Guest post from Rabbi Aaron Spiegel. This post is part of a series on networks and network weaving.
Synagogue 3000 just released a report entitled “Reform and Conservative Congregations: Different Strengths, Different Challenges.” The report could just as easily been entitled something like “Synagogues are Fading Into Obscurity,” but that would be a little too provocative. The data is clear; the institution best positioned to provide the full richness of Jewish life is becoming irrelevant for most American Jews. More disturbing is that our research shows some 70% of young Jewish adults, those between the ages of 23 and 39, have no connection to the established Jewish community (synagogues, Federation, JCC’s, etc.). While many in the Jewish world talk about Jewish continuity and protecting the future of American Judaism, most of the proposed solutions have had little effect. The good news is we’ve also learned that this majority of young Jews are very interested in Judaism, just not the way we’re offering it.
While most in the congregational world talk about outreach, Synagogue 3000 learned that this moniker has a negative connotation. Outreach says, albeit subtly, “I’m reaching out to you so you can come to me and have what I want to offer you.” The community, particularly those young, single Jews who are our potential future are saying, “no thanks.” Instead of outreach Synagogue 3000 changed the conversation to engagement. Learning from the church world and community organizing, Synagogue 3000 created Next Dor (dor is Hebrew for generation) – an engagement program. Participating synagogues agree to dedicate a staffer, most often a rabbi, whose primary job is to meet young Jews where they are – physically, spiritually, and emotionally. These engagement workers are charged with finding young Jews, be they in bars, coffee houses, local gyms, etc., and finding ways of engaging them in conversation to create relationships. Relationships create trust, which creates other relationships, which creates opportunity for real engaging conversations about life and what Judaism has to offer. One of the key points is that this engagement and these relationships are l’shma, for their own sake. Synagogue membership is not the goal – connecting Jews to Judaism is.
While the goal is engaging young Jews in Judaism, several of the Next Dor partner synagogues are discovering tangible benefits. Next Dor D.C., a project of Temple Micah was one of the first adopters. Rabbi Danny Zemel, a proponent of this engagement model before Next Dor existed, knew that Temple Micah needed to engage this unaffiliated and disaffected population. As a Next Dor pilot synagogue, Temple Micah hired Rabbi Esther Lederman as their engagement worker. A big part of Esther’s job is having one-on-one meetings with young Jews, usually in coffee shops. Now in its fourth year, Next Dor D.C. has gone from one-on-one meetings to regular Shabbat dinners at Esther’s home to annual free High Holy Day services for young adults, led by Esther and Michelle Citrin. The results – young Jewish adults are joining Temple Micah.
Some have dubbed this approach “relational Judaism” which seems something of an oxymoron. Judaism is at its essence (at least in my opinion) all about relationships. Unfortunately, congregations have focused on other things like supporting infrastructure, b’nai mitzvah training, and programming. More than the first two, the focus on programming is the irrelevance linchpin. Rather than engaging Jews in what’s important in their lives, synagogues program based on anecdotal information. When numbers fall the default synagogue response is to seek better programming rather than forming relationships with members, finding out what’s really important in their lives, and being responsive to their needs. Interestingly enough, while Synagogue 3000 envisioned the relational approach targeting young Jewish adults, the Next Dor communities are discovering it works with everyone.
Is your synagogue willing to form relationships with people who might not become members? Is your rabbi really willing to “be known” by synagogue members? What are your biggest obstacles to moving from a program-based community to relationship-based? Relationships, it’s all about the relationships!
Rabbi Aaron Spiegel is the CEO of Synagogue 3000. The report was the result of Synagogue 3000’s participation in FACT (Faith Communities Today), the largest and most comprehensive surveyor of faith communities in the United States.
This post is part of a series on networks and network weaving that Darim Online is curating to advance the communal conversation about relationship focused Jewish communities. Thanks to UJA Federation of New York for supporting our research and this blog series. Click here to see other related posts in the series.