Blowing up the Bima: Reinventing the Rabbi Congregant Relationship

Part of the Connected Congregations series.

1983. The author was in Atlanta, GA serving in his first full time Rabbi / Jewish Educator position. As part of a synagogue renovation project, the synagogue’s school building (which once served as the state’s Ku Klux Klan headquarters!) was being restored after having been abandoned years earlier. The synagogue had been founded in the city of Atlanta. In 1946, it followed the move of Jews to suburbia. Consistent with the architecture of the time, the bima was an elevated stage several feet above congregant seating and positioned several yards forward from the front row of seating. The bima was illuminated by several spotlights, which easily raised the temperature to 10 degrees higher than that in the seats below.

During the renovation project, the senior rabbi and I questioned whether the bima could be moved closer to the congregants, or even to a location that would be nearer to the center of the seating, to be more consistent with an increasingly participatory approach. The answer given by the architect was that, to do so, “you would have to dynamite the bima, since it was built in solid concrete.”

Fast forward to 2007. I was no longer the Jewish educator embarking on a new career, but now sat with an energetic, bright Jewish educator embarking on her career. As I finished telling her the above story, she stopped me and said, “That’s it! To be successful in this work today, we have to blow up the bima!”

Today’s American synagogue model grew up in the post World War II era. The architecture of synagogues moved the attention from the center of the synagogue to the front, reflecting the idea that the “action” was going to take place on a stage, with paid lead actors (rabbi, cantor) performing from in front of and above the congregation, who would be participants, not leaders.

At the same time, the economic model of the synagogue was built on membership dues, which in turn relied on Bar/Bat Mitzvah, which in turn relied on synagogue “religious schools” to provide the financial means of keeping synagogues going (which also devalued both the educational program and the Bar/Bat Mitzvah).

Fast forward to 2012, and the (Jewish) world has changed, and the relationship of Rabbi to Community Member has changed with it. Today, only a fraction of Jews look to their rabbi as a sole authority on their spiritual or religious life and practice.

I propose that the model for the Rabbi / Community Member relationship must change to that of a Coach / Client relationship. In that relationship, the rabbi still is the scholar, but his/her role is not to try to impose one particular type of Jewish practice, as much as to set out options for people, and then empower them to set their Jewish life paths.

To make that happen, a few things need to occur:

  • Rabbinic training needs to continue a move that has already progressed away from growing rabbis as authority figures and towards growing rabbis as coaches or spiritual mentors. Conversations between rabbis and community members sound more like “here are some possibilities that Judaism provides for your life” rather than “this is what Judaism demands of you”.
  • Synagogue services must loosen up and move the “action” back to the Jews in the Pews rather than on the frontal bima. Among the ways to make that happen are interactive text studies during services, Storahtelling type theatre to supplement Torah reading, even Tweetups during services for those congregations that permit use of technology on Shabbat.
  • We need to worry less about the rules of the service and more about how services help people to move spiritually. Fundraisers talk about “move management” as donors are developed. We need “move management” for Jews on their spiritual journeys. Judaism is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Rabbis need to have discussions (and not merely sermons) that say “you’ve added X to your life; How do you think Y would work as a next step towards deepening your spiritual journey?”
  • Congregations and their rabbis need to not be limited by physical walls or by the walls of membership. There is an economic challenge to opening the doors, and some very creative communities are already trying to figure out how to keep congregations viable as these changes occur. But as the Jewish world has seen from examples such as Sukkah City and Dawn. To use Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ expression, we must break down the synagogue’s walls.
  • Community members and rabbis need to talk to one another. It’s no longer good enough to have families on membership lists that rabbis only talk to on holidays or when there is a life cycle event. Rabbis need to have conversations with each family or individual during the year that say “How can I or Judaism be of service to you in your life?” And the meetings don’t have to be in the “rabbi’s study”. They can be at Starbucks or over a corned beef sandwich at a deli [that’s right, we like a good corned beef sandwich, too].

How will your rabbis and your community members join in leading change?

Rabbi Arnold D. Samlan, MSW, is Founder and Owner of Jewish Connectivity. Arnie is an innovative and creative Jewish educational leader and rabbi. His programs and teachings have powerfully impacted Jewish learners and professionals across the country. A native of Chicago, he now lives in Long Island, NY. Arnie blogs as The Notorious R.A.V., and has a Twitter feed with over 700 followers, @jewishconnectiv. You can learn more about him and read recommendations on LinkedIn.

 

This post is part of a blog series on Connected Congregations being curated by Darim Online in partnership with UJA Federation of New York.  Through this series, we are exploring what it means for synagogues to function as truly networked nonprofits. Connected Congregations focus on strengthening relationships, building community, and supporting self-organizing and organic leadership.  They are flatter and more nimble, measure their effectiveness in new and more nuanced ways, allocate their resources differently, and use technology in a seamless and integrated way to support their mission and goals.  We hope these posts will be the launching pad for important conversations in our community. Please comment on this post, and read and comment on others in the series to share your perspective, ideas, work and questions. Thanks to UJA Federation of New York for supporting this work. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *