It’s a not-so-well kept secret that recently many Jews–many Americans, in fact–have come to find traditional, frontal services where congregants sit quietly in pews to be off-putting and, dare I say it, boring.
For a certain generation raised with a different set of attitudes toward institutions and authority, this may have been the way to go. But the hallmark of any healthy system that meaningfully engages people in their own lives–Judaism, of course, being no exception–is that it continues to adapt and evolve to remain relevant to changing times.
This is not, of course, to say that the baby should be thrown out with the bathwater: the core teachings and values of Judaism–forming covenanted communities, cultivating awareness of the blessings in our lives, celebrating Shabbat and holidays as a way of acknowledging sacred time, connection to Jewish peoplehood and Israel–always need to be at the center. But reexamining and rearticulating them for our own times can in fact be ways to reinvigorate them, have them speak to today’s Jews in new and exciting ways.
Across the country, synagogues have been experimenting with different formats to bring in Jews who haven’t connected to Jewish life. And while some of these attempts may be nothing more than gimmicks–kabbalah dating for Jewish singles?–it’s important to make the effort to reach out at a time when synagogues, like so many other traditional institutions, are stagnating.
One way to do this is to make programming at synagogues more interesting and engaging, offering programs of interest like Torah Yoga and kosher wine tastings. Services themselves can be more informal and interactive; at my own synagogue, rabbi-led discussions have long replaced frontal sermons and there is an informal atmosphere where congregants feel welcome to jump in with their own thoughts, ideas, and questions. Another way to expand the reach of synagogue is to go out into the community–hold programs in the libraries, coffeehouses, and other places where you may find Jews who wouldn’t ordinarily step foot in a synagogue. This, in fact, is a model of outreach that Chabad–with its emphasis on people over brick-and-mortar institutions–has been using successfully for years.
This isn’t by any stretch to say that we should abandon synagogues. We still need places we can come together to pray, learn, celebrate, and grieve in community. The synagogue can and should still be the central address for the Jewish community, but should do so by offering a wide range of programming and services that will engage newcomers rather than simply meeting the needs of those who are already there.
For some, change can be disconcerting or threatening, and it’s hard to say how Judaism will be practiced and lived 50 years from now. But I look forward to being along for the ride.