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How Can Shuls Go About Keeping the Young in Their Midst?

January 3, 2007 By:
Andrew Silow-Carroll
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The end of 2007 saw the publication of two important documents on the future of the American synagogue, and, at first glance, they could not appear more different.

The first, "Acting Strategically: A Manual for Synagogue Planning," is a product of the Minneapolis-based STAR, or Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal. Written in the language of business consulting, the manual offers a model for an "intensive, 18-month, long-range planning process that is intended to produce a long-range strategic plan."

The purposes of such planning, it explains, are "to consider demographic, competitive and other challenges facing the congregation" and to "develop measurable objectives that move the congregation from its present state toward more complete fulfillment of its redefined mission."

Dry stuff, right? But read between the lines and you can almost hear the desperation of those for whom the manual is intended. We know those democratic and competitive challenges, and they're not pretty: tumbling Jewish affiliation, extensive intermarriage, Saturday-morning soccer and Friday nights at the movies. Synagogues need to redefine their missions, we know, because the generation that built them is giving way to one that barely wants to visit them.

"Acting Strategically" offers a way of diagnosing what ails the American synagogue. As for the symptoms, you'd have to read the second document, "Emergent Jewish Communities and Their Participants," a study released by Synagogue 3000, another synagogue-renewal group. (You know the old joke: one Jewish community, two synagogue-renewal groups.)

Don't worry if you don't know what an "emergent Jewish community" is -- sociologist Steven M. Cohen and his co-authors only recently coined the term to describe a new kind, or kinds, of congregation. The study identifies about 80 "spiritual communities" or "independent minyanim," including Manhattan's Mechon Hadar, the study's co-sponsor.

Picture a traditional Saturday-morning service in a rented church basement or community center, led by a young person with a day-school background. The prayers are melodic and intense, drawing heavily on the Shlomo Carlebach songbook. A flyer may remind you that minyan is not a time for chit-chat, although a disproportionate number of single women may lead to some significant glances. Just before the potluck vegetarian kiddush, someone will announce a rally against sweatshops, a tutoring program at an inner-city school and a class on biblical heroines.

Whether led by rabbis or well-educated lay people, these "emergents" can be identified by what they insist they are not: neither "synagogues" nor "congregations," nor affiliates of a denomination.

And that's where the STAR and Synagogue 3000 reports begin to intersect. STAR is urging synagogues to form committees and focus groups to determine what it will take for them to survive into the future. Cohen's report is, in effect, the minutes of an 80-member focus group on ways that traditional synagogues don't meet the needs of some of Judaism's best and brightest.

Of course, the "emergents" aren't the only population synagogues need to learn from. But like any niche product, the minyanim offer a model that deserves to be adapted -- at least in part.

The study identifies two key motivations among their participants. First is the search for "warm communities in which they are deeply involved and socially connected, and in which they can see their friends of their own age." Second is their hope for "meaningful worship experiences," whose hallmarks are appealing music and smart, relevant d'var Torahs, or sermons.

Synagogues can't pretend to be what they are not to attract those turned off by what they are. But many are making room -- within their main services, or in alternative ones -- to accommodate people who might otherwise join or launch an independent minyan.

STAR has been part of that process, promoting its "Synaplex" model for engaging congregants.

Rabbi Hayyim Herring , STAR's executive director, thinks the synagogue and the minyan can be friends: "I believe that they could benefit from each other, for mainstream synagogues have infrastructure that these emergent communities often lack and, conversely, these emergent communities, just by their presence, could supply some energy to mainstream congregations."

Andrew Silow-Carroll is editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.

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