2020 A Synagogue Odyssey

this a text version of the talk I gave at my synagogue’s annual meeting, trying to peer into the future of synagogue life – what will we be like in the next 5 – 10 years??

     Believe it or not it was 46 years ago when Stanley Kubrick released his visionary movie 2001 A Space Odyssey, a science fiction film which was in reality an exploration of human evolution, and the idea that we are traveling together into an unknown future.  Some of the more memorable moments of the film include the image of the mysterious monolith as it shifts through various eras and places, of course the theme music, and who can forget the cold and calculating voice of Hal, the super computer that controls the space ship the astronauts travel on.

     I will confess to you it is always a problem when I am asked for the title of a talk 2 months or so before I actually give it, because the truth is I rarely if ever know that far in advance what I will be speaking on.  But when I gave the title 2020 A Synagogue Odyssey to Gil as the title for this evening’s reflections I thought it had two things going for it – one, it was general enough that I could pretty much do anything I wanted to with it, and two, I do actually believe that the Jewish community in general and the synagogue community in particular share a couple of important similarities with the Kubrick film.  The first is that we know for certain our future will be dramatically influenced by technology, although I hope we don’t have a Hal controlling our shul – Hal Hackerman, maybe, but not Hal the computer.  But more importantly, we in the Jewish community today are in a way like the astronauts in the Kubrick film, standing in a very familiar place, but looking out into an unknown, somewhat scary, and very mysterious future for Jewish life.  In the next few minutes I hope to explore with you a little bit what that future might be like – what will a Conservative Synagogue, and by extension, what will Beth El, look like in 10 years time?

     There is one simple and short answer to that question, namely that any shul that is successful, vibrant, and growing 10 years from now will look very different than shuls look today.  I don’t mean physically different, but rather different in how it will function, what its infrastructure will be, how membership will work, how Hebrew schools will operate, what worship services will look like, and how a family will experience bar and bat mitzvah.  If you think for a moment about that list, these are the core elements of synagogue life.  These are the fundamental building blocks that make up what a synagogue is.  This is our bread and butter.  This is what we do.  It has worked the same way now for a long time – probably close to 100 years.  The synagogue creates a dues structure which will cover most of its budget, and if you are a member you pay those dues.  The Hebrew school gives your child a classroom oriented Jewish education, and prepares your child for bar or bat mitzvah.  The Cantor and Rabbi Saroken and I were talking the other day, and we figure the Saturday morning service at Beth El hasn’t changed in at least 30 years – not one bit!  

     In our minds these things are a given.  This is the synagogue we have lived with, for some of us, all of our lives, and it has always worked pretty well.  The dues come in.  The kids show up at Hebrew school.  The b’nai mitzvah happen week by week.  The services are run, and what is more people come.  But as the great sage Yogi Berra once famously said, it ain’t over until its over – and it is over.  My guess would be that many of those building blocks will be dramatically different in as little as 5 years, and there is no question in my mind they will all be different within a decade.  

    Lets think about membership.  There are may different conversations in the community today about what membership should look like, and there are a variety of models that people are proposing.  Here is one of the more radical ideas, but that being said I also think it is one of the more probable possibilities:  shul membership in 5 to 10 years could be almost entirely a la carte.  Each use of the shul and its services is paid for on a case by case basis – you have a baby naming, you pay for that.  A funeral, you pay for that.  You want HHD services, you pay for that.  Take a class, a separate fee.  I can even imagine a scenario where people choose to have their baby naming at Oheb Shalom, have the child enrolled in Hebrew school at Beth Israel, and have the bat mitzvah at Beth El.  The bottom line is that it is entirely possible that moving forward it will be pay as you go, choosing off the menu, and of course in today’s world it will be purchasing the service online, and without question paying with a credit card.

     Next on our list is the b’nai mitzvah experience.  If there has been a true bread and butter of synagogue life in the liberal Jewish community, it has been bar and bat mitzvah.  In a way, it is what drives everything.  People join the shul because they want to enroll their children in Hebrew school so their child can have a bar or bat mitzvah in the sanctuary of the synagogue – that has been our E = mc2 equation.  Membership and the Hebrew school, the two major income generating segments of synagogue life, are both predicated on the b’nai mitzvah experience.   Now let me ask you a question, and please be honest.  How many of you have been to a bar or bat mitzvah outside of the synagogue in the last year?  At a country club, or hotel, or function hall, or Ravens Stadium, for that matter?  Just raise your hands.  Your response proves this point – people don’t need synagogues, sanctuaries, or Hebrew schools to have b’nai mitzvah anymore!  Wow!  Now what do we do!

     One thing we know we need to do is to be flexible.  That is why almost two years ago at this point our board decided to open up the Saturday evening havdalah slot for b’nai mitzvah.  That is why we now have close to 1/3 of our Hebrew school students in satellite schools.  That is why we are beginning to think about using Skype technology for b’nai mitzvah lessons.  And there are many other questions that still need to be resolved – what do we do when families want to have a bar or bat mitzvah off site, outside of the building?  Our current policy is that we do not do it, but that could change.   What about one day a week Hebrew school?  The Reform shuls already do it, and we are feeling the pressure.  What about experiential learning versus class room learning?  Do we want our students to ‘feel good’ about being Jewish, or do we want them to know prayers and the stories of the Torah?  10 years ago these questions weren’t on the table.  5 years ago they were peripheral.  Today they are front and center, and we need to answer them within the next couple of years.  

     And last, but certainly not least, synagogue services.  Holding services is the raison d’être of a synagogue.  A child can get a Jewish education at a day school.  You can do Jewish things socially at the JCC, or even through the Associated.  But a shul has a Torah and a sanctuary, and if you are not conducting services, I don’t know what you are, but I know you aren’t a shul anymore.  Here is our challenge – we ask people to come in for our services, and we say this to them:  please sit quietly during the next 2 plus hours (at many shuls it is 3!!) to listen to prayers in a language you don’t understand and which many of you can’t read.  If we pause to think about this structure, it just doesn’t make sense in a fundamental way.  So services have got to change.  Whether it is the use of technology, video screens, twitter feeds, whether it is shorter, more participatory, more study and discussion oriented.  Something has to give, and changes need to be made.

     So I think you can see, or I hope you can see, that we are truly living through a time of significant transition in synagogue life, I think the most significant in the last century.  Shuls that keep doing business the way they’ve always done it will not be around 10 years from now.  That is the bad news.  The good news is that I have great confidence that with our lay leadership, and our professional staff, with the creative thinkers and talented people we have at Beth El, we will meet the challenges that are ahead.  We will be a very different kind of place ten years from now than we’ve been for the last 65 years.  But we’ll be stronger and better able to meet the needs of our members and the Jewish community.  That being said, we do have a lot of work to do – lets roll up our sleeves and get started – 



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3 responses to “2020 A Synagogue Odyssey

  1. Linda Napora

    Your words and your actual voice were inspiring last night. So many of the listeners (probably most) are much older than you–a big challenge. Yet these folks are “the regulars.” Especially great last night — your correcting yourself & telling us you were responding because Becky cringed. I think your message was strong, realistic, and positive; Q & A terrific; lucky us ( lucky we can’t be right). LindaNap

    Sent from my iPhone


    • hi Linda –
      thanks for the kind words – over all a quality meeting – Jerry is a terrific president and does a great job all the way through – look forward to seeing you over the weekend –

  2. stanley nachimson

    I read this with great interest but come away slightly empty. While you do a beautiful job explaining what might happen to the synagogue, I am left without a “why” – what is the goal here. Being reactive may be necessary sometimes, but I would like to think about a vision for the congregation and a synagogue that helps to fulfill that vision. What do we want to accomplish? The goal should not be simply to increase or just maintain membership, the goal should be to somehow improve the Jewish life of the community. Not sure encouraging “independent” bar/bat mitzvahs or having quicker services accomplishes that. Do we shorten services, or educate members on the purpose and content of those services? Can we be proactive and encourage greater participation? Can we explain to our younger population why there needs to be a synagogue and why they should particpatei in traditions?

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