Innovation has been the Jewish response to societal change and spiritual longing, from the emergence of the synagogue as the focal point of worship after the destruction of the Second Temple to the founding of independent minyanim in 21st century America.
There’s new opportunity for innovation as the communal conversation begins focusing on “how” to engage Jewish baby boomers, the estimated 25 percent of the Jewish population born between 1946 and 1964. But we must also focus on “where” to innovate.
The synagogue provides an unparalleled test laboratory to engage Jewish boomers, while fostering innovation and revitalizing synagogue life. Although some may view the synagogue as a “closed society” open to members only, it’s also where ideas can flourish and propagate freely. As Steven Johnson, author of the book, “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation,” argues, “There’s a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings.” Johnson makes the case for the “adjacent possible,” in which new ideas develop by combining existing ideas.
The synagogue as an innovation laboratory
The synagogue has traditionally fulfilled Jewish baby boomers’ needs for comfort and refuge, spirituality, learning, socializing and personal growth. It is the boomers’ longtime spiritual home, intrinsically rooted in their very being and the sacred space associated with lifecycle events, both joyous and sad.
The synagogue exemplifies the quintessential kehillah kedushah, the holy community, where Jews come together bound by the covenant at Sinai. As Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “The Jew does not stand alone before God; it is as a member of the community that he stands before God.”
Not surprisingly, nearly 80 percent of Jewish boomers are synagogue members, while only 27 percent belong to JCCs, according to the 2009 Jewish Encore Survey, a national survey of 34 communities conducted by professor David Elcott in conjunction with NYU Wagner’s Research Center for Leadership in Action and the Berman Jewish Policy Archive.
As Jewish boomers enter a new life phase, the synagogue can address their quest for spiritual fulfillment: the sacred space to acknowledge life transitions, safely express hopes and fears, recite Kaddish or a congregational misheberach prayer for healing and publicly celebrate milestone birthdays with traditional blessings or new rituals.
Working together as a community imbues each of us with a sense of holiness. The synagogue has inspired boomers to contribute to the local and global society, performing sacred deeds such as preparing shiva meals for fellow congregants, volunteering at homeless shelters and engaging their passion to fix the world.
When the Jewish people stood together at Sinai, we entered a relationship both with God and with one another. The synagogue provides boomers an important, ongoing social connection. As one synagogue member confided, “The most important thing the synagogue did for me was to introduce me to my best and lifelong friends.”
Finally, the synagogue provides a comfortable place where boomers can engage in lifelong serious Jewish learning and personal growth: to gain greater familiarity with Jewish texts, develop a greater appreciation for Jewish history and culture, and acquire new ritual or Hebrew language skills.
To succeed, innovation must be needs based. That means creating engagement strategies and innovative programming based on real, not perceived, boomer interests. As an institution whose vitality depends on developing and maintaining strong customer relationships, the synagogue is the ideal place to enable and foster this innovation.
True innovation involves taking risks and breaking conventional rules. Innovative boomer programming requires stepping outside of the traditional, self-contained institutional comfort zone. That means adopting new models and collaborating across boundaries, outside of traditional synagogue walls and denominational barriers.
Expanding reach outside of synagogue walls can be an effective boomer-retention strategy, particularly to reach those who feel shut out and alienated by recent synagogue transformation initiatives such as the introduction of more traditional ritual practices and liturgy in Reform Jewish practice or new forms of spirituality such as Torah Yoga and Qi Gong in Conservative congregations.
At a time of declining synagogue membership, a comprehensive boomer-engagement program can revitalize and infuse new creativity into the synagogue. Active listening, acting on these insights and delivering innovative programs targeted at boomer needs are mission-critical.
But synagogues must act fast before boomers totally disengage from synagogue life.
It’s time to address the all-too-familiar Jewish boomer cry, “There’s nothing here for me because programming is focused just on young families,” and demonstrate true customer value.
As a Jewish community, we have a sacred obligation to each member of the community. Using Johnson’s model of “the adjacent possible,” synagogues can become a laboratory for creating innovative spiritual, educational and social programming targeted at Jewish boomers. The result: The synagogue becomes transformed as a kehillah kedushah where boomers feel they are valued and respected members of the Jewish community.
Paula Jacobs is a Massachusetts-based writer, consultant and lifelong synagogue member. Rabbi Gerald I. Weider, a retired congregational rabbi, is president and founding director of JBoomers, a national organization that serves the spiritual, educational and social needs of Jewish baby boomers.