In Jewish Megatrends Rabbi Sid Schwarz observes that, “younger Jews yearn for authenticity” and, “if the American Jewish community wants to capture the next generation of American Jews, it needs to get into the kedusha business—helping Jews live lives of sacred purpose.”
These assertions are applicable to Jews of all ages. My experience in developing The Shul, with an initial focus on baby boomers, is that irrespective of age or generation, Jews have a desire to experience an authentic Judaism that fosters kedusha. The Shul operates primarily in the arenas of Schwarz’s first (chochma/wisdom) and fourth propositions (kedusha/holiness, transcendent meaning, and a sense of purpose). Proposition three (kehilla/community) is foundational for The Shul and is more an expression of method than a goal in and of itself. The Shul succeeds due to relationships between the rabbi and the participants in The Shul, and the relationships that develop between members of The Shul community.
Typical synagogues rely upon dues through which its members keep the synagogue on retainer, whether or not they utilize its services. This is no longer a workable model. Operating without dues or membership fees, The Shul’s programs, learning groups, and Shabbat and Holiday t’fila are open to all, without cost or ticket. Those who become involved in The Shul are then asked to provide financial support.
People will support programs, learning, and services in which they are invested. They will vote with their wallets for experiences that help “Jews live lives of sacred purpose.” The success of The Shul, along with many other relatively new initiatives, demonstrates that indeed, the “kedusha business” is thriving.
The adult learning that The Shul sponsors is strongly oriented, as Schwarz expresses in proposition one, “to explore chochma, the wisdom of our sacred texts put into the…language of contemporary culture.” What I have called ‘applied Judaism’ is central to the chochma activities of The Shul. A core question in our learning and exploration is: “How do the principles embodied in our sacred tradition inform the experiences of our daily lives?”
We are also mindful of those classical texts that may no longer be consistent with our values. Drawing on the principle that Judaism is an interpretive tradition, we try to understand classical/historical Judaism. Then we strive to re-imagine a contemporary Judaism without slavish adherence to that which is patently unacceptable or discordant. It is authentic and holy to develop new understandings and expressions of Judaism, both in regard to belief and practice.
The Rabbinic Presence
Rituals and ceremonies that mark life’s transitional moments (e.g. celebration of birth, Bat/Bar Mitzvah, weddings) are offered on an à la carte basis. All of The Shul’s students study with the rabbi, not with a hired tutor. As a result, the depth and breadth of preparation for the Bat/Bar Mitzvah service is substantively enhanced. The goal isn’t merely to learn how to recite and/or lead prayers, but rather: 1) to understand the structure and intent of Jewish prayer; 2) to explore the meaning of prayer; and 3) to address the question: “Why pray?”
Questions appropriate to a developing teenager focusing on personal responsibility and self-identity are explored. More often than not, other tangential and unexpected queries and concerns arise. They are addressed utilizing Jewish sources, both classical and contemporary. The learning, the quest for chochma, takes place within the context of a relationship that the student and her/his parents have with the rabbi.
By the day of the student’s simcha, they have participated in forty to seventy sessions with the rabbi. The student-teacher relationship is at the core of all the learning. I am not suggesting that this is a new pedagogic model. It just doesn’t appear to me to be a model utilized by many of the legacy institutions in the community. For The Shul’s students, their Bat/Bar service is tailored to their needs and interests, rather than a ‘one size fits all’ style.
Wedding ceremonies and pre-marital preparation are another instance in which the attraction of the couple to The Shul is rooted in the relationship they develop with the rabbi. Substantial time is invested in planning the wedding ceremony with the couple so that it reflects who they are. Equally, if not more important, is the pastoral counseling that provides couples with the building blocks to create and sustain a successful marriage. As in the case of B’nai Mitzvah, the relationship that develops between the rabbi and the couple represents the beginning (or continuation) of a deep, personal connection leading to life-long affiliation with the rabbi.
Schwarz quotes Rabbi Harold Schulweis “Most rabbis have answers to the questions that Jews no longer ask.” It’s a thought that has wormed its way into my brain. Yes, I think it’s true-sometimes. And no, I think it’s wrong much of the time. But it is an idea that cannot be ignored. If we are to shape Judaism in our era then our community, and the organizations we lead, will have to adapt, shift, and change. We will have to ask new questions and discover new answers.
The Jewish community, like Judaism itself, is vibrant and dynamic. Experience has demonstrated that it can and does change. As catalysts for positive growth and development we face the future with hope, resilience, and strength.
Rabbi Eddie Sukol is the founder of The Shul: An Innovative Center for Jewish Outreach in Cleveland, OH. Ordained by HUC-JIR, he previously served as the Hillel Director at Ohio University, the Director of Pastoral Care at the Montefiore Home and NCJW Hospice and as a congregational rabbi.