Resurrection, Revisited: Can the Synagogue Survive? Here’s how.

Amichai Lau-Lavie

June 17,2014

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I don’t go to church much. It’s more likely that you’ll find me at a synagogue. But there, also, rarely on a weekly basis.  Based on recent research – I am part of the growing trend among liberal American  Christians and Jews under 50 who are losing their religion. Or at least the religious norms of yore.

Fewer of us (and that includes the president)  frequent houses of worship regularly these days, and as a result more of these sanctuaries are closing down. Or maybe it’s the other way around? We stopped going because so much of what goes on in so many worship settings seems outdated and unattractive in our fast pace digital reality. Although 1/5 of Americans are atheists, according to recent Pew studies, the issue for the rest of us is not so much theology as sociology: The assumed affiliations with a local religious institution that were a social given just two generations ago no longer bind us.  Yet for many, the search for real community and a connection to the sacred continues. The problem is often in the packaging and distribution of the so sought for spirituality.

According to some studies, an estimated 10,000 churches closed down in 2013. And while I’ve not been able to get actual numbers for synagogue shut-downs in the US, a flurry of recent articles portray this evolving Jewish trend in vivid and sad detail, as communal leaders wring hands, point fingers, and search for solutions.

Just last week, Rabbi Joshua Ratner published a moving requiem for a suburban shul, detailing the death of his Conservative congregation in Connecticut. Self labeled as a ‘canary in the coal mine’, he cautions that this “will be an increasingly frequent phenomenon in American Jewish life.”

Ratner’s  concerns are  shared by many clergy and lay leaders. As a rabbinical student and the spiritual leader of my own congregation I am paying close attention to the emerging facts, and am saddened to read of this congregation’s extinction. But I am also  puzzled by the lack of information Ratner delivers about what went wrong – and what process could have been utilized to fix the problems. Were the pews too uncomfortable?  the liturgy too long? membership too expensive? demographic changes too vast?  Congregants were sent to find new spiritual homes in nearby communities, Torah scrolls were sold, and beautiful tributes and rituals conducted to say farewell with dignity. But could it have been turned around? Are dying synagogues and churches capable or worthy of resurrection?  And if so -how?

Each case is unique and circumstances matter based on socio-economic realities. But as a Jewish educator who has spent the last twenty years in the service of the community, the last three years in rabbinical school,  and the last two years in the co-creation of a new experimental congregation in Downtown NYC I am convinced that that resurrection is not only possible – it is critical, and doable. But not without real costs to the cherished ways we were.

In the next few years, more sanctuaries will be sold because of shifting demographic needs and more congregations will merge or dissolve, but the responsibility of the greater community is to keep on researching, developing and experimenting with new delivery systems that will recreate and  celebrate our ancient ways for this digital age. Mourning is important, but moping is not.Nothing less than radical shifts in how we shape our sacred centers  will reboot  the  gloomy projections that dominate the current landscape of faith in modern day America. 

There are, thankfully, more than a few thoughtful radicals helping to reshape religious life all over the world. I am privileged to have mentors and partners from sea to sea here in the US – primarily Jewish, but also Christian and Muslim. From B’nai JeshurunRomemu, City Lights and Faith House in NYC, to LA’s Ikar, Chicago’s Mishkan, Seattle’s Kavana, San Francisco’s Glide and The Kitchen,DC’s Sixth and I – religious resurrection is a growing reality for many thousands of seekers. These are but a few of the more striking examples of bold attempts to make mindfulness, social change, communal care and artistic expression the building blocks of new and improved spiritual Congregational life. Some of these communities started from scratch but others are incubated within  existing religious infrastructures.  The resurrection’s on.

This week I have the honor of celebrating the first successful year of Lab/Shul – the congregation I founded with friends and fans in Tribeca. Lab/Shul started as a theater company, organically and eventually morphed into a community of artists – and has now blossomed as a congregation of like minded spiritual seekers from all over the Tri-State area. Committed to radical review of everything sacred and the resurrection of the essence of our legacy- this lab is a collective attempt to keep up the relay race of  transmission of sacred technologies and values from one generation to another. We are committed to trying everything that will work better for our bodies, souls and minds – where and when and how often we meet for worship, what sort of liturgy we use, how we learn, alternative and multiple sustainability models, being truly everybody-friendly, integration of digital access. Nothing can be taken for granted as we work to update a 5000 year old religion and co-craft the public context that will enable each and every one of us to better process our private lives.

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Can the emerging trend of  creative congregations win over the grim reality of so many sanctuaries shutting down? I think it can – but only if we listen carefully to what’s really going on in the hearts and minds of modern seekers – across the religious spectrum.  A recent Huffington Post article that made the rounds cites stark statistics on the closure of churches and offers seven trends impacting religious  decline. They’re identical for Jews: Demographic changes, technology and the free market, uninspiring leaders, false promises of welcome to all  – these are but a few of the trends that are reshaping our religious lives for worse – or perhaps – for way better.

I’m excited to learn from all sources about the vital role of spirit in the task of self improvement and the care for a better world for all. One of the privileges of these times is unprecedented interfaith dialogue between leaders and communities. We are all in this together – and have to learn from each other. Even the Vatican gets it. Last week Pope Francis hosted an interfaith prayer for peace in his Roman garden – attended by Israeli and Palestinian presidents and dignitaries of all three monotheistic religions. These days, even the pope gets the need for radical resurrection of what matters most.

“The old will be renewed, and the new will become sacred” wrote Rabbi Abraham Issac Kook, an early 20th century mystic with a firm grip on reality and visions that were perhaps ahead of his time. Is this the time for the religious resurrection? If not now, when? All that’s left for us to do is to keep on rising to the challenge.

Roman Reminder: Amichai’s Clarification about the NYT article

March 20, 2014

I am in Rome for a couple of days, and this morning, while taking a tour of the Jewish Ghetto in the Eternal City I was reminded of the secret of survival: only those of us who truly work together will succeed in co-creating the Judaism that will live and thrive.

This lesson comes just in time. Just a few days ago I was pleasantly surprised to find out the New York Times published a flattering article  about Lab/Shul, and I’m grateful for the incredible flow of appreciation from so many of you.

But it wasn’t all positive. A few people, among them close friends,  wrote to me expressing  hurt and disappointment over one sentence of mine that was quoted in the article.

Sadly, they are right to be displeased. Something I said during my interview was taken out of context and  became  hurtful to the very people who opened the doors for my journey in the US, nurtured Storahtelling’s genesis and helped made possible the next chapter that is Lab/Shul. What was meant as a compliment came out looking like an insult and Instead of celebrating collaboration and respect it seemed like I was dismissing the vital contribution of a cherished and central communal leader.

To my rabbis, colleagues,  and friends  at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun – my sincere apologies for the needless hurt.

Please know that nothing but  admiration and gratitude to you guide my path and inspire all of us at Lab/Shul.

So what went wrong? During my interview I was asked about my arrival in NYC in 1998 and  explained how BJ, bursting at the seams, was looking for more ways to engage its many members. “It was the ‘It girl’ of the ’90s,” I said – role model for all syangouges worldwide, forward-thinking, and generously invited me from Israel and incubate new ways of approaching Torah and ritual.

I went on to describe how BJ empowered me to create Storahtelling, and continues till this day to be the creative and spiritual home for many thousands – including myself, my children, many friends – and  a third of Lab/Shul’s Board of Directors.

It was  an unfortunate choice of phrase taken out of context – but never meant as an insult.

Media works in ways that favor winners and losers, new faces replacing the old, “It factors” that are the flavor of the month. But these are not the age-old Jewish values  that inform and impact our lives, with diligent commitment to the daily sacred work of spiritual life that goes on in countless congregations, for years and decades, far from fame, safe from spotlights.

The “It Factor” is seductive and flattering – but it is not the narrative that I wish to live by or to chart Lab/Shul’s evolution, no or in the future. lab/Shul is one of many bold and creative experiments going on all over the world right now – looking for new ways to make meaning of our legacy and heritage. I believe that we can co-create and celebrate very different ways for living our Jewish lives out loud, in a greater ecosystem of mutual support, appreciation and learning. it doesn’t have to be either/or – it’s much better as and/both.

And that’s the secret of survival that I took away from this morning’s fascinating tour of Jewish Roma. Micaela Pavoncello, our tour guide,  an impressive woman of long Roman Jewish ancestry,  led us through the piazzas and alleyways, through the history of persecution and persistence that define this ancient community. One of the things that struck me most is the fact that as members of the Jewish Roman Community she and her family do not pay dues to one single synagogue but to a central communal body that makes sure all synagogues, schools, ritual needs and cultural affairs are taken care of.

It’s been this way  for centuries, for better or worse. She showed us the 15th century blueprints of the only synagogue of the Ghetto  – where five different congregations worshipped in five different rooms in the same building, as mandated by the Pope. Necessity created a structure of co-existence, an ecosystem of co-dependence. It was never easy, to be sure, and is not exactly the case today, but it created a community that deeply understands the power of collaboration to this day.

“I don’t belong to any one synagogue” Micaela said,  as we lunched at one of the Ghetto’s local heavens, “I am part of this bigger community. Even though I have the temple I prefer to go to pray at – I am always welcome at all of them and can always go.”

NYC isn’t Rome, but our challenges are similar and  historical precedents may point at potential models for our own survival and growth. And the secret sauce must be better collaboration. Tensions over memberships and dues in today’s free market of ideas and options simply shouldn’t matter as much as the bigger picture – we are all in this together and all have a role to play, taking turns in the spotlight but humbly serving a higher, nobler call, the whole greater than all parts.

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L’chayim: Lunch in Roma’s Jewish Ghetto. 3/14

I hope and pray that as Lab/Shul grows, we are able to work closely together with other congregations, institutions, leaders and colleagues in NYC and beyond. I want us to be part of a healthy and respectful ecosystem that celebrates success, embraces challenges, sustains innovation,  and is committed to ongoing creativity – together. That’s what IT was, and is, and will always be  about.  Let it be.

Shabbat Shalom.