Synagogues, they are a-changin

At Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, close to 75 families forgo traditional Sunday school to gather for a Shabbaton, a program in which parents and children learn as a group.

At Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, N.J., more than 100 members meet twice a month to talk about their "spiritual journey." They break off into groups and discuss issues such as family peace and caring for the ill.

Programs such as these, which use Jewish texts and members' personal lives as springboards, have been touted by advocates as a way to keep Jews interested and active in their synagogues.

They are just a couple of the innovations stemming from two national synagogue-change efforts, the Experiment in Congregational Education and Synagogue 2000.

With many Jewish leaders criticizing synagogues for lacking inspirational incentives, "synagogue transformation" is becoming something of a buzzword phrase in American Jewish life.

In the past decade, Synagogue 2000 and the ECE have guided a number of congregations hungry for transformation, and both are expanding their reach.

"Exciting changes are coming out of the ECE program," said Beth Am ECE coordinator Rabbi Josh Zweiback, dubbing it a "journey we've been on for 12 years."

"The synagogue is never completely transformed," he said. "It's a constant process of transformation."

Synagogue 2000, a Conservative movement initiative, centers its work around "PISGAH," an acronym that is not only the Hebrew word for "heights" but stands for six "spokes" of synagogue life: prayer, institutionalizing change, study, good deeds, ambiance and healing.

Formed four years earlier than Synagogue 2000, the ECE has a similar approach and has worked with 14 Reform temples. A project of the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, ECE encourages congregations to make education central to all synagogue activities rather than simply a function of the religious school.

Change is necessary, say the Synagogue 2000 and ECE proponents, because too many synagogues remain stuck in old patterns that do not resonate with contemporary American Jews. While earlier generations joined synagogues as "ethnic hangouts," they believe, younger Jews are often on spiritual quests that could be answered — but usually aren't — in a synagogue.

"American Buddhism is flourishing because of what synagogues have done wrong," said Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, founding leader of a suburban Washington congregation and author of a new book calling for synagogue change.

"Jews are fueling it because they're looking for spirituality that exists within Judaism but has been successfully masked."

In most congregations, writes Schwarz, liturgy is not accessible or engaging, and most members are only marginally involved, joining simply so their children can attend Hebrew school and celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah.

Like Synagogue 2000 and ECE proponents, Schwarz calls for synagogues to make their services more participatory, to develop healthy lay-clergy partnerships, to focus on the education needs of adults and not just children, and to take on serious spiritual issues like the nature of God and the purpose of life.

Also working toward that goal, a triumvirate of mega-philanthropists — Charles Schusterman, Michael Steinhardt and Edgar Bronfman — created an organization last winter called Synagogue Transformation and Renewal that will invest several million dollars in efforts to reinvigorate synagogue life, promote public awareness of synagogues, and advocate that Jewish federations increase synagogue funding.

Late last week, STAR unveiled plans to award $500,000 per year in challenge grants for "innovative approaches" to synagogue issues such as membership, leadership, staffing, education and worship services.

Additionally, its founders say they will create a program to train synagogue consultants and convene meetings for congregational leaders from all movements, and use new technology such as videoconferencing and the Internet to offer professional development courses for rabbis.

Despite those goals, transformation and renewal can be difficult concepts to get one's hands around.

Proponents say the program can create trusting atmospheres and spur long-term discussions that might not have otherwise occurred.

But skeptics wonder if those who are attempting institutional change are simply holding a lot of meetings to decide on common-sense practices.

Rabbi Larry Hoffman, who founded Synagogue 2000 in 1996 with University of Judaism Professor Ron Wolfson, frequently compares the whole process to therapy; in other words, "you discover how to live so life has purpose and meaning, then you filter all that you do through a lens of purpose."

Rabbi Danny Zemel, whose Washington congregation was among Synagogue 2000's first cohorts, described the process as "the most energizing, enlivening process I've ever been involved in as a rabbi."

He said he frequently gets calls from other temples wanting to know "what's changed" as a result of the process, but "it's not like that."

"It's about studying — it's a process and things happen, or might even change, but it's not like dominos, one thing falling after the next. It's because the congregation's involved in a process, all of a sudden it occurs to you to do certain things."

Eleanor Dickman, project coordinator for Synagogue 2000 at Conservative Congregation Beth David in Saratoga, agreed. "It's hard to point a finger at a specific moment when everything changed," she said.

Nonetheless, the transformation processes do spawn projects and initiatives such as Beth David's Chavurt Chesed, which brings a dozen temple members together to discuss ways to assist bereaved and hospitalized congregants.

"It's been quite a transformative experience, learning ways Judaism could open our eyes to spirituality and the needs of others," said Dickman. "Also, how we, ourselves, can relate to God on a higher plane."

Her congregation has since established a greeting program to create "a friendly, inviting, caring" ambiance at Shabbat services.

At Temple Emanuel, an ECE congregation in Beverly Hills, members participate in a one-on-one Torah program that pairs congregants for Torah study.

Rabbi Laura Geller has been excited over the process, and described the Torah program as one that "breaks out of the box of traditional learning" and "creates community." This year they have paired 10 people for the program.

Congregation B'nai Shalom, a Synagogue 2000 participant in Walnut Creek, has actually made physical changes to its synagogue configuration to provide "a more intimate feeling," said team member Mary Anne Winig.

A "synagogue in the round" — promoted by architectural consultants at the original Synagogue 2000 conferences — was already in place, but the stage on which the rabbi and cantor stood has since been lowered, making them level with the congregation.

"It was a way of making the congregation more welcoming and comfortable," said Winig. "The rabbi has said he felt it…made them more a part of the congregation."

B'nai Shalom has also made siddurim available with large type for those with strained eyesight, has created a worship guide that describes different aspects of the service to newcomers, and has made its Saturday morning services more interactive.

"We added time for people to announce the names of people who need the special prayer for healing and to talk about the good things that are happening in their lives," said Winig. "It tends to get more people feeling involved and included."

It is not clear whether transformation efforts affect membership numbers, and — although proponents say if they are successful they ultimately should attract new people — most involved in the processes say their primary focus is on intensifying the experiences of people who are already members.

"I'm sure Synagogue 2000 didn't hurt us, but we didn't promote it as outreach," said Rabbi Alan Silverstein of Agudath Israel, the New Jersey congregation, noting that membership has tripled from approximately 300 to 900 households over the past 20 years. "It's more inreach, to intensify the involvement of those that are members."

Zweiback added: "Many of the members [involved in ECE] have become leaders in our congregation. More and more we see more our congregants as lifelong leaders."

Not everyone is an advocate of change on the institutional level, though.

And even some champions of transformation efforts, such as Silverstein, question whether Hoffman's therapy metaphor is appropriate.

While Synagogue 2000 "can elevate the synagogue to another level," said Silverstein, "Larry really believes the synagogue is more ill as an institution than I think is the case."

Silverstein points to a recent study of Conservative congregations indicating that more synagogue members are regular participants in Shabbat services than were earlier in the last century. Other studies have found young affiliated Conservative Jews are better educated in Judaism than their elders.

"The assumption that davening life in the non-Orthodox synagogue is broken, failed or does not exist, I don't accept," said Silverstein. "Could it be better? Sure. But we're doing better than ever before."

Even if it is true that synagogues need change, all the talk about process and transformation strikes some as a bit too touchy-feely.

David Liebeskind, a longtime member of Temple Sinai in Stamford, Conn., and a management consultant by profession, says that while he respects those involved in the process, he and several other congregants have grown frustrated with the Reform congregation's participation in the ECE program.

"I personally wouldn't waste the resources with these grandiose programs because I don't think the pay out is going to be as good as spending the time and money elsewhere," he said.

One Conservative synagogue member in Detroit says she has a better suggestion. Federations would be more helpful if they simply paid for more staff positions at synagogues.

"What kind of money are the federations paying Synagogue 2000 people to come to their towns and state the obvious?" she asked.

"The problem is not that shuls don't know what needs to be done but that they are chronically understaffed" and, with more women in the work force, can no longer rely on a large pool of volunteers, she said.

Beth Am, however, actually managed to earn a grant to hire Zweiback as its full-time adult learning coordinator, the first ever in the country. His task force works on adult education and asks, "How can we make our adult programs better?"

As a result, members have implemented the synagogue's annual Asilomar adult-learning retreat, which brings congregants together for a weekend of "vibrant, deep learning."

Some proponents of change insist, however, that congregations can become vibrant even without money.

According to Schwarz and Hoffman, if a synagogue does a good job of building community, members will be able to — and want to — take over much of the work that had been relegated to professionals.

In fact, they argue, such volunteering will strengthen members' feelings of ownership in the synagogue.

"Members can do so much more," said Schwarz. "It's true that people are working today and the volunteer pool is now very busy. But one of the things I've learned is that people are hungry to be involved in creating spiritual communities, and will give untold amounts of time if they feel they're the players and not just supporting the staff."

While synagogue transformation has caught the public interest, it is still unclear whether the advocates for change will usher in a new era of synagogue life, or whether most congregations will continue business as usual.

According to Isa Aron, the HUC professor who coordinates ECE, "Interest keeps growing, so clearly this isn't a blip on the screen." Because transformation efforts mirror many ideas about institutional change used in the business world, it should resonate with congregants and lay leaders, she said.

"Now it's a lot easier than years ago," Aron added. "Now if you go to a congregation and talk about this, not everyone looks at you like you're crazy."