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What Does a Thriving Synagogue Look Like?

What does a thriving synagogue look like? I was recently asked to be on a panel at a conference on this topic. To prepare, I sat down — in true Reconstructionist style —with Seth Rosen, the chair of our board of governors; Tresa Grauer, who was recently promoted to become vice president for thriving communities; and almost-rabbi Micah Weiss, who will graduate from RRC in June, and just started working with us as assistant director of the Thriving Communities department and tikkun olam specialist. I relish conversations like these, which I think are deeply representative of a Reconstructionist approach. I am happy to share our collective thinking, which we understand to be a constantly unfolding process, and which will surely be shaped and improved by your input.

Before diving in, I want to zoom out a bit to note that the goals of Judaism — and a movement in Judaism like Reconstructionism — are vastly more ambitious than this type of question. Judaism, like other religions, is an effort to answer such questions as why we are here, and what we are supposed to do while we are here. There are particular Jewish approaches towards answering these questions, like an orientation towards holiness, and particular narratives, like the movement from slavery to liberation, that help to distinguish Judaism from other religions. But even as these questions point towards the ultimate, Judaism’s end is famously this-worldly. Judaism’s end is to create healthy individuals, thriving communities, flourishing Jewish life, interconnected human life and a sustainable planet.

Synagogues are a means to this end, not an end in themselves. Synagogues emerged when the Israelites went into exile after the First Temple was destroyed and became a dominant Jewish modality after the destruction of the Second Temple. Synagogues flourished in certain settings, including post-World War II America. In Eastern Europe and then on the Lower East Side and other dense urban settings where immigrants at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries clustered, there was vast organizational diversity — synagogues for sure, and also storefront shtiebels (small, lay-led communities often organized around geographic areas of origin); fraternal organizations; Bundist, Zionist and Socialist organizations; and many more expressions. With the immigration restrictions imposed in the 1920s, people stopped coming over from Europe, but ideas and ideologies were still transmitted through journals, newspapers and letters, which nurtured American offshoots. With the advent of the Second World War, the ideas were themselves snuffed out, along with the people. Very suddenly, the American Jewish community found itself as the world’s largest Jewish community, occupying for the first time a leadership position.

American Jews responded to this new scenario primarily in two ways: They worked to establish the State of Israel so that all Jews would always have a haven in the face of persecution, and, at home, they established a huge network of synagogues. Jews burst out of urban enclaves and began, with other Americans, to spread out into the suburbs. They wanted to establish Jewish institutions. And though the “hot” war ended in 1945, the Cold War started almost immediately, with America in an ideological and nuclear battle with the “godless” Soviets. President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously stated, “[O]ur form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” During his presidency, the words “In God We Trust” were added to the U.S. seal and to paper currency, and “one nation under God” to the pledge of allegiance. (And, not coincidentally, Jewish Communists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for treason.) Synagogues — expressly religious institutions — became the primary Jewish address for most American Jews in those years, regardless of how often they attended them.

We are, of course, seeing a different reality today. Where it was obvious for the Greatest Generation to belong to fraternal organizations, bowling leagues, churches and synagogues, that is not necessarily of interest to contemporary Jews, especially younger ones, who are building social communities online. Synagogues are no longer the primary address for Jewish life, though they remain an essential part of the flourishing eco-system of Jewish life. The Reconstructionist movement is interested in investing in every location where the end is about flourishing, including, but not exclusively, in synagogues.

With that preamble, here’s a core vision for a flourishing Reconstructionist synagogue: a warm and nurturing home. By home, we mean a place of comfort and sanctuary. By home, we mean a place of growth. We mean a place where individuals can bring their whole selves and not leave essential parts of their identities at the door. We mean a place of deep connection to others, with a resulting sense of mutual obligation.

Achieving this is significantly about relationships and culture and processes: There is no cookie-cutter version of a Reconstructionist synagogue. Reconstructionist synagogues are people-centered. Our leaders and members seek at all times to find a balance between helping each individual to flourish and helping the collective community to flourish. It is never the “we” at the total expense of the “I,” nor the “I” at the expense of the “we.” A thriving synagogue is an intergenerational community that is constantly defining and redefining what it means to be an intentional community at the community level — in a partnership between the rabbi and the lay people, and through lots of hands-on work. A vital synagogue embraces difference, rather than reinforces one particular group or profile. In this day and age, this includes working towards an embrace of a multitude of Zionisms, rather than the presumption of a “normative” Zionism. A flourishing synagogue is deeply rooted and committed to innovation, with the leadership embracing a clear understanding that it is essential to look ahead.

We see these characteristics in many of our thriving Reconstructionist communities, and we also see them in new initiatives emerging beyond the walls of synagogues. There are online learning networks connecting people all across the country in communal learning, like in the Reconstructionist Learning Networks and the network immersives. We see Jewish activist communities celebrating Shabbat and creating Jewish ritual together, Jewish artist collectives learning Torah and making art together, bet midrash programs popping up all over the place, vital online communities organizing around websites like Ritualwell or podcasts. It’s a blend of both new and old, both recognizable and a little unsettling, but all pointing towards vitality and creativity.

Questions we ask for both established and emergent communities include how we can help to cultivate this sense of feeling like “home.” How can we help brick-and-mortar, established institutions feel like home to all who walk through their doors? How can we help new organizations plant this sensibility from the beginning? Our hope is that, 20 years from now, we will see all communities —be they synagogues or some new, still emerging paradigm — meet the hunger that so many people feel and foster this kind of development. And, alongside this aspiration, we also help our communities to organize the kinds of resources they need in order to become a warm and welcoming home, and to thrive. In conversation with lay leaders and rabbis, we work to provide and co-create spiritual and intellectual nourishment, support and attract members, train and bolster rabbis, and raise sufficient money to make it all come together.

We welcome your feedback on our thoughts. And, through this rich conversation and community-building, may we all flourish.

The Reconstructionist Network

Serving as central organization of the Reconstructionist movement

Training the next generation of groundbreaking rabbis

Modeling respectful conversations on pressing Jewish issues

Curating original, Jewish rituals, and convening Jewish creatives

The Reconstructionist Network