Rabbi to offer tips for turning shul into spiritual home

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"Judaism is a lousy spectator sport. It has to be participatory."

So says Rabbi Sidney Schwarz.

Emphasizing that people need to feel empowered, included and engaged in their synagogue community, Schwarz said all too often, American Jews look back on their Hebrew school and religious school experiences in a negative light.

"That early exposure to the synagogue did not resonate with thoughts of transcendence, meaning or connection."

Schwarz, who is no longer a congregational rabbi, but the founder and president of the Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, also serves as a synagogue consultant. He has written a book called "Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews Can Transform the American Synagogue" (Jossey-Bass) and will be scholar-in-residence at Congregation B'nai Shalom in Walnut Creek on Friday and Saturday, March 23 and 24.

That new generations of Jews are seeking spirituality wherever they can find it — often anywhere but a synagogue — should lead congregations to question their approaches and perhaps try new things, Schwarz said.

But, sometimes, just changing the tune of a song can seem like blasphemy to longtime congregants.

With that in mind, Schwarz formulated much of what he calls "the paradigm for a new model synagogue" from his own experience as founding rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Md.

An Orthodox-by-birth, Reconstructionist rabbi, Schwarz found that "the greatest source of strength for a synagogue is the untapped potential of its membership."

In his book, Schwarz looks at four synagogues that have embraced the model he talks about.

He chose a congregation from each of the four major movements because "I'm convinced that [what makes a synagogue successful] is not a denominational phenomenon," he said. "There is more in common between the four synagogues in the book than between these and others in the same movements."

What they share, he said, is that "they all realize that synagogues can't be top down. A program coming from a small professional staff doesn't connect with people. Jews who are competent want to be pulled into it."

Schwarz breaks his model down into four building blocks, with the organizational culture of the synagogue being the first. Most synagogues are run by a professional staff, with little input from lay leaders. The synagogues tend to focus on increasing the membership, rather than on making members feel they are partial owners.

"When you cultivate ownership, exciting things happen," he said. "Ownership makes you feel you're a stakeholder."

For example, when members prepare a d'var Torah, or sermon, if they only do it several times a year, they invest themselves fully in its preparation. This empowers congregants, he said.

Spiritual leadership — "How do you evoke spirituality and create connection with each other?" — is the second important vehicle, according to Schwarz, who came up with "Davening Outside the Box," an approach that uses prayer as "an opportunity to connect with something deep in your own soul."

Saying that most people relate best to their own life journey, the rabbi said that when they connect pieces of their experience to a particular prayer or text, it helps them relate to it in a whole new way.

Getting synagogue members to collaborate on a mission statement is the third step. By doing this, Schwarz said, the community is engaged "in why we are here and how we can be more a part of it."

The fourth is transforming the synagogue into a place that is relevant for today's Jews.

The synagogue used to serve as "a great ethnic enclave," offering recent immigrants and their children a place to play mah jongg and join bowling leagues. Today, he said, Jews don't have to join a synagogue to feel at home in America. They join to find a spiritual home.

Unfortunately, Schwarz said, so many synagogues and their leaders are afraid of change, when that is precisely what's needed.

"Did God hum to Moses 'Adon Olam?'" he asked. At his own synagogue, Schwarz was free to experiment and take risks, "but at most synagogues you can't do that. If you want to do the same thing all the time, synagogues will become museums."

In addition to the four synagogues, Schwarz tells the stories of 10 people who had wandered from Judaism but found their way back to it through the synagogue.

Schwarz credited the Renewal movement for its innovation, but said that in some cases, the movement could wander too far from Judaism. Nevertheless, he said, the influence of Renewal is slowly seeping into the major movements.

"Renewal is to the '90s what the chavurah movement was to the '70s," he said, explaining that at first, the chavurah movement was considered fringe, but later, many of its concepts found their way into the mainstream.

"Now the Renewal Movement is dismissed as fringe, but some of the things they're introducing will happen in the mainstream synagogues in the next decade or two," he said.

Rabbi Sidney Schwarz will speak at services at 8 p.m. Friday, March 23 on "The Future of the American Synagogue" at Congregation B'nai Shalom, 74 Eckley Lane, Walnut Creek. He will also lead services at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, March 24, discussing "Davening Outside the Box." He will then speak at a luncheon on "Keva vs. Kavannah, Fixed Liturgy vs. Prayer of the Heart." At 10 a.m. Sunday, prior to his visit, the synagogue will hold a discussion of Schwarz's book. All events are open to the public. Information: (925) 934-9446.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."