (they are also working with Reboot), “what we are doing is understanding the needs that people actually have and then designing new forms of religion that meet them where they are.”

One millennial Kitchen member admitted that he was turned off by the tech-savvy talk and the presumptions of internet bounty (which might be taken as a ploy to tickle a particularly well-endowed community). He pointed out that The Kitchen’s subscription options include an inexpensive “starving artist” tier. “When your dot-com IPOs, remember who loved you,” says the subscription webpage, flippantly endorsing a culture of instant gratification.

Overall, though, most Kitchen members appreciate that there is substance, depth, and even transcendence inside what might initially look like a slick facade. “Once you get into the community and talk to Rabbi Noa, and you go to spiritual fitness events to hear scholars and rabbis and you meet other people, it doesn’t feel cool or hip; it feels warm,” says Jeff Tiell, a member and leader of The Kitchen’s current social action project.

Tiell says that the community appealed to him immediately because of its diversity. “I didn’t want to just be in a young person’s synagogue,” he says. “I want to learn from the experience of older folks and be with babies and kids when they are laughing and crying, and The Kitchen authentically does that.”

Six months after the IDEO workshop, many ideas have already been put into action, including a new welcoming video on the website and AirBnB Shabbat dinners, organized with the help of food startup, Feastly. The consensus seems to be that if all of these newly conceived programs and branding measures bring new people to the community—and they make friends, deepen their spiritual practice, and bring others when they return—then it’s worth it.

The next design problems that The Kitchen confronts might be similar to what other startups encounter decades on: How will The Kitchen continually stay fresh and innovate? How will it deal with growing old? How will it stay anti-institution? It’s the nature of Jewish life to continually adapt according to the surrounding culture, so the answers will likely be found in tapping the best, most engaging, and most well-designed parts of secular life.

But the foundation of Jewish practice — even in the absence of an actual building foundation—will remain. “This is ultimately about building a loving community around Torah,” said Kushner. “That means it’s a community that gives you a sense of direction in life, a place to fall when you fall, people to help pick you up, and a project that is larger than yourself.”


Jessica Carew Kraft is an independent journalist in San Francisco. She is also an award-winning ketubah artist and illustrator.  


Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg, “The New Jewish Neighborhood*”

cotzkin-burg_daniel* This is a revised version of a chapter that originally appeared in a book edited by Rabbi Hayim Herring, Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Education (Avenida Books).  

Jews wander. Jewish communities migrate. Half a century ago these communities drifted on various wheel spokes outward, their institutional identities and Torah scrolls in tow. In recent years, a new pattern has emerged, and America’s cities are bursting again with Jewish life.

The Old Jewish Neighborhood

I live in a Jewish neighborhood called Reservoir Hill. It used to be two communities: Eutaw Place, the grand boulevard with its elegant town homes and Lake Drive, which included several blocks east of Eutaw with still beautiful, but more modest row houses. For a number of reasons, Jews moved away from Reservoir Hill toward Baltimore County. By the 1970’s, the neighborhood was now predominantly African American and increasingly poor. By the 80’s, crime had become endemic and sidewalks abutting the former Jewish shops played host to open-air drug markets. By the 90’s, the entire commercial center of the neighborhood was demolished. Reservoir Hill resembled a bagel with a gaping hole in the middle.

The New Jewish Neighborhood

In recent years, Reservoir Hill has enjoyed a general resurgence and modest Jewish renaissance: young Jewish singles, couples and families have begun to move back. Crime is down, and vacant properties are at their lowest numbers in decades. A team of 350 volunteers built a new playground in 2011 – the community’s first clean, safe play space in years. Whitelock boasts an urban farm and farm stand, a community garden and a new park – the community’s core, empty lots now an emerging as green space. The school, remembered fondly by numerous congregants, is again on the upswing and slated for a total redesign next year. Druid Hill Park across the street, Baltimore’s grand Central Park, once filled with shul-goers from dozens of nearby synagogues on Rosh Hashanah afternoon, boasts a refurbished zoo and conservatory, a new playground and swimming pool, a farmers market and weekend festivals from art fairs to dog-walkers and various ethnic celebrations.

Reservoir Hill has been slow to transition. Poverty persists as do drug sales and use. While adjacent communities like Hampden, Bolton Hill, Station North and Remington have prospered with restaurants, hip wine bars and cafes, our neighborhood’s only commercial venues are a couple of corner stores and a liquor store. Beth Am remains the strongest anchor institution and the largest house of worship by far.

Those who crave gentrification might despair at our sluggish renaissance, but there are opportunities, too. Beth Am flourishes for many reasons including the neighborhood’s great promise and potential. How many synagogues get to do social justice and community development on their front doorstep? In a provincial and still largely segregated city like Baltimore, Reservoir Hill is teeming with otherness. We are diverse ethnically, racially and socioeconomically. We are young and old, Jewish, Christian and Muslim. This is our strength and our great challenge – to harness the energy of such a community to help refine and improve urban living.

From my perspective this requires us, the Jewish community of Reservoir Hill and the many synagogue members who live elsewhere, to reframe the entire notion of a Jewish neighborhood. Once, a Jewish neighborhood was defined by a preponderance of Jews and Jewish institutions. We at Beth Am are focused less on Jewish quantity and more on quality, on a community infused with Jewish values like education, pluralism, derech eretz, social justice and sustainability.

What I Didn’t Learn in Rabbinical School

Seminaries prepare their students primarily for two things: life-long learning and Jewish institutional leadership. These are good aims. Rabbis must be agile and imaginative, mining ancient books for new insights. Good schools impart resourcefulness along with knowledge. But institutional agility is harder to teach. The Jewish communal landscape, teeming with innovation, has largely sidestepped the synagogue. Organizations like STAR and Synagogue 3000 taught congregations to be welcoming, creative and compassionate, to transcend their static buildings. But those initiatives have now closed shop and movement-based umbrellas are struggling to provide the infrastructure they once could.

The bulk of philanthropic dollars and attention in recent years have gone to synagogue-alternatives: Indie-minyans or pop-up shuls, Jewish farming, and novel programs, the bulk of which are targeted to specific constituencies. Ingenuity abounds. But this presents many graduating rabbinical students with a conundrum: innovate or surrender, avoid the congregational world and seek soul-stirring alternatives, or settle for synagogue life. Both synagogues I have had the privilege to serve have proved this a false dichotomy.

Why the Synagogue?

Synagogues are as essential today as sixty years ago. While other Jewish experiences may focus on education, prayer, community, or social action, what makes synagogues unique is that we do all of these with every kind of Jew. Our target demographic is Jews – not young Jews or older Jews, Jews in traditional families, Jews in interfaith relationships, Jews by Choice, single moms, gays and lesbians or Jews of Color. We are here for any and all of these and that is what makes us absolutely vital, the central address in the landscape of Jewish life and living. The synagogue is the only truly cradle-to-grave Jewish institution where we can pray and serve, engage and learn.

Jewish Values Re-ImaginedThe New Jewish Neighborhood Perspective

When people ask me the inevitable question, “Why do you live in Reservoir Hill?” I respond with three primary reasons: Shabbat observance; diversity/social justice; the intrinsic value of living near my shul. The first two are fairly straightforward. The third, however, is hardly self-evident. Lots of people, the vast majority of people, live far from their jobs. City living helps some to cut their commute time down, but there are plenty of urban residents who drive regularly to the suburbs or distant parts of the city. Decreased fossil fuel use and increased alternative modes of transportation (like biking, walking and public transit) are an obvious advantage. But what about the simple value of contributing to one’s own community – financially, ecologically and interpersonally?

The question is not only whether we rabbis and observant Jews ought to live near shul, but whether Jews in general ought to give this serious thought. I think the salient question is, “What does it mean to commute to community?” Urban life is, at least partially, about wanting to shrink the geographic radius of daily living. City residents like the idea of walking to parks or neighbors’ houses, cafes or the dry-cleaner. Might urban renewal offer a chance to rethink the value of walking to shul?

Otherness as Opportunity

“Because God is Other, God creates a world filled with difference.
Because God is Partner, all difference is filled with holy possibility.”
Rachel Adler, “Engendering Judaism”

The conventional wisdom about today’s younger Jews is that they shun tribalism, but this is not really true. Jewish pride is at an all-time high, and young Jews appreciate Jewishness, if not always religiously. Jews in their teens and twenties come of age in a world where Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah Song, The Hebrew HammerJ-Vibe and Heeb Magazines are things of the past. They watch shows like Glee where central characters are Jewish and flawed, but where Judaism isn’t a punch line. In the fourth grade, Mrs. Christiansen informed me that the word “Jewish” was fine, but the word “Jew” was a slur. It was perhaps true then, but not anymore.

Once, Jewish families looked to settle in comfortably contained neighborhoods and sought refuge in kosher markets, synagogues and organizational structures transplanted from the Old Country. Later, we trended toward assimilation, eager to move beyond provincial neighborhoods of immigrant parents. These days, Jews are looking to reclaim a place not of difference, but of distinctiveness within the whole. This is why public-space Judaism works so well, why so many are drawn to our services in a park, Israel-themed bar-parties or children’s story time at Barnes and Noble. Fitting in no longer means blending in.

The New Jewish Neighborhood should be a place of Jewish pride, where being a Member of the Tribe means belonging and does not require you to compromise your values like pluralism, service or sustainability. Today’s Jews are increasingly comfortable with who they are, more at ease in a world that is bigger than their own. Sometimes that world offers trends and tendencies in conflict with Judaism. But encountering otherness is also an opportunity to apply particular Jewish values in a universal context.

Prepositional JudaismInForand Of the Neighborhood

Cities are where Jewish interactions with the other are most ubiquitous and obvious. When I first came to Beth Am, I learned of a post-Neilah Yom Kippur tradition: taking the lovely potted flowers which adorned our synagogue steps throughout the High Holy Days and leaving them in front our neighbors’ homes. In fact, the first year I was here I completely forgot to remind people to do this. Some didn’t, and folks from the neighborhood who had received a plant for years came up to me and said, “Hey Rabbi, how come I didn’t get my plant this year?”

Leaving a plant on the same doorstep each year for several years is a beautiful tradition. But this tradition, thoughtful though it is, begs the questions: How many Beth Am congregants know the people who live behind the door? How many go beyond the initial and lovely gesture to hear someone’s story? To tell his or her own story? To see the other face to face?

These questions led us to create the “In, For, and Of” leadership development initiative. In Beth Am’s early years, while so many other congregations fled, it was a point of pride to remain in the city. But during those early years, when the neighborhood faced significant challenges, the posture was defensive, the synagogue a fortress. At some point it became clear that we needed to do more than just exist in Reservoir Hill. We had to assist, to volunteer, to be for the neighborhood. A Social Action Committee was founded, and a relationship with the local elementary school developed. Beth Am ran book and clothing drives, planted trees and helped to organize the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council (RHIC) and the Lakeside Neighbors Coalition.

But the questions remained: How might we move beyond seeing the neighborhood as a project and problem to be solved? How might we build relationships, soften boundaries of race, religion and class? How might we, in our own modest way, begin to undo Baltimore’s sordid legacy of segregation? In other words, how might we be increasingly of our neighborhood?

The real paradigm shift wasn’t for those who live in the community; it was for the entire shul. We asked ourselves, “What is our individual and collective responsibility to a neighborhood in which we pray, eat and learn? How might we transcend the walls of our historic building and engage our neighbors? And how might we welcome them in?”

These questions have set us on an exciting path of strategic engagement with our neighbors. There have been big programs: 350 people coming together to hear the Afro-Semitic Experience, a Jewish/African American fusion music ensemble. We also planned a visit from the author of The Other Wes Moore, who wrote an award winning book about two Black men from Baltimore with drastically different life trajectories.  A half-dozen community organizations were eager to co-sponsor the event with us. There have also been smaller, subtler achievements. We have congregants serving on the RHIC board, others on the design team for the soon-to-be rebuilt elementary school. Students in our Jewish Discovery Lab volunteer at the urban farm. We’ve hosted college students from out of state and Jewish groups from near and far. We created a program for USY teens moving them beyond typical youth-group volunteerism. They learned about the history of the neighborhood and then sat in neighbors’ homes where Black and Jewish residents told their stories. By the time the kids went to clear fieldstones from the farm expansion site, they had a sense of the community they were serving. They had, in their small way, become of the neighborhood.

Beyond Baltimore

Plenty of Jews live in suburbs where synagogues continue to thrive. Many of these synagogues have found value serving nearby urban populations through social action initiatives and advocacy.  This begs a question, though.  Must suburban congregations commute to lower-income neighborhoods?  Can any shul do relevant community engagement and/or social justice on its front doorstep?  Put differently, can any neighborhood be a New Jewish Neighborhood? I believe the answer is yes. While there are clearly differences between parts of the city and many suburbs, there is an overarching truth: the vast majority of American Jews live and work not in the shtetl but in the world.  Otherness abounds.  Being a minority, a tiny percentage of the American population, means Jewish identity is always defined in part by what we don’t think, with whom we don’t agree and in whose beliefs we don’t share.

Our tradition has always thrived in the tension between universal and particular, between understanding ourselves as simply in relationship with the other and casting our lot with the whole of humanity. But when we skew too far toward one end of the spectrum our sense of chosenness means a proclivity for the parochial. Even when Jewishness inspires outward action, being a light unto the nations has found us, at times, appearing and acting with a triumphal posture. Such is the case in the realm of social action when it is about doing for others instead of shared values and aspirations.

At Beth Am, we have begun to reframe and broaden the notion of Jewish tribalism. Where once the Jewish people consisted of twelve distinct tribes, we are now one tribe among many. And our tribe, looking at once to thrive as a distinct entity while actualizing our universalistic values, must better understand itself in relationship with the other.  The tagline for our In, For and Of, Inc. is “Building Reservoir Hill Relationships” because relationships, as Saul Alinsky has taught generations of organizers, are where purposeful and positive change begins.

Rabbinical schools have an opportunity to help students transcend the false dichotomy of innovation vs. surrender. Synagogues are in crisis, and Jewish institutions are widely viewed as out-of-touch or irrelevant. This generation of rabbis has a critical choice before it: save the synagogue for the sake of the synagogue and fail or save the synagogue for the sake of the Jewish people and succeed. Congregations by necessity must grapple with difference and recognize the semi-permeable membranes of everyday life.  How do those relationships affect the way average Jews think about their Jewish faith? It may very well be that the future success of Judaism in America will depend, in part, on whether we can overcome the mindset of the old Jewish neighborhood in favor of the new.


Daniel Cotzin Burg has been Rabbi of Beth Am Synagogue since July of 2010. Prior to his position at Beth Am, he served at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago. Ordained by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies he is married to Rabbi Miriam Cotzin Burg and they have two children, Eliyah and Shamir.




Rabbi Joshua Rabin, “What Job Is The Synagogue Hired To Do?”

rabin_joshuaRabbi Joshua Rabin

What Job is a Milkshake Hired To Do?

Clayton Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, was given the following consulting assignment by a fast-food chain: help us sell more milkshakes.[1]   This fast food chain tried every kind of focus group to increase milkshake sales, asking consumers to evaluate whether or not the milkshakes should be sweeter, chunkier, thicker, and so on, yet none of the changes resulted in an increase in sales.

Taking a different approach, Christensen and his team parked themselves next to one franchise location, and each time they saw a person leave the restaurant with a milkshake, a member of Christensen’s team approached that person and asked him or her what job he or she wanted done when they “hired” that milkshake.   Most people were confused by the question, and so the researchers clarified further, asking, “Think about a recent time when you were in the same situation, needing to get the same job done, but you didn’t come here to hire a milkshake. What did you hire?”[2]   As people began to give responses, the researchers learned that 40% of the milkshakes were purchased early in the morning, and that people “hired” a milkshake over a bagel or a doughnut because they wanted something that would not get their hands sticky, could be eaten with one hand, and would last for a long work commute.

According to Christensen, understanding why someone hires a milkshake allowed the company “to gain share against the real competition-not just competing chains’ milkshakes, but donuts, bagels, bananas, and boredom.”[3]   If a person hires a milkshake to relieve boredom in a long work commute, then the milkshake should be made thicker so that it will last longer.   Furthermore, if a banana or doughnut was hired in a different situation because each of them takes less than a minute to purchase, then the fast food chain needs to provide ways for people to grab a pre-packaged milkshake early in the morning without being stuck in line. By focusing on the function the milkshake needed to accomplish, rather than only improving the milkshake in comparison to other milkshakes, Christensen and his team helped the company increase sales by the broadening the scope of how that company thought about their marketplace and their customers.

What Job Is the Synagogue Hired To Do?

Every day, people hire, or choose not to hire, synagogues. Typically, our conversations about trends in synagogues focus on either joining a synagogue as a zero sum-game (i.e. you join a synagogue or you don’t), or joining a traditional synagogue as opposed to attending a Chabad House or an independent minyan, both of which provide a similar set of synagogue functions, but do so with a different approach.   As a result, much of the conversation about how to cultivate more thriving synagogues focuses exclusively on how synagogues compete with each other, as if the marketplace in which synagogues operate is limited exclusively to other synagogues, and that the unaffiliated are a simply a catch-all category of people who choose not to join synagogues.

However, we all know that this is not the case. Yes, sometimes a person chooses one synagogue over another because the other synagogue offers more meaningful prayer experiences, a better preschool, a visionary rabbi, or takes certain halakhic stances that are more appealing to the individual shul-shopper.   Yet at a time when the Pew Forum’s Portrait of American Jews finds that only 31% of American Jews belong to any synagogue, conversations about how to revitalize synagogues are functionally worthless if we ignore the fact that synagogues compete in a larger marketplace.

Christensen identifies this distinction as the difference between “category-defined markets” versus “job-defined markets.”[4]   In a category-defined market, synagogues are compared exclusively to other synagogues.  Yet job-defined markets are much larger than category-defined markets, and in this kind of market synagogues compete with Jewish Community Centers, Chabad Houses, gyms, yoga meditation and studios, knitting circles, soup kitchens, children’s playrooms, self-help groups, and countless other institutions.   In each case, the person who chooses not to engage in synagogue life does so because he or she feels that another institution does some job better than a synagogue ever could.

Who is Your Saddleback Sam?

Of course, what I just outlined above is not new information for any skilled synagogue professional or lay leader, yet understanding how to ask the right questions about this phenomenon is the key to actually overcoming it.  In Sulam for Current Leaders, the board development curriculum of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), congregational boards developing a Leadership Plan must ask questions such as, “Who are our owners?,” “Who are our customers?,” and “What do our Members Value?”   Asking these questions challenges the core leadership of a synagogue to think about their institution as a product in a particular marketplace, with loyalists, shoppers, persuadables, skeptics and so on.  It also forces the leadership not to think about the synagogue’s health solely in relation to other synagogues, making critical decisions because of what the synagogue down the street decided to do, but rather based on how the synagogue can effectively meet the needs of customers they have yet to reach.

Famously, Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church in Orange County, California took these questions to the next level, creating a composite profile of an unchurched person in Orange County, what he calls “Saddleback Sam” or “Saddleback Samantha.”[5]   In The Purpose Driven Church, Warren outlines how all church leaders at Saddleback must learn about Saddleback Sam and Samantha, along with their children, Steve and Sally, including where they shop, where they work out, what kind of financial challenges they face, and how they define what it means to create meaning.   By understanding this profile, Saddleback’s leaders gain an edge by shaping their church in a way that meets the broadest set of spiritual and communal needs, and the results, as we know, have been tremendous.

When a synagogue asks “What job is the synagogue hired to do?,” the professional and lay leadership allow themselves to think about their present and future from a purely user-driven perspective, outside of the insider conversation that takes up too much space about the future of synagogues.   Clayton Christensen argues in an interview that the jobs-to-be-done approach challenges us “to crawl into the skin of your customer…always asking the question as she does something: Why did she do it that way?”   If a person hired a coffee shop over the synagogue, then the synagogue may need to reconfigure physical space to allow for more low-pressure social interactions.  If a person hired a yoga studio over the synagogue, then the synagogues may need to increase programming that engages a person’s body as well as her or his head.   And if a person chose not to hire a synagogue because it felt too similar to a coffee shop or a yoga studio, with programming that is pediatric and lacking in substance, then the leadership will need to double down on increasing the quality of their core functions of prayer, study, and social justice.

At a critical time in the history of synagogues, we need to teach professional and lay leaders how to ask the right questions, embracing a principle that dates back to the Talmud that we should “Go and see what the people are doing” (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 44a, 45a).   Doing so may prove be the first step for us look at synagogue mission, vision and strategy from the perspective of Jews who have an endless array of options to choose from and help our leaders become smarter at figuring out how to make sure that future generations hire the synagogue.

Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Director of Kehilla Enrichment at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.


[1] To read the entire case study, see Clayton M. Christensen, “Module Note: Integrating Around the Job To Be Done,” Harvard Business School, 11 August 2011.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message and Mission (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1995), 169.

Dr. Sarah M. Tauber, “Congregational Rabbis as Facilitators, Co-Learners, and Community Builders”

tauber_sarahDr. Sarah M. Tauber

In a culture where spiritual seeking is often prioritized over religious practice, how do rabbis respond to the ambivalences, confusions, and journeys of contemporary adults who are willing still to look to Judaism as a source of wisdom? How do rabbis initiate conversations that respect the multiplicity of voices from the adults they encounter while still calling on the font of knowledge that they posses as clergy?

Over several years I conducted ethnographic research with three congregational rabbis who possess reputations as outstanding adult educators. Rabbis Jonathan Fisk, Rina Lewin, and Eric Miller led Reform and Conservative synagogues of between five hundred and eight hundred households.[1] I attended their adult education classes, participated in their worship services and synagogue activities. Central to the process were the interviews with them and their learners. My research generated valuable findings and implications for our understanding of rabbis as 21st century adult educators and communal leaders. In particular, three paradigms emerged to conceptualize the congregational rabbi’s role:

  • Rabbis as facilitators
  • Rabbis as co-learners
  • Rabbis as community builders

These categories of facilitator, co-learner, and community builder do not reflect a hierarchy of importance. Instead, they represent a move from an exploration of teaching approaches (facilitation) toward teaching style (co-learner) and, finally, to teaching aims (community building). The approaches, styles, and aims each express particular aspects of the congregational rabbi’s identity as a teacher of adults, while taken together they constitute a dynamic and interrelated whole.

Rabbis as Facilitators

As facilitators, rabbis articulate an egalitarian, anti-hierarchical vision of themselves as teachers. They embrace their adult learners’ right to be fully respected as learners regardless of the depth or kind of Jewish content knowledge. They also strive to help their learners gain new levels of Jewish insight, perspective, and engagement. Achieving these kinds of knowledge is far more important than acquiring only the basics of textual or ritual competency. Rather, it calls for intrapersonal and interpersonal growth in one’s connections to Judaism. Yet given the extent to which rabbis can exert even an unintended influence on their learner-congregants by virtue of their clergy identity, the rabbi-as-facilitator treads on potentially fragile terrain, at least initially. What are the qualities demonstrated by rabbis when they strive to relate to their learners as facilitators?

Being approachable, moderating discussion, modeling open-ended questioning, and guiding text study incorporate a variety of strategies that support an egalitarian teaching ethos rather than a hierarchical one. At the center of this repertoire, however, reside several deeply embedded values. These include an embrace of a democratic learning environment, an appreciation of the complexity of Jewish tradition, and a commitment to the dignity of every learner. Trust is at the heart of this value system. The quality of trust that the rabbis cultivate in their teaching reflects a profoundly spiritual orientation toward their interactions with their learners. Through such emunah, they bring a sacred dimension to their role as facilitators. It is one, moreover, whose sources reach deep into the heart of Judaism’s awareness of the holiness in our relations with God and with our fellow human beings.

Rabbis as Co-Learners

When rabbis say that they are teachers, embedded in that identity is a commitment to learning as a sacred activity. For congregational rabbis, however, the leadership, administrative, and pastoral demands of the rabbinate may leave them too little time to study. Rabbis who put education at the center of their rabbinate make intentional choices about sustaining learning as a sacred and essential aspect of their congregational leadership. Most importantly as co-learners they model learning as a collaborative process.

Fundamental to being co-learners who share perplexities and pose difficult questions is modeling how to listen. The skills required for listening cannot be overstated. Nor can the outcomes for their learners. As listeners, the rabbis participate in discussions rather than dominate them. They show their willingness to learn from fellow adults. These adults include those who possess even minimal formal Jewish textual knowledge, but whose secular learning, life experiences, and personal motivation enrich the study. The knowledge gained is part of a dynamic whereby the rabbis seek to generate critical reflection, personal relevance, and communal participation. Transmission of a predetermined content over a specified period of time through lecture, or a drive to cover a preset curriculum is not the dominant concern of the rabbis.

By viewing themselves as co-learners, rabbis model a rabbinic identity that emphasizes humility as a moral and spiritual quality. Being a rabbi whose teaching style embodies the qualities of a co-learner requires humility. The corpus of biblical and especially rabbinic literature highly valorizes it as a spiritual attribute. As members of the clergy, such humility is essential to their educator identity. Rather than reinforce a hierarchical relationship that creates dependency for their adult learners, these rabbis identify themselves as fellow Jews engaged in a transformative quest. In the process, they pursue an ongoing discovery of self and others in relation to faith, belief, and religion. It focuses on understanding religion as a spiritually inspired way of life.

Rabbis as Community Builders

For the rabbis in my research, the motor at the core of community building is education. The rabbis see the construction of community through teaching and learning as a central aim of their rabbinic mission. They lead synagogues where education and community exist in a mutually reciprocal relation to each other. To keep this motor running, they teach regularly and frequently to small- and medium-sized groups of adults. These learning groups foster personal and communal attachments. The rabbis forge strong interpersonal bonds with their learners. They create an environment that encourages relationships among the learners. These groups function as miniature communities within the larger congregation. In them the rabbis model ways of engaging with Judaism that invite and cultivate communal belonging.

Because they meet regularly, the groups develop their own history. By incorporating stories (their own, their learners’, and those that are part of Jewish tradition, Jewish texts, and Jewish contemporary life), the rabbis and learners jointly craft a coherent and compelling narrative of Jewish communal life. This narrative extends beyond each group. It nourishes the synagogue’s story more broadly. Learning together also empowers the adults to grow as Jews. It stimulates congregants to participate as members of a community for whom learning together infuses a sense of transcendent meaning into their lives.

Community building expresses an overarching aim of the rabbis’ teaching. It is here where their identities as synagogue leaders and religious educators merge most evidently. The work of community building reveals the democratic ethos inherent in their facilitator and co-learners roles. It orients their learners towards a sense of adult agency. As givers and receivers within their synagogues, adults discover that learning can transform them. It empowers them to contribute to the vitality of their communities. Through learning, the past and present are explored together so that their multilayered meanings become embedded in a collective consciousness. Moreover, when rabbis build community through education with their congregant-learners, the potential for transformation reaches beyond the current generation. It affirms the potential for a religious tradition to constantly renew itself as a vital force rather than as a static relic of the past.

Where To Now?

Anyone concerned with the position and purpose of rabbis who aspire to bring education into the forefront of their work with adults must take bold steps to clearly articulate why rabbis continue to matter as educational leaders for adult populations in their communities and even in the broader American context. If they fail to do so in this “do-it-yourself” hyper-connected world, people will search elsewhere for existential and transcendent wisdom, guidance, and meaning. Rabbis will put their own relevance into question. Correspondingly, the capacity for Judaism as a dynamic religious and spiritual tradition to participate constructively and humanely in any public discourse will inevitably wane.

The openness and vibrancy I encountered in the three rabbis and their congregations filled me with hope. The frequency of the face-to-face relationships that they supported struck me as verging on revolutionary, given that our culture seems to be catapulting itself in the opposite direction. While the rabbis I researched most certainly sustain the centrality of the study of sacred texts to their teaching, relationships are at the heart of the adult learning enterprise: relationships with and among their learners, with the texts, and with God and Jewish tradition (however one understands the terms “God” and “tradition”). It is through these relationships that the knowledge comes alive for many of their learners. Rabbis embody the capacity of an ancient civilization to value the past, live fully in the present, and chart a flourishing future. This is no easy undertaking. How they do so through the practice of education and most especially in partnership with adults may very well determine the resiliency of Judaism and Jewish communal life in the 21st century.

Sarah M Tauber is Assistant Professor of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. She is the author of the recently published book, Open Minds, Devoted Hearts: Portraits of Adult Religious Educators (Pickwick Publications, 2015) that focuses on rabbis and clergy as adult educators and from which this article is excerpted.

[1]These names are pseudonyms to protect the identity of the rabbis and their congregations.

Rabbi Adam Baldachin, “Redefining “Rabbi” in Rockland County: Pursuing Justice in Public Education”

Baldachin_AdamRabbi Adam Baldachin

As rabbis, we are trained to access the collection of texts that deal with the stuff of life. The law, narratives, interpretations, and inner yearnings that make up the Jewish tradition give us the background we need to do our holy work: to bring truth, meaning, justice, and empathy to anyone who will connect with us on their Jewish journeys.  Yet when I began to work full time as a rabbi in Montebello, NY, I couldn’t have guessed where my training would lead me.

In my first week on the job, a local reporter asked my opinion about the crisis unfolding within the East Ramapo school district. Knowing nothing about the issue, I declined to comment. Instead, I began my justice work by holding one-on-one conversations and listening, as I learned while at JTS in a course taught by Meir Lakein of JOIN for Justice. So upon arriving at Montebello Jewish Center, I met congregants in my office, out for coffee or in their homes to hear their stories and find out what might motivate them to get involved in some issue that affected them, their community or society at large. The issue that was mentioned over and over again was the situation in the East Ramapo School District, which is located about three miles from our synagogue.

My congregation is located in Central Ramapo and has its own school district. Only a small number of my congregants currently send their children to East Ramapo schools due to an inability to move elsewhere. The older members of our congregation moved to the area decades ago to send their kids to, what was then, among the best schools in the county. Today, these same schools have deteriorated both in infrastructure and in academic performance. Over 90% of the student population is African-American, Afro-Caribbean and Latino immigrant families and they are being cheated of an education and of a future.

How did this happen? For almost a decade, Chasidic and Ultra-Orthodox Jews have been running in elections for the local school board, even though their own children attend private yeshivot. Their singular goal was to prevent an increase in school taxes.  Once having secured a supermajority on the school board, the haredi members made cuts unprecedented in the county, cutting over 400 positions, including all full-day kindergarten teachers and social workers, eliminating extracurricular activities like sports, music, art, and clubs, and slashing academic offerings. Effectively, this made it extremely difficult for many students to complete their state course graduation requirements in four years.  Moreover, the school board hired expensive lawyers to exploit state loopholes that diverted public funds to finance private special education, and even sold two elementary school buildings to private schools at bargain-basement prices, moving the children attending public school to overcrowded classrooms.  To add insult to injury, the school board moved the public comments section of their open meetings to the last item on their agenda. They then held private “executive sessions” until late into the night, leaving parents to choose between waiting to speak or putting their children to bed.

When I learned what was happening, I was appalled.  As the father of small children, as a Jew, as a human being, I could not believe that a school board would operate this way.  Yet nothing could really stop the board.  They were duly elected.  They used claims of anti-Semitism as a shield against any criticism from public school advocates.  It was outrageous.

I decided to reach out to other clergy in our area to take a stand. Rabbi Ari Hart from Uri L’Tzedek put me in touch with Dr. Oscar Cohen of the local NAACP. Dr. Cohen and local advocates for social justice had reached out to the school board and members of the ultra- Orthodox community to resolve the conflict privately.  Board members replied that they were duly elected and would run the district in accordance to their views.  “If you don’t like it” — the board president told the public at one particularly heated meeting — “move.”  Dr. Cohen and the NAACP turned to Governor Andrew Cuomo for support. Unfortunately, they did not receive the support from the Governor’s office they had hoped for.

To more effectively gain Governor Cuomo’s attention, we organized a group of ministers, imams, and rabbis as the Rockland Clergy for Social Justice and began to hold weekly meetings. These gatherings grew in number and intensity and resulted in a petition to the Governor and a local press conference. We also made a trip to Albany to raise the profile of the issue.  We delivered a petition signed by 150 clergy members to Governor Cuomo and other public officials, asking for a fiscal monitor of the school board and the convening of a task force to consider revising the current system of governance to reflect the uniqueness of the East Ramapo school district.

Throughout this process, our group met privately with one another and in larger groups, always beginning by sharing words of strength and commitment in the pursuit of social justice from our various faith traditions. The result has been a strong group of caring individuals that has the Governor’s ear as we pursue justice for the students of East Ramapo. A few weeks after the visit to Albany, Governor Cuomo, Board of Regents Chancellor Tisch and Education Commissioner King appointed Hank Greenberg, a former federal prosecutor with an extensive background in state governance and fiscal reviews, as fiscal monitor to the East Ramapo public schools. After a five-month study of the district, Greenberg provided a report stating that the school board had mismanaged the district, disrespected parents and students, and appeared to use power and resources to favor private schools over public schools.  He recommended that the state create a mechanism to oversee the board’s decisions, with the ability to reverse them if necessary—a solution similar to one employed in Lakewood, NJ, which had faced similar problems.

Building on this report, our local state representatives, Senator David Carlucci, and Assembly Members Ellen Jaffee and Ken Zebrowski, composed legislation (A. 5355/S. 3821) that mirrored Greenberg’s recommendation.  If passed, the law would authorize the appointment of a state monitor in the district to ensure that all children are assured a sound education that could provide them with the knowledge and skills to become upstanding American citizens. Involving a monitor would offer transparency to the community, giving parents the ability to trust that the school system is operating with the best interests of their children at heart.

Nothing in my rabbinical training prepared me for this kind of lobbying effort. Even as I write this, we do not know if our efforts will result in dramatic changes for the students in the East Ramapo schools. But what I do know is this: advocates who have long felt helpless now have reason to be optimistic that their vision for their schools might be championed. Our work has provided for rich dialogue within the Jewish community about our obligations to the community we live in. The Jewish values of “pursuing justice” and “loving our neighbors as we love ourselves” that usually are restricted to sermons are now guiding the community’s behavior.

Advocating for this important cause has brought great meaning to my rabbinate and an important vision to my community. But it has also taken up a considerable amount of time and energy. I hear more and more congregants beginning a voice-mail message with the phrase, “Rabbi, I know you’re quite busy, but if you have time I have one quick question…” Because of a day of advocacy in Albany, I was not able to call a congregant who had undergone minor surgery that day, something I normally would have done. I have often had to change or push off meetings with congregants because of a meeting with a local public official or a brainstorming meeting with other clergy.

In general, however, my congregants have been extremely supportive of this work. They supported me with their presence at public meetings. They are eager to be updated on the progress we are making on the issue. My activism has helped me integrate into the dynamic of the wider community and given me a chance to play an important role in the justice efforts of local groups.

I do struggle with the perception that I am pitting Jew vs. Jew in Rockland County. There is already antipathy towards the haredi community and the actions of the local interfaith clergy—of which I am part—has brought more focus on the wrongful use of public office by haredi school board members. I have been attacked on social media as the “Korach of Rockland,” and as an “interloper,” inserting myself beyond my own jurisdiction since I am not living in the school district. While these attacks are at times hurtful, I continue to advocate with my message of equity and social justice. The children of East Ramapo deserve a future just like the children of the other seven school districts in Rockland deserve a future.

I remind my congregants, and am reminded by them at times, about a midrash, which teaches that people should not idly sit around in their homes and say to themselves: “What have the troubles of the people to do with me? What do I have to do with their laws? Why should I trouble myself with the people’s voices of protest? Let my soul dwell in peace!’ If one does this, they overthrow the world.” (Mishpatim 2)

I feel blessed that my rabbinate has taken on a strong social justice trope. Not only am I doing it because I believe the cause is just but I also hope that it will affect the culture of my community.  I am engaged with a movement that finds common interest within diversity and amidst divisiveness, and works towards equity and a belief that we are all created in God’s image. Overall, this is a pretty good starting point to give a synagogue a strong sense of mission.


Rabbi Adam Baldachin is the rabbi of Montebello Jewish Center in Rockland County, NY. He is a founding member of Rockland Clergy for Social Justice, and serves on the board of the JCC and Rockland Jewish Academy. As a guitar player and shliach tzibbur, he formed the band, “Seeing Sounds” which performs at his congregation throughout the year.

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D., “Seeing is Believing: Visual T’filot and the Future of Jewish Worship”

sussman_lanceRabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.

Three years ago, my synagogue agreed to install large retractable screens on either side of the Ark and mounted projectors on the back wall of our 900 seat sanctuary.  With almost no resistance, we quickly transitioned from late 15th century technology to early 21th century modalities of communicating.  It was a relatively easy process.  In addition to her musical talents, our Cantor discovered she had an inherent talent for developing liturgical power point.  What size font, which colors,   Hebrew versus transliteration,  translation versus epitomes of the text, iconic images versus new art and still life versus video instantly presented themselves as questions we needed to address. One by one, we worked our way through the various technological and philosophical issues.

We also had to decide whether to look for commercially made liturgical power points or develop our own.   What we discovered was that we had ample talent to do our own thing. We had talented staff, laypeople who were professionals in the field of digital illustration and even our Bnai Mitzvah students who were eager to personalize their own services.

The results were phenomenal.  Our religious school created liturgical power point classes.   Students began debating among themselves how to illustrate the shma, the amidah and their own special prayers of thanks.   Regular worshippers and first time visitors alike began to look up during services instead of down into their prayer books.  The elderly shared that they were glad to be rid of heavy siddurim and quite happy to look up  at the  large letter liturgical texts well within their visual capacity.

Of course, there was some resistance.  One Bat Mitzvah told me she did not want to use Visual T’filot because “Moses did not have power point.”   Of course, Miriam did not have a Bat Mitzvah either, a point which impressed the student but did not cause her to change her mind.   Others said they did not mind the visuals but wanted the option of using “real” books as well.  No problem there.   We never even discussed removing our seforim and  have learned to integrate the use of print and digital in worship.

Today’s reality is that if you go to a major league ball game, you still watch half the game or more on a screen.  There are digital billboards on major highways and flat screen menus in neighborhood greasy spoon diners.   The digital revolution has already won the day; it is high time for the modern synagogue to catch up with its host culture.

I also have members who come to services with app based liturgy loaded into their I-phones, I-pads and tablets.  We are even considering switching from the weekly memorial plaques and their old fashion orange light bulbs to a flat screen with images of the same.   Early modern Judaism transitioned from handwritten books to printed books; post-modern Judaism can go digital as well.

In fact, on a cost-benefit basis, the move to digital makes a great deal of sense.   It is much cheaper to install a screen and a projector than it is to buy a thousand new machzorim for the high holy days.   All the unselected material can be shifted to files, texts can be customized and “new” material from original poetry to Rashi commentaries can be inserted effortlessly.

We have also learned how to use mixed media Shabbat announcements and what to display for the purpose of memorialization.  My congregation finds comfort in the image of a lit yahrzeit candle before kaddish but does like seeing “the list” up on the screens.

For nearly twenty centuries, rabbis and others have debated the value of visual representations of hiddur mitzvah and the dangers of avodah zara.  Today, art and illustration is widely used in Jewish life and universal visual t’filot is the next logical step in the adaptation of Judaism to the modern world.

We live in a visual world.   It is time to visualize our prayers and “text” our sacred images.  The polarity of service and party will lessen, behavior during services will improve and Judaism will find a new place in the eyes, minds and hearts of the Jewish people.

Visual T’filot is fun, engaging and authentic.   If you are not sure how to proceed, just ask any 10 year old in your community what to do.   They are ready.  Are you?

Lance J. Sussman is Senior Rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA.   He has taught classes on Jewish History at Princeton, Temple and Rutgers University.  Sussman is currently writing a book on “Jews, Judaism and Law in America.”

Dr. Rob Weinberg, “Six Faces of Synagogue Success”

The following article appeared in a special 2014 issue of Reform Judaism entitled, “Strengthening Congregations: A Symposium”. It is being published here with the permission of the Union of Reform Judaism. 

weinberg_rogDr. Rob Weinberg

Today’s most successful synagogues share six faces:

  1. Successful synagogues link people to what matters in life.
    Engagement goes to the heart of what successful congregations strive to achieve, not as an end in itself but as a means to creating the relationships that build communities in which Judaism confers meaning to life and opens the door to making a difference in the world. When a congregation creates sacred relationships, fosters Jewish meaning, and helps people make a real impact, people become and remain engaged. When they are so engaged, a self-reinforcing “virtuous cycle” is created in which each investment of mind and heart feels so worthwhile that people seek to engage more often and more deeply.
  2. Successful congregations are intentional.

Having a vision statement and/or list of core values is neither new nor sufficient. Successful congregations, whether or not they have statements or lists, act with vision in keeping with their values consistently and over the long term–not just for a few weeks or months after a statement is written.

A successful synagogue has at its core a clear set of shared values and a vision that communicate what the community aspires to be and for what it stands. By not trying to be all things to all people, it attracts those who want to be part of realizing that vision in their own lives, and who seek like-minded people with whom to form and sustain a community. Being part of a particular congregation means something when that congregation stands for something.

In an intentional congregation that values relationships governance is not top-down or secretive–it is open and collaborative. Leaders who regard Judaism as a source of meaning in life are guided in their governance and daily management decisions by Jewish values with the understanding that the synagogue is not a business. When faced with a challenge, they not only look at best principles and practices of other synagogues or organizations, but also at Jewish texts and tradition.

Belonging to a sacred community means treating one another with care and kindness in board meetings, in the religious school, in contract negotiations, and from the bimah. A person’s status in the congregation is measured on the basis of his or her adherence to those values, not on the size of his/her financial contributions. In successful synagogues, you can sense alignment between intention and action in all aspects of congregational life, decision making, and culture. It’s in the air of a successful congregation. You can feel it from the moment you walk in.

  1. Successful synagogues regard “members” as parties to a covenant (b’rit), not as consumers of a set of services.

The people who are part of successful congregations forge rich and nuanced relationships with one another, with the community (synagogue, local, national, world), with their Judaism, with God, and with Israel. They express and enact these relationships through learning, service, prayer, contemplation, and deeds of lovingkindness. They support one another in times of joy and trial. They feel both needed and served by the community. In the best of circumstances, this reciprocity matures from a simple transactional exchange to a sacred sense of covenantal relationship.

Congregants freely contribute to the ongoing support, maintenance, and financial needs of the congregation, not as a prescribed obligation, but because they value the role that the synagogue plays in their lives and they understand what it takes to create and maintain that kind of consequential community. The congregation thrives because it matters in the lives of its “members,” who view it as a vehicle to find and enact meaning in their lives and they see themselves intricately engaged in helping to make it thrive.

  1. Successful congregations build competence and confidence in Jewish practice and synagogue leadership.

In successful congregations, rather than “doing Jewish” for congregants, the clergy and professionals (if any–many of our smallest congregations are lay led) see their roles as resources, guides, and sources of inspiration. They invite people into the world of Jewish knowledge and practice, helping them to find their paths into a Jewish life they create. They strike a delicate and ever-dynamic balance between leading congregants to engage with and fulfill the congregation’s Jewish values and vision, while also responding to the needs, preferences, and current realities of the community. And they work to develop, empower, and support lay people to exercise leadership in a wide array of ways–not only in formal roles on a synagogue board or committee but also

in the day-to-day Jewish life and practice of the congregation. Congregants learn to lead prayer, chant Torah and Haftarah, facilitate text study, write and share a d’var Torah, lead motzi and birkat hamazon at synagogue events.  They also learn to visit the sick and homebound, to comfort one another in loss, and to rejoice together in the high points of life.​

  1. In successful synagogues, though congregational life may be centered at the synagogue, it is neither restricted to nor bound by the building.

Congregations with chavurot, small groups who meet in people’s homes to learn, socialize, and celebrate Shabbat or Jewish holidays together, get the idea that Jewish living is not confined to the synagogue. Other congregations are learning from Temple Israel of Boston’s Riverway Project or North Shore Congregation Israel’s Beyond and Back how to reach out to young adults, meeting them “where they are geographically, developmentally, and spiritually,” and engaging them in creating experiences that they value.

  1. Successful synagogues adapt and innovate.

In successful synagogues both the leaders and the members are eager to try new things and ready to experiment and learn from experience. They are confident enough to let go of past habits and wise enough to hold onto what’s core to who they are. These congregations constantly reflect on what they are doing and achieving, and compare it to their vision and values. They rejoice when something they do is pitch-perfect and are brutally honest with themselves when they fall short. They are, as negotiation experts William Ury and Roger Fisher would say, soft on the people and hard on the problem. They constantly look both inward and outward to gauge how the world around them is shifting and how well they are fulfilling their sacred task. And they are agile in innovating to meet new realities; they don’t hide their heads in the sand. They don’t blame or shame. They reflect, learn, and move forward.

I’ve seen well over 100 congregations work to re-imagine the way Jewish learning happens for their children, families, and, in some cases, adults. The most successful congregations engage in what my colleague Cyd Weissman, director of Innovation in Congregational Learning at The Jewish Education Project, calls a “spiraling series of innovations in the direction of their vision.” They try something, learn from it, and try something else, all the while building on what they’ve learned about their learners, about Jewish education, about the community in which they live, about what’s working to create the kind of experience and results they are after.

One example: Congregation Beth Am of Los Altos Hills, California is well-known for its innovative Shabbaton program–a Shabbat Family community that engaged families in learning that looked nothing like your parents’ religious school. Other synagogues have emulated and adapted the program. But after going through a renewed process of re-imagining Jewish learning, Beth Am decided to phase in a completely new set of educational experiences, including Connections
(an experimental program to establish small learning communities where children and parents develop deep and lasting friendships and work with a mentor to experience many opportunities to connect Jewish learning with Jewish living), Camp Beth Am (for 5th through 8th graders), and Avodah! Jewish Service Learning for teens. They weren’t afraid to sunset Shabbaton despite its national reputation.

Successful congregations treat each success as a stepping stone to the next greater success, always mindful of what’s changing around them. They don’t assume that yesterday’s answers fit tomorrow’s questions. They don’t say: “We changed once and now we’re done.” They constantly find new ways to get at what’s essential and timeless.

Dr. Rob Weinberg is a leader in the field of synagogue transformation and has served since 2001 as national director of the Experiments in Congregational Education (ECE), an initiative of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at HUC-JIR, Los Angeles.