A few months back I saw “Moneyball,” a film about a creative reimagination of Major League baseball. In my favorite scene, Billy Beane, the legendary general manager of the Oakland Athletics, challenges his scouts to think differently about the game if they are to have any chance at success. Beane declares, “Adapt or die.” These words haven’t stopped echoing in my head.
In this new era of Jewish life—an era defined for many by the abundance of choices we face in every aspect of our lives—our synagogues must adapt or risk becoming ossified. Synagogue life is too important to be entrusted solely to those who already are within congregational walls. We must, emphatically, expand the notion of what a synagogue means. That’s the path being blazed by the Union for Reform Judaism and others seeking to widen the embrace of Jewish life.
Today, less than 50 percent of American Jews are synagogue members. The fastest growing group in the Jewish community is what we too often call the “the unaffiliated.” The term, of course, puts the onus on them. I prefer to call that group “the uninspired”; it’s our job to inspire and help them find their place in the Jewish community.
How? By reorientating our synagogues to address the needs of this group. Most of the time the synagogue is not reaching them. Synagogues must speak to the soul; they must challenge and educate.
Against a secular culture that places each individual at the center of the universe, we can choose to be part of something larger than just ourselves. Taking responsibility for others lifts us out of the indulgence and narrowness of self and connects us to a world of meaning and purpose. Rebuilding broken lives in the developing world is surely a part of our sacred calling, as is caring for our Jewish elders in Brighton Beach or the Ethiopian Jewish girl living in Beersheva amid rocket fire from Gaza.
Synagogues must be places where we extend ourselves to people we don’t know. It is easier to associate only with those who are just like us, but being part of a sacred community makes us responsible for those who think, earn, practice and vote differently than we do. That is how our souls get stretched beyond their narrow reach.
Our web of mutual responsibility doesn’t end with those in our congregation. Rather that’s where it begins.
Synagogues must reassess their focus on what happens outside their walls. Young Jews on the outside are not knocking on the door. It is our collective responsibility and challenge to reach them by breaking down the synagogue walls and engaging them, wherever they may be.
A growing network of urban congregations including Temple Israel in Boston, Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco and Temple Emanu-El in Dallas are doing just that. In Atlanta, St. Louis, Washington, Miami and elsewhere, Reform congregations are going where young people are—to coffee shops and bars, gyms and apartments. Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, N.Y., sponsors Shabbat in the ‘Hood: Unaffiliated Jews host a young rabbi in their homes for a festive and educational Shabbat dinner.
When I served as the senior rabbi at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., we hired a rabbinic intern from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and told him never to step inside the temple. We knew that most of our young people weren’t in the synagogue or even in the suburban neighborhood anymore; they were seeking new lives and careers in New York City, and that’s where they needed to be found.
A bright Jewish future requires us to widen our circles of responsibility and geography.
We must create a web of mutual extension that begins in the congregation and, in theory, is limitless. That web is something that our morning service calls “elu d’varim she’ein lahem shiyur”—the things that have no boundaries, no limits, because the good they do goes on, making individuals into congregations, congregations into movements, movements into one united Jewish people and the Jewish people into a force for good and for God—everywhere. The congregation is simply, and crucially, where the “me to we” begins.
In his commentary on Leviticus, the great scholar Nachmanides wonders why God had to summon Moses to enter the first praying place. His answer imagines that Moses hesitated to enter because he was intimidated by the holiness of the ancient Mishkan, or tabernacle. Today, too many of our people remain outside the walls of our synagogues sometimes intimidated, but even more often simply uninspired. We can change; we can adapt the enduring institution to this dramatic moment in Jewish history.
What are we waiting for?
Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism.