Rabbi Michael Wasserman

I think of Rabbi Sid Schwarz’s four prescriptions for the revitalization of American Judaism as four aspects of a single broad prescription. Revitalizing learning (chochma), interpersonal responsibility (tzedek), community (kehillah), and a sense of purpose (kedusha) are not separate projects, but four sides of one large project. None can truly happen without the others happening as well, and making progress in one area automatically produces progress in the others.

In designing The New Shul, the synagogue that my wife Rabbi Elana Kanter and I founded in 2002, we attempted to move that project forward primarily through structural change. We hoped that, by redesigning the synagogue from the ground up – in particular by radically simplifying it – we would generate change in all four areas.

Our goal was to move from the model that Rabbi Schwarz has called the “synagogue center” (and I have called the “vendor synagogue”[1]) to a model more consistent with community in the original, literal sense of “building together.” That meant stripping away all institutional structures that imply a vendor/customer relationship.

At the level of finance, that meant doing away with membership dues in favor of a system of voluntary giving. Our purpose was not to reduce the cost of membership, but in a sense to raise it, to make belonging literally priceless. We wanted to convey the message, via our financial structure, that membership in a sacred community is not something that one can buy, that belonging is not a transaction but a deeper commitment. The most forceful way to send that message was to remove the price-tag from membership and strip it of tangible benefits.

Similarly, we structured our prayer services to send the message that spirituality is not an experience that an institution can deliver, but one that we must build together through shared commitment. The model of traditional Jewish prayer – as opposed to the dominant model found in liberal synagogues – provided a ready template for us. Most liberal synagogues try to make the service more accessible by mediating it with explanations, instructions, presentations, performances and so on. They attempt to fill the gap between worshippers and liturgy. But, whether by design or not, such attempts to fill the gap send the message that it is the job of the institution to deliver a spiritual experience. It turns worshipers, in a subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) way, into spiritual consumers. In designing our shul, we returned to the traditional model in which the ba’al tefillah faces the ark and serves as a leader, not as a buffer between the congregation and the liturgy. Instead of explanations and presentations, we use melody to draw worshippers into the experience. That structure challenges worshippers to see their prayer experience not as something that the institution can provide, but something that they must create together by investing themselves in it, intellectually and emotionally.

What defines conventional liberal synagogues as “vendor synagogues,” more than anything else, is the synagogue school and bar/bat-mitzvah program. Those fee-for-service programs condition parents to think of their children’s Jewish education and the experience of becoming bar/bat mitzvah as literal purchases. The privatized character of the conventional bar/bat mitzvah service re-enforces that understanding. It teaches bar/bat mitzvah families that the occasion is, almost literally, their day. To change that way of thinking, we replaced conventional Hebrew school with family-based learning, and with Shabbat programming for children whose parents are in shul. By requiring the presence of parents, we send the message that their children’s education is not something that they can buy. In addition, we restructured the bar/bat mitzvah service by eliminating special presentations, tributes, speeches and charges. By taking some of the spotlight off the child and family, we attempt to keep the focus on the mitzvah.

Our synagogue has no programming or support staff. The rabbis are the only employees. At one level, that was a pragmatic, budget-driven choice. Due to everything that I have described so far, our shul was always likely to remain relatively small. But the staff-less structure also has a principled purpose. It re-enforces the broader message of the institution, that our life as a spiritual community is what we make it, that no institution can deliver Jewish life to us.

We have found that the structural changes that we made in designing our synagogue generate a radically-different mind-set among our members. The psychological shift spans all four of Rabbi Schwarz’s categories:

Chochma: Deflating the expectation that Jewish life is a “deliverable” challenges participants to learn and grow. In a community that values openness, learning naturally has an open, questioning and non-authoritarian character.

Tzedek: Eliminating the consumer model tends to transform passivity into activism across the board. It sends the message that, when it comes to caring for those in need, there is no “they,” only “we.”

Kehillah: Eliminating the idea of membership as a financial transaction generates a profound shift in the mentality of belonging. Members do not ask what they are getting for their money, or whether belonging is worth the cost, because no one ever told them what to give. Eliminating dues challenges people to think of membership as set of responsibilities, not a set of benefits.

Kedusha: All of the above add up to a deeper sense of meaning. One of organized religion’s persistent fallacies is that meaning is something that an institution can provide. We see that fallacy in the marketing, for example, of “meaningful” services and programs. But true meaning is a function of commitment – or more precisely, shared commitment. It emerges out of the work of building something important together. Ironically, institutions generate greater meaning by disclaiming their ability to provide it.

Our experience at The New Shul has been that much can be accomplished in the work of revitalizing sacred community simply by revising familiar institutional structures. Often, that means subtracting rather than adding. The space that remains is precisely the space that renewed communal energy can fill.

[1] “The Vendor Trap: Why Selling Spirituality Doesn’t Work,” http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/?s=the+vendor+trap


Rabbi Michael Wasserman, together with his wife Rabbi Elana Kanter, founded The New Shul in Scottsdale Arizona in 2002 and they continue to serve as its co-rabbis. Rabbi Wasserman is a graduate of Harvard University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Rabbinic Leadership Initiative.