I write this column for anyone who cares about synagogue life – its health, vitality, creativity, leadership, and struggles. Say what you will about the American synagogue (and hasn’t it all already been said?), we have not come up with any other institution that could possibly be a better guarantor of the Jewish future than the synagogue. “Either community or death,” said an ancient sage – and he was right. That is the only choice.
Last week, it was reported that the Alban Institute will be closing its doors. http://http://www.religionnews.com/2014/03/19/alban-institute-resource-mainline-institutions-shut-doors/ The Alban Institute has been the foremost institution that has dedicated itself to teaching and consulting about congregational development, troubleshooting, conflict management, and leadership development. While Alban was resolutely Protestant in its orientation, that never stopped me – and countless other rabbis and Jewish leaders – from supporting it, attending its workshops, and using the excellent books that it published over the years (the publishing venture will continue, but under different sponsorship).
But Alban was hardly “only” Protestant. In recent years, largely through the work of Bob Leventhal, Kerry Olitzky, Hayim Herring, and David Whiman, among others, Alban had increasingly extended its theological footprint to include Jewish insights. I, and many others, have received the blessings of the gifts of such Alban “stars” as Speed Leas, Gil Rendle, Tom Long, Roy Oswald, Alice Mann, among others. Many of them have served as consultants to synagogues. Many of them have pulled synagogues and their professionals out of hell and have shown them paths to a better future.
So, that would be the first reason why I, and many rabbis and lay leaders, feel terrible about the demise of Alban. They did what they did so well, and with such competence and style.
There is a second reason why I mourn the demise of the Alban Institute.
I would go on their programs and retreats, and inevitably, I would make new friends. Those friends, of course, would be Christian ministers and educators. Often (in fact, most of the time), we had nothing in common theologically. But we were kindred spirits. We would hang out, and that hanging out would morph into friendships. I enjoy some of those friendships even today.
This is no small thing. By their very nature, people in ministry are often lonely. Very few people truly understand what we go through, on a daily basis. And it turns out that most of our soul issues are, frankly, generic.
As I wrote in Righteous Gentiles In The Hebrew Bible: Ancient Models For Sacred Relationships (Jewish Lights) http://www.jewishlights.com/page/product/978-1-58023-364-4
“…There are countless priests, nuns, ministers, imams and religious leaders of all faiths who are, in some extended way, part of the life of the Jewish people. They go about doing their own religious business, and they share their professional and communal lives with Jewish professionals. They meet each other at meetings and sit with each other on boards and study with each other at conferences and institutes. Shared cups of coffee become shared lunches and then shared dinners and then shared lives and insights. Because they are so resolute in their faiths, they make us resolute in ours as well. If Judaism is our home page, they are our links. A home page without links is dead, just as links without a home page is only air.”
There is a third reason, and it might be the best reason.
In an increasingly diverse religious world, inter-religious conversation and sharing about matters of theology and text are good, but not enough. I will miss the Alban Institute because it elevated the Jewish-Christian conversation to a new level – to a dialogue on theology that is linked to practice. The Alban Institute permitted Jews and Christians to engage each other on the “nitty-gritty” work of ministry, and it influenced the efforts of institutions like Synagogue 3000. Alban reminded us that the hyphen in the term “Judeo-Christian” is a bridge that spans our faith commitments, not a tunnel that is intended to go beneath those differences and ignore them.
Alban provided Jews with ways to learn from what Christians have already done in the areas of ministry. Take the relatively new world of interim rabbis, for example. Interim ministry has been standard operating practice in many Christian denominations. In the synagogue world, however, it is relatively recent. Or, consider the very notion of how we welcome people – what Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, calls audacious hospitality. It turns out that the mega-churches have a lot to teach us in that regard.
Moses learned a valuable Torah of administration and management from his father-in-law, Jethro, who was a Midianite priest.
The Alban Institute had been our Jethro – a nurturing, wise, loving presence in our midst.
In the words of the Mishnah: “Who is wise? The one who learns from all people.” The Alban Institute allowed us – no, it encouraged and inspired us – to learn from all people, and in turn, to share our Torah with them as well.
The Alban Institute folded at the precise moment in American religious history when we needed it the most, when all congregations that are part of the American religious mainstream are facing serious challenges. Religionists who occupy that vast territory between secularism and fundamentalism have, and could have continued, to learn from each other.
The big question is: Who, or what, will take its place?