RJ Spring 2001

False Prophets

by Eric H. Yoffie

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Certain well-intentioned Jewish opinion makers, speaking the language of synagogue renewal, are woefully out of touch with what is actually happening in our congregations throughout North America.

The North American synagogue is under attack. A recent spate of articles, interviews, books, and conferences have suggested that the synagogue--and in particular the non-Orthodox synagogue--is a disaster area that succeeds only in turning off Jews to Judaism. The same "experts" who make these claims also dismiss the non-Orthodox religious movements as irrelevant and responsible for the synagogue's failures.

Item: Michael Steinhardt, a former Wall Street tycoon who owns several Jewish newspapers and has donated tens of millions of dollars to Jewish causes, characterized the Reform and Conservative Movements as "accidents of history," destined to disappear within half a century. In Steinhardt's opinion, "labels like 'Conservative' and 'Reform' smack of the undesirable status quo."

Item: Edgar M. Bronfman, a leading philanthropist and World Jewish Congress president, told an interviewer that "synagogues are boring" and rabbis will never make needed changes because they "are comfortable, they have a nice life, they have a car, a decent salary."

Item: Samuel G. Freedman, a distinguished journalist and author, proclaimed in his widely acclaimed book, Jew vs. Jew, that the Orthodox model has "triumphed in America" and derided Reform and Conservative Judaism for providing neither "substance" nor "self-confidence" to their members, resulting in largely empty synagogues on all but two or three days a year.

Steinhardt, Bronfman, and Freedman are devoted Jews who, in their respective realms, have contributed impressively to North American Jewish life. Their opinions are taken seriously and widely disseminated. Their motivations are undoubtedly commendable, and each sees himself as a courageous advocate of constructive change in Jewish religious practice. In fact, last September, Steinhardt and Bronfman joined with a third philanthropist, the late Charles Schusterman, to fund STAR, a Chicago-based foundation devoted to synagogue renewal. STAR's program is not yet fully defined, but it hopes to encourage change by taking such steps as promoting the use of technology in the synagogue and encouraging cooperation among synagogues of different movements and between synagogues and communal agencies.

At a time when many Jewish philanthropists have chosen to direct their resources to operas and art museums, it is gratifying that some remain devoted to the central institutions of Jewish religious life. Still, one can only marvel at how even well-intentioned leaders who speak the language of synagogue renewal can be so woefully out of touch with what is actually happening in congregations throughout North America. They are, it seems, simply ignorant about what is taking place at the grassroots of North American Jewish life.

In fact, this is a time of ferment, dynamism, and rapid change for the North American synagogue, and the liberal synagogue in particular. Only a generation ago, the program of the average suburban synagogue consisted largely of bar mitzvah training, a religious school, a sisterhood, a youth group, and a few adult education classes. In the last two decades, however, hundreds of thousands of baby boomers have become synagogue members, bringing with them a whole new set of ideas and demands. They want their congregations to assist them in raising their children and to be places of community and caring. They crave a connection with the transcendent, and they expect their synagogues to support their spiritual search. They keenly feel their lack of Jewish knowledge and look to their synagogues to connect them with sacred Jewish texts. And what the baby boomers want is what other Jews, both younger and older, want as well.

The synagogue has begun to respond. In the Reform synagogue, for example, worship patterns have changed dramatically in the last few years. Worship is no longer an incidental concern, but a central one, and debate on worship practices abounds; synagogue Jews today want meaningful worship that is heartfelt, participatory, and informal, and they are getting it. The approach to Jewish education is changing too; Torah study is no longer confined to the religious school and a few adult classes, but integrated into every aspect of temple life. Family education is now a standard part of the religious school curriculum in most Reform congregations, and temple boards and committees frequently study texts to inform their decision-making.

Furthermore, consistent with the boomers' commitment to pluralism and their desire for experimentation, the sheer number of worship, study, and cultural offerings under synagogue auspices has jumped dramatically. As a result, the modern liberal synagogue has become a complex, multigenerational facility, with each age group and special-interest group finding its own place. Large- and even medium-sized congregations may provide not only a regular worship service but a toddlers service, a family service, a healing service, and a youth group service. They may sponsor a singles group for members below age 40 and a singles group for members above. They may offer seniors groups for the long retired and seniors groups for the recent, active retired. In short, the synagogue that had 300 members 20 years ago is most likely doing far more now than it did then, even if the number of members remains the same. Even today's small congregation is likely to be a multipurpose institution with multiple constituencies and a high set of expectations.

Is positive synagogue change happening everywhere? Of course not. Some synagogues have enthusiastically adopted these new values, while others are resistant. And the pace of change varies from congregation to congregation. In some instances, the rabbi is the primary advocate of change; in other cases, change is initiated by committed lay leaders; in still others, it results from a true partnership between clergy and volunteers. Moreover, in our richly diverse community, no consensus exists on what constitutes the prototype for a sacred synagogue community; appropriately, we find a multiplicity of models and approaches.

Still, the direction is clear. Now, as never before, synagogues are looking within and discovering new modes of spirituality. And it is sad that, precisely at this time of ferment and change, those who profess their desire to help the synagogue have chosen to publicize their personal distaste for synagogue practice. It is difficult to see how this attitude of disdain could possibly advance Jewish life in North America.

Perhaps the most serious blind spot of these critics is their tendency to make a virtue of "post-denominational' Judaism and to dismiss the importance of all the religious movements, with the exception of the Orthodox. Modern Jews crave religious belief. The theological differences among the non-Orthodox religious movements are reasonably well-defined; each offers its members a coherent religious vision based upon its own values, principles, and religious way of life. To make light of these distinctions and to turn all of non-Orthodox Judaism into an indistinguishable religious mush is to demean the religious choices of more than 90 percent of the Jewish community.

Consensus-seeking community leaders such as Steinhart, Bronfman, and Freedman seem to regret the existence of competing religious ideologies, as if contentious religious debate is a destructive force that adds to Jewish strife and disarray. They do not understand that Jews are the most variegated people on earth, and that religious differences define us--and make us stronger. Jewish pluralism is a blessing, not a curse. For every Shammai we need a Hillel, for every Litvak a Hasid, for every Orthodox Jew, a Liberal Jew. Indeed, it is wise to be suspicious of calls for "unity," because we have hardly ever beenunited. The passionate particularism of our religious movements, so feared by some, is precisely what keeps us vibrant and alive, and assures our survival.

Moreover, the denominations play a critical role in the process of synagogue growth and transformation now underway. In the Reform Movement, the interplay between local congregation and national movement accounts for much of the Reform synagogue's vitality. National Reform institutions have contributed directly to a lively, intense local spirituality by offering well-organized initiatives in the areas of worship, Torah study, camping, and youth. In the realms of worship and Torah study, for example, the national movement has provided a flurry of materials, conferences, on-line chat groups, workshops, and leadership training sessions to build on the enthusiasm of local congregations. The Conservative and Reconstructionist Movements serve a similar function for their congregations.

Most important is the fact that in North America, the Jewish religious movements have laid the very foundation upon which our synagogues rest--training rabbis, cantors, and educators; publishing textbooks for religious schools; producing prayer books for worship; running summer camps, youth groups, and Israel trips; organizing conversion classes and Outreach efforts; advocating for religious causes in Washington; and supporting the creation of new congregations. Those who speak with contempt of denominational labels and yearn for a post-denominational era never explain who will do all this work and who will provide the leadership and momentum that the movements generate.

I am not saying we should be self-satisfied about the state of the synagogue. The changes underway, however positive, have not yet achieved the results we seek. Far too many synagogues remain set in their ways, preoccupied more with finance and administration than with matters of the spirit. And there is no denying that, at any given time, the majority of Jews are not members of a Jewish religious community. There is much to do, and we are in need of knowledgeable critics, new ideas, and a great many donors willing to support the seriously under-funded synagogue world.

But what we don't need are quick fixes from mavens with money who pontificate about the "boring" establishment and then devote millions to trendy experiments. We don't need attacks on the hard-working rabbis who, day after day, teach us Torah, comfort the afflicted, inspire the weary, and provide guidance to those who search for truth and meaning. And we don't need a dismissive attitude toward the 1,800 liberal synagogues of North America that do the everyday work of keeping the flame of Judaism alive.

Two and a half million affiliated Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Jews have chosen to enter into a covenantal relationship with an institution that remains the most powerful means of turning the principles of Torah into tangible and living religious ideals. So, please, no more cheap shots and frivolous criticism. North American Jewish life at its best can be seen in the deep love that exists between committed Jews and their synagogues. Those who make light of this love and commitment only highlight their own ignorance, distance themselves from the community, and demonstrate disrespect for what the Jewish people holds sacred. Let us, instead, affirm the role of the synagogue as the best collective expression of Jewish identity, and let all who care about Jewish destiny join us in partnership to renew the synagogue, revive Jewish life, and assure the Jewish future.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.



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