Philanthropists hope to transform uninspiring synagogues

NEW YORK — Will "synagogue transformation" replace "continuity" as the communal buzzword of the next century?

The powerhouse philanthropy triumvirate of Edgar Bronfman, Charles Schusterman and Michael Steinhardt intends to make it so with a new endeavor they have named STAR: Synagogue Transformation and Renewal.

The threesome is planning to ante up several million dollars — and attract other megadonors — for the project, as they have for previous projects.

The three already have bolstered day-school education through the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, which provides substantial funding to new Jewish elementary and middle schools. In addition, Steinhardt helped launch Birthright Israel, which provides free trips to Israel for young adults.

The three think a new organization, independent of any of the Jewish religious movements or federations, is the best way to effect "systemic change" in the way synagogues work, STAR President Charles Schusterman said in a telephone interview from his office in Tulsa, Okla.

"The synagogue needs to serve the central role for Jewish renewal in the diaspora," Schusterman said. "To create a continuing number of Jews we must focus on our religion. Being a cultural Jew is not adequate if we want to provide continuity to our children and grandchildren."

Synagogues have been roundly criticized recently as ineffective and uninspiring, even by leaders of the major synagogue movements.

At the same time, they are viewed as the source of Jewish communal salvation — because they are the largest gateway into Jewish involvement, according to the findings of the 1990 National Jewish Population Study.

Eighty percent of American Jews belong to a congregation at some point in their adult lives, according to the study, but in 1990 only one-third of families with a Jew in them were synagogue members — which means that while synagogues reach almost everyone, they don't succeed in keeping people involved.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, called for a "re-engineering of the synagogue" in a major address at his group's convention in November in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, apparently agrees.

"Far too often, our members pray without fervor or concentration. Too often, our music is dirgelike and our Torah readings lifeless, and we are unable to trigger true emotion and ascent," Yoffie said in a major address at his organization's convention last month in Orlando, Fla.

Officials of the liberal movements and some Orthodox rabbis were invited to participate in STAR's planning process, but the largest Orthodox synagogue organization, the Orthodox Union, was not.

"We don't need transformation from that group," Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the O.U., said. At the same time, he noted that his organization has, for the last three years, been aiding its own member-synagogues in transforming the way they operate.

Jewish federations, whose divide from synagogues was historically considered as sacrosanct as the separation between church and state in American civic life, are also taking a new approach.

In Denver, for example, the local federation has shouldered part of the cost of a community synagogue transformation project being run in the area's 11 non-Orthodox congregations by Synagogue 2000.

Launched four years ago in the wake of the 1990 population study, Synagogue 2000 — or S2K, as its founders now call it — has, to date, been the major synagogue transformation project for Judaism's liberal denominations.

Started by Rabbi Larry Hoffman, a professor of liturgy at the Reform movement's seminary in New York, and Ron Wolfson, director of the Whizin Center for the Jewish Future at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, it began working with 16 congregations around the country.

Since then, it has expanded to work regionally with five synagogues in the Washington area, and with 11 non-Orthodox synagogues in the Denver-Boulder area of Colorado. It also will shortly roll out a plan to work closely with 15 congregations in each of the liberal movements — Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform.

Awarded $1.4 million in foundation grants over the summer, S2K is transforming itself from a project into a permanent organization with a consulting arm backed by a $2 million annual operating budget, according to its principals. The focus has been, primarily, on the worship experience.

It is unclear how the STAR approach will differ from previous efforts.

After spending the past year consulting with leading figures in American Jewish life — including the heads of each of the liberal synagogue movements and seminaries, modern Orthodox rabbis and those already involved in synagogue transformation — STAR has opened an office in Chicago and plans to hold a national conference next September.

STAR will focus attention "on some of the people who are doing exciting, innovative things in their communities outside of the mainstream," said Sanford Cardin, executive director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman family foundation. "We want to introduce fresh ideas and thinkers into the national debate and discussion."

Schusterman said the founders want to branch out beyond education and worship.

So far, no turf battles are in evidence.

"There's enough work out there for everybody, God knows," said Hoffman of S2K.