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 We stopped going because so much of what goes on in so many worship settings seems outdated and unattractive in our fast pace digital reality.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

How many storytellers to fix a light bulb? Word #22

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How many storytellers does it take to fix a light bulb? (as in, tell, together, a single story?)
And how many is too much?
It’s been a while since I’ve attended an academic conference,  the ones with chaired sessions and scholars reading papers on panels and lots of coffee. Here I was, at  a prestigious onference on The Future of Jewish Storytelling held on the lush campus of Standford University for two full days of stories about stories. And a lot of coffee. But something was missing.
I was honored to attend and be invited to present. I heard  insightful talks, met  fascinating people, reconnected with old friends, made some new, delved into important conversations that now linger on.
But at the of the day it reminded me of Plato’s story of  people trying to describe an elephant by feeling it, part by part, in a dark cave. They describe a trunk, big legs, but not the thing itself. What’s the big picture. what is IT about? I get this doubt about the formats of ‘conference’, and similar forms of gathering that bring us together, sort of, almost, to delve deeper into what life’s all about.
Many stories were told at the conference, and theories shared, important seeds planted for future conversations, but the one big story, the big ‘why does this really matter’ remained, I think, the elephant in the room.  When talking about future – our future – what’s at stake – how is the Jewish literacy related to global concerns? how can our myths be in the service of a greater good?
It came up at one of the most interesting sessions – the most current now and next – digital tools for storytelling – including video games, vids and apps. The awesome Sarah Lefton showcased g-dcast’s new game  LEVITICUS!
But why spend time and money on recycling sacrificial systems? Why focus on these ancient stories at all? Is it about advancing Jewish learning – or should the future of our storytelling be about what they are deeply about – increasing our capacity to think, to feel, to love, to grow? Can we aim for both? for all?
The challenge is not just about content but also, very much so, about context: How to use the purpose and power of storytelling – real connection – in a screen base mode that at least in some ways perpetuates the tech-isolation that comes from ireality? We are all in the same room – but each glued, increasingly more often, to our private screen.
The ancient art of storytelling, the HOW and WHERE of telling stories, not just what stories we choose to tell, can be the very thing that brings us back together, unplugged and connected.
And that’s exactly what this weekly installments of our old story is about – the final touches of construction on the Hebraic container for sacred conversations,  story, ritual, connection. The weekly Torah text, Vaykhel-Pikuedi sums up the creation of the mobile, pop up place for the human-divine interaction. The Mishkan. It starts with the verb Vaykhel – Moses gathered, or assembled, the people, instructing them of sacred time and sacred space and how to come, and stay, together. Ex. 35:1
That sanctuary evolved with time to become our synagogues. What happens at many of these modern sanctuaries is not unlike what happens at academic conference – all the part are there but the big wow is somehow missing.
I’m excited to be thinking, working, visioning, with many others on this next phase of our collective gatherings, re-imagining why we gather where, and when, and how.
The origin of storytelling is around campfires and in forest clearings, people huddled to tap into meaning through the myths and memories of elders and magic makers of the spoken word. Rituals evolved around these stories, sacrifices, songs and pageants, sacred spaces, holy days.
If Jewish (and all other) storytelling has a future it’s about a reconnection to this primal past, the spirit of the campfire, even in its digital formation. The art of storytelling, changed, evolved but not forgotten is still what brings us closer – and what will help us truly reconnect.
We need new ways to tell our oldest stories. We need new ways to come together and connect to our truth, to the BIG story, to what has to be done so that we each wake up up to live out loud and make this fast-heating planet livable and just for all.
I don’t know how many storytellers it takes or not to fix a light bulb but I do know that the only way to get our future fixed is for as many of us as possible to gather, and tell a single story of nothing less than our soul’s salvation. Starting now.
Shabbat Shalom.


Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999.