Let’s have ‘the talk’: As synagogue resources dwindle, the time has come for transformative change

Let’s have ‘the talk’: As synagogue resources dwindle, the time has come for transformative change

For those of us with spouses, or with adult children, a discussion of what we want in the last period of our life is common. We plan for our medical care and for the distribution of our worldly possessions. We plan for our funeral and the place of burial.  We talk with our family, friends, attorney and rabbi.

Today, it looks as if our local Conservative and Reform synagogues are quickly approaching the end of their lives as we know them. Membership has dwindled, expenses have risen, religious schools have contracted, and dues are not sufficient to meet the costs of synagogues. Many synagogues, here and elsewhere, have turned to renting space to schools and organizations, but still, the costs rise and the synagogue is no longer able to meet them.

Some in the community are already discussing their fears. How long will my synagogue continue to exist? Will there be a rabbi who knows me and can deliver my eulogy? Where will my grandchildren pray? We express these fears, but little seems to be happening to bring about decision making. Before our local Reform and Conservative synagogues dissipate their assets and are forced to make last-minute decisions, we need to have the end-of-life discussion.  

Some attempts have been made to effectuate discussion among synagogues. My sense is that these discussions have centered on a preconceived resolution, namely, merger, but these have not led to the necessary processes which can lead to transformational change.  

Who should participate? Everyone. Individual synagogues need to have discussions within the leadership and the membership. Synagogues need to have the discussion with each other and with the larger Jewish community (by which I do mean Federation). What we will need is transformational change. We will need to look at what synagogues have to offer and consider the integration of synagogue offerings into a variety of institutions in the community and new institutions. For starters, do we need one central provider of supplemental Jewish education? Do we really need four relatively sparsely attended Shabbat morning services in the community? Do we need rabbis who are “Kolbonicks” (Jacks of all trades) or specialists? There are a myriad of such questions we must ask ourselves.

There are a variety of new and vibrant Jewish institutions in cities like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Washington, cities with booming Jewish communities. There is little to point to in smaller Jewish communities such as ours. Some of the offerings in other communities might be adaptable to our community, but given our resources, we may need transformational change.  

Transformational change is radical, even frightening. It is not simply doing a better job or even significant improvement. Transformational change looks at current needs and considers both the known ways of meeting those needs, and the “out-of-the-box” ways. It poses questions about our personal needs as well as our communal needs. It looks at how we can meet our personal spiritual needs as well as our needs for Jewish Community. Transformational change begins with a process whose result is not known at the start.

 A serious look at synagogues and how they fit into a community might lead to a series of small “Havurot” or it might lead to “storefront davening centers.” It might even result in a “Kehilah,” a community which has a membership and provides all of our Jewish needs. None of us can predict what the result will be, but the result will be something that does not exist now, enables the community to meet its spiritual needs, and changes the way we as Jews think about our community and behave as Jews in our community.

What is the incentive for synagogues and the community to begin the discussion now? We know that eventually we will face significant upheaval. We can either be the passive victims of change, or we can plan for it as part of a process which leaves us with fulfilling Jewish lives. Transformational change takes time and has initial costs, costs which no one congregation can bear today.  

We need to bring everyone to the table while the synagogues are still alive. The major funders of our community who have given so much of their resources and so much of their talent are the ones who have the gravitas to make this happen. The Conservative movement and the Reform movement are stake holders and should be working to help synagogues move beyond their institutional egos and look at the needs of their individual members. The Federation has a very large stake in this as any significant change in local synagogues will affect the larger community and thus the Federation. It is time for our end of life discussion, and we need our leaders to bring us together for that discussion.

Rabbi Mark N. Staitman is former senior rabbi of Rodef Shalom Congregation.