American synagogue faces revolution

American synagogue faces revolution

Many Jews disagree on what congregations will look like in the future. But they have one widely held belief: American Jewry is on the verge of another revolution.

“If you look at the history of American synagogues, there have been several time periods where the synagogues looked radically different,” said Rabbi Daniel Freelander, senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

In fact, synagogues prior to the 1830s were mostly Sephardic, he said, followed by the Germanic period that began in the 1840s. At the end of the 19th century, immigrants were driving yet a third period of congregations.

Now, according to Freelander, a fourth period of congregation life is coming to an end — a period defined by the post-World War II suburban boom when the number of Reform and Conservative synagogues tripled.

But it wasn’t just the number of houses of worship that grew. The buildings were constructed differently to meet the needs of the baby boom generation as it grew up. Synagogues built after the war tended to have smaller sanctuaries, attached with folding doors to bigger social halls. There were bigger kitchens, classrooms and offices. Auxiliary organizations, such as sisterhoods and brotherhoods, became more prevalent.

“That whole model is breaking down,” Freelander said. “It was a model that was very appropriate for the post-World War II reality, because it fit the Jews of that time period. It’s what they wanted out of that synagogue so the metaquestion for this part of the 21st century is what kind of communal institution, what kind of kehilla — whatever you want to call it — will the children of the baby boom generation want? And even a deeper question, will they want a communal structure at all?”

Moishe House

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism published a new strategic plan in March 2011. The authors explained that the movement is facing many challenges, including an aging constituency, long-term decline in the number of self-identified Conservative Jews and a decrease in denominational identification by some talented and innovative young Jewish leaders.

One concept that the organization is trying to embrace is the idea of kehilla.

The change in language from “synagogue” or “congregation” to “kehilla” is more than semantic. It reflects two concepts:

First, it focuses on the raison d’être of a congregation or synagogue, i.e., that it is a sacred community.

Second, it signals a welcome to those kehillot that are not formal synagogues — such as chavurot and independent minyanim.

The idea of the informal prayer community is not new, but does seem to appeal to the Generation-Y, the children of the baby boomers.

Moishe House is an international organization that helps provide Jewish experiences to young adults ages 22 to 30. The group has seen impressive growth since it began in 2006, now engaging more than 54,000 young adults around the globe.

The concept is simple: Three to five young adults live in a house, and turn their home into a hub of Jewish life and activity.

“We use a peer base to attract and involve young adults, often hard to reach young adults in Jewish home-based activity,” said Jen Kraus Rosen, the chief operating officer of Moishe House. “We’ve expanded because we continue to receive demand from young adults who want to create and facilitate this kind of community in their hometowns or where they’re living.”

According to Kraus Rosen, young adults often find it overwhelming to show up at a synagogue. Going to a Moishe House with a friend is less intimidating, and there’s no pressure to affiliate because Moishe House does not operate on a member model.

Freelander agreed that the pressure to join a congregation might be too much for the new generation.

“We all need to rethink the experience individuals have when they walk into the doors of our congregations — or of any institution — so they feel welcomed, embraced, engaged and we allow their involvement to grow at their own pace, on their own terms, before we hit them with the membership information,” he said. “That’s what we’re urging congregations to do. To engage before we move to membership.”

Moishe House finds a lot of value in partnering with existing organizations, educators and some synagogues, according to Kraus Rosen.

“By doing so, we’re introducing our constituency base to engage in Jewish institutional life,” she said. “We’ve seen a lot of our leaders take on leadership roles in other Jewish organizations and redefine what it means to create Jewish community in their home.”

She believes congregations can remain relevant; they just need to recognize who their constituency is and meet young adults where they are.

“I think that it makes a lot of sense for synagogues to work with young adults who are already involved community-building activities like Moishe House and successfully engaging their peers makes a lot of sense,” she said. “That said, most of my peers are not members of a congregation at this point in time in their life and I’m not sure if they ever will be.”

Even if unaffiliated Jews never join a congregation, it doesn’t mean they are uninterested in being Jewish.

“This is not a rejection of Jewishness,” Freelander said, “but this is a generation with a whole different set of values, and the institutions that we built may not be the right institutions for the next generation. We may not know what the right institutions are until they more and more come of age.

“So I’m not a pessimist, but I’m also not clairvoyant,” he added. “I just don’t know what it’s going to look like. I absolutely know it’s going to look very different than it looks today.”

‘Everybody has a place’

While the Reform and Conservative movements are feeling pressure to move away from the traditional model, other movements have not.

“I think if you look at the Orthodox community over 100 years, I don’t think that the synagogue itself has changed a lot in terms of how it looks and how it operates,” said Rabbi Judah Isaacs, director of community engagement for the Orthodox Union.

“It hasn’t changed in many years, and I don’t see a movement afoot to change it.”

Even so, the union is working to make sure Orthodox congregations are “operating in the 21st century,” he added, by helping them with tax issues, having functioning bylaws and effective leadership.

Some steps have also been taken to help women feel more part of congregation life, Isaacs said. For instance, some congregations designate a room for nursing mothers to provide a place for young mothers in the building, even if they are not going to be in services.

“It’s trying to make sure everybody has a place in synagogue even if it’s not for worship,” he said. “I think if you go into an Orthodox synagogue everywhere in America, everybody will tell you what they find is a sense of community.”

Local Jewish leaders are also exploring the new challenges, and many — though not all — think a solution will come in the form of a stronger community.

Rabbi Aaron Bisno, of Rodef Shalom Congregation, doesn’t think the solution to the membership woes has been discovered yet, but community programs such as Pittsburgh’s AgeWell, which assists older adults and their caregivers in maintaining a healthy and independent life, are a good start, he said.

And congregations with larger synagogues, including several in Pittsburgh, are already renting space to other Jewish organizations, which Bisno believes has multiple benefits.

It serves as another source of income to help maintain these large buildings, but it also adds to a feeling of community and helps enable collaboration.

“I suspect that in many ways, lay Jews will help bring the rabbis and the professionals to understand what they expect, which is we should all be working together for the benefit of the Jewish community,” said Bisno, “as opposed to boosting our own standing in the eyes of our current membership.”

Another step being taken is to take a hard look at the demand being placed on volunteers and lay leaders — a problem Temple Sinai identified in 2008 and has since tried to rectify.

“We recognized that our program committee structure had grown out of control, and not only were there too many program committees, there weren’t enough volunteers to support those committees out of anything more than a sense of obligation or guilt,” said Rabbi James Gibson.

Since then, the congregation has tried to streamline the programs by reorganizing into centers of activity (spirituality, social action, etc.)

Rabbi Alex Greenbaum at Congregation Beth El of the South Hills suggests the condensing of programs might need to be taken even one step further.

“I think the path of collaboration is inevitable,” he said. “With a shrinking Jewish population, a struggling economy, it’s inevitable that synagogues will need to work together.

“So when we talk about the future of synagogues, you have to talk about the duplication of services,” he continued. “Not services as in worship services or prayer services, but where each of us is running a nursery school and all doing the same thing. Each of us is running a religious school and all [are] teaching the same thing.”

Greenbaum envisions a future where there are multiple prayer services under one roof — Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Chabad — and then everyone comes together for kiddush. He also believes congregations will be more lay led.

A successful future for congregations, he proposed, will include a closer-knit community with the idea of competing synagogues of the same movement in the same neighborhood becoming increasingly unlikely.

Bisno also thinks that a stronger community will be the answer to congregations’ struggles, but it will take a community effort to discover it.

“It really comes to a situation where we’re not well served with half a dozen congregations all trying to solve the same problem, but unable or unwilling yet to pull together to reach a shared consensus to a solution,” he said.

Organizations such as Chabad have shown that different approaches and business models are effective in the Jewish community and are beginning to create different expectations.

“It may be the case that on the margins there are people that would have otherwise affiliated with a congregation, but they’re participating in Chabad activities,” said Bisno.

“Surely that’s true. I think that demonstrates that synagogues don’t have a lock on how communities are organized and how we meet the needs of our constituents.”


(Ilana Yergin can be reached at