Inspiring Change


These days, every business that seeks a viable future is being forced to rethink its ways. The same is true of our Jewish institutions in general, and our synagogues — once the pillar of Jewish American life — in particular.

Which is why the Jewish Learning Venture should be applauded for launching a series of programs for synagogue lay and professional leaders to explore collectively what our synagogues might do to address the economic, demographic and sociological challenges nearly all are facing.

Congregations big and small across the country are experiencing more than just economic woes. They are competing for the hearts and minds of an increasingly diverse population, some of whom may be finding spiritual nourishment outside the traditional synagogue walls, many of whom are not seeking Jewish connections at all.

Our community is both blessed with — and burdened by — the impressive structures that formed the foundation of burgeoning Jewish life in suburban Philadelphia in the middle of the last century. The Frank Lloyd Wright creation that houses Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park stands as an iconic tribute to what American Jewry achieved decades ago.

But as Rabbi Philip Warmflash, executive director of the Jewish Learning Venture, notes in "Reimagining the Synagogue," our cover story this week, we are "living with the congregations that our grandparents dreamed about."

Across the region, some congregations have been forced to close or merge. Those left standing need to focus their dreams on the future. Synagogues are already trying to do just that, finding ways to compensate for declining membership and rising costs through collaboration, innovation and even, as our cover story reports, employing such a radical notion as eliminating the traditional membership dues structure.

As synagogues seek new business models, collaborations once thought inconceivable have become almost commonplace. Competition, though still certainly out there, is in some cases turning to cooperation. From combining Hebrew schools to sharing youth directors, all sorts of experiments can be found throughout the region. Next month, for example, the individual Purim carnival will become a thing of the past for most of the non-Orthodox congregations on the Main Line. They are joining forces with the Kaiserman JCC to sponsor one big festival.

The impetus for change may come from a position of weakness, but the results can be inspiring.

The vibrant congregations in our midst — and there are many — are those thinking outside the box, bringing a mix of programming and prayer that will speak to the young and the old so that decades from now, our children and our children's children will still find meaning in becoming part of a synagogue community.