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

Amichai Lau-Lavie

June 17,2014


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 We stopped going because so much of what goes on in so many worship settings seems outdated and unattractive in our fast pace digital reality.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.


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.

ACTIV8: Chanukah Blog, Day 1. join the “revolution against the powers of darkness.”


night 1: activ8 (unleash the magic)

Everybody looks great in candlelight which is why, perhaps, candlelighting is a sacred practice across cultures and across time. Wicks are only lit once, providing us a with ritual that connects us to the here and now – romantic, real and magical. Yes, magical – there is possibly power in this simple act of making fire that transcends the practical and transforms something in our minds, and in the world, not just the ambiance in the room. But it only works with focused activation.



Enter: The Chanukah tradition, evolving over centuries to become this 8-nights recipe with 8 steps for helping us deal with what’s dark in our lives: longer nights, fear and isolation, pain and loss, wars and persecutions, then and now, all that’s wrong in the world. For 8 nights we get to shine our spotlight on what’s dark and rededicate ourselves to bringing more light to the world.
Some say we light because of the maccabees, remembering persecution and celebrating religious freedom. Or it’s the miracle of the oil that lasted – the power of faith, and the aroma of fried potatoes. Gastsronomic, religious, mythic or historical, Chanukah is about lighting up, alone or with others, as an activation of connection, a bold declaration of hope and trust in our ability to overcome darkness – inside and beyond.

Tonight’s the first night of this DIY theater of fire. How about:
1. Let your phone rest
2. Find a menorah near you, with the first of eight candles ready to go
3. Before you light, activ8 the ritual by dedicating this night to a darkness in your heart or in the life of someone you know, or out in the world – that you want to shine your light on.
4. Use the traditional blessings or your own intentional words to activ8 the menorah.
5. Most Hanukkah candles last for 30 min. Take this time to have a conversation with others around the sacred fire (yes, latkes, and yes, you can skype) and share with each other: What darkness am I spotlighting tonight? And what can I do about it?


Here’s what a Nobel Prize winning Jew wrote about the fight of light back in 1943:

“We believe that the Jewish attachment to the past can accommodate an extremely progressive outlook, for the history of the Jewish people is the history of an ongoing revolution against the powers of darkness.” (Isaac Bashevis Singer)


Repeat Tomorrow night. Drink responsibly. Discuss.

Happy ThanksChanukah!


EIGHT VS. HATE/CHANUKAH 2011/DIY Occupy Darkness

It starts tonight.
I’d like to invite you to join me, on each of the upcoming eight nights of lights, for a simple intention:
With each of our lights let‘s offer each other a light at the end of a tunnel,  a ray of hope.
Each night, starting tonight, I will post a specific intention for the lighting of the candles and invite your conversation.
Each night offers an opportunity for focus on one form of darkness that we may want to name – and do something about.
Imagine this intention as one that can accompany your lighting of the candles, privately, or in conversation with others.
The goal is to make more meaning of this sacred ritual, rededicating ourselves each night to bringing on more light, with clearer focus and intention.
Scroll down for WHY, HOW,  list of eight intentions, sources and links to real action

To Light!



Candles are the oldest physical – metaphysical technology we got.
The lighting of the candles of Chanukah is about the power of light to diminish darkness.

Darkness has many faces: terror, tyranny, anxiety, depression, despair, illness, poverty, hatred, discrimination,violence, loneliness. Tunnels of darkness.
Chanukah candles are lit publicly, for all to see and remember the power of the possible.
The role of the candles is to remind us to turn on the lights for each other, to be each others’ ray in the dark. a light unto others.
Candles are public smiles.  a single candle defeats darkness with ease just as simple acts of kindness can do so much to
alleviate hatred. The way a smile lights up a face.


1. Each night, light. From one to eight candles or the other way around.

(For basics refresher : How to Light Your Menorah )

2. Once the candles have been lit, take a moment to think of a specific darkness you want to  focus on. (see one list below)

3. What can you do about it?  See list of links below to chanukah and social justice activism, ideas, programs and opportunities 

Consider: An intention, conversation, phone call, email, hug, donation, public call to action.

4. Occupy darkness. discuss, but don’t stay there. It’s a holiday. move on to focus on how the light can change.

5. Repeat eight nights.

MY LIST OF INTENTIONS 2011 (subject to change)
Night 1: The Darkness of Dignity: human rights, human dignity and freedom – where is the darkness that troubles me? who are the sources of light? how can I help?
Night 2: The Darkness of Greed: In this climate of calling for more economic justice – what do I recognize as the darkness, sources of light, and how can I help?
Night 3: The Darkness of Disease: What darkness related to health is on my mind tonight? in my heart? What can I do to help?
Night  4: The Darkness of Love:  When intimacy and love and relationships and sex go wrong – where in my life? where is the light switch.
Night 5: The Darkness of Literacy: What forms of educational darkness do you recognize, and what can you do to help repair?
Night 6: The Darkness of Rage:  Have I come close to violence, abuse, hostilities? In my own behaviour or those I know. What can be helpful to diminish these rages in the world?
Night 7: The Darkness of Direction: Who are our leaders and where are we in the dark? Whom can we support?
Night 8:The Darkness of Soul:  How have so many of our sacred traditions and religious paths become shrouded with dark rags of rage and righteousness? How can we help restore the spirit?



Occupy Darkness – online links

 (thank you Dara Kessler for putting this together. Got more? Please share!)

AJWS Chag v’Chesed

Make this a real season of change. occupy darkness. turn on the lights.