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 We stopped going because so much of what goes on in so many worship settings seems outdated and unattractive in our fast pace digital reality.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

What the Pope can Teach Israel’s New President. Perhaps.

June 10, 2014
This past Sunday, Pope Francis invited the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to pray with him for peace.
The day before, His Holiness tweeted: Prayer is all-powerful. Let us use it to bring peace to the Middle East and peace to the world. 
I wasn’t invited to Rome, but I wanted to be privy to this ritual, so I watched it online,  pausing, here and there (it was over two hours long), to actually feel moved enough to pray.
But most of the time I struggled to be moved. Judging by the faces of the fidgeting delegates in attendance, representing three religions, splendid religious garb, and at least three versions of God, I was not the only struggler. It was very serious, solemn, and, well, long.
There were highlights: The Palestinian delegation chose the only participating woman (other than the MC) to read aloud a few sacred texts. A rabbi and an Imam, respectively, sang out loud  – with what seemed like real intention of prayers and verses.  Strings and harp played in between the lofty words, with some melodies quite pretty. An olive tree was planted at the end by all three leaders. No tears were visibly shed.
So I watched, hoping to see  – to feel – something ‘real’ happen – despite the general buzz about how politically insignificant and possibly empty this papal gesture was.
I wanted – and still insist on wanting – to believe that such gestures have actual meaning, impact and the ability to somehow crack or even shatter the  stubborn walls of refusal to change.
I want to believe that prayer can help where other forms of communications fail. Not necessarily because prayers are addressed to the Creator one does or does not believe in but because prayers open up the ones who pray to be more vulnerable, more open, more fully human, fragile, and sincere.
I’m told that this was the first time Muslim prayers were publicly recited at the Vatican. And that although not for the first time – this was a big moment for these three religions to come and pray together in such prominent display of faith and yearning for progress.  I am a big believe in the power of interfaith gatherings to dispel the centuries of malice and suspicion, turning to a brave new page.
If anything is going to get the Middle East out of the rut it is in – it’s likely the role of gutsy faith leaders able to re-imagine the sacred narratives that have become so often tools for hostility instead of vehicles for compassion.
Perhaps this prayer summit will help encourage more religious leaders to reach out to others across the lines, and to delve deep into our wisdom shared by all our traditions, beyond the borders and the hyperbole, to retrieve the spirit of unity and shared values.
There’s blood on all hands here. Let’s not forget. The pope’s bright white mantle is sprinkled with ancient drops of bloody crusades. Abbas and Peres, two old war horses, one on his way out, the other soon to follow – are no innocents either, representing complicated and brutal attempts to make one country work for two nations at terrible costs.
But here they sat, stiff in big chairs, admitting by their mere presence that the truth is bigger than them all, and the fact that the only way out of this mess is to appeal, together, publicly, to the mystery residing way above and way below and deep within each and every one of us.
They did what prayers do – admit, out loud: We are vulnerable. And we need help.
Because of our collective failures to make the world a better place where peace pulsates like mightily rivers – we appeal to God or Allah or Hashem or Mother Earth or the Power that Calls for Salvation or whatever, in a humble plea for strength to do the work.
An affirmation of the possible, against the odds. In today’s cynical, sorta-secular society where eyes roll at the role of religion in the civic sphere, often for good reasons – this was a big deal.
This morning, a new president was voted in Israel. Rivlin is a vegetarian, Likkud member – secular Jew, and I’m not holding my breath for news of his peace making – among Israelis, Jews or residents of the Middle East. A few years ago he famously labeled my form of Judaism “idol worship” and it’s unclear whether he will recognize me as a rabbi once I am ordained. Perhaps he’ll change his views.
But I will take a moment now to quietly recite a prayer, that he, too, blessed by the mantle of leadership, will be humble enough to see beyond the here and now, reach out to other leaders of region and religion and beyond, submit his will to greater forces of good, make history happen, make sense,  make love between all people, and yes, dare I say it, help make real peace.
Thank you Mr. Peres. May your prayers be heard too.
And may the Mysterious One  making peace possible above and below, help us make more peace within and everywhere, right here, right now, for all of us, somehow, together.



Paratroopers, Pope, and Hope: pausing to pray for Jerusalem

Paratroopers, Pope & Hope: Pausing to pray for Jerusalem
Amichai Lau-Lavie
Jerusalem Day –  which falls this year on May 27, was designated by Israel to mark its reunification of Jerusalem in 1967. It’s a day of celebration for many and of reflection for many others. I used to be among the celebrants, marching up to the Western Wall early in the morning, along with other Yeshiva boys in white shirts. These days – I pause to praise the privilege, honor the dream, and reflect on the greater vision  of real peace.
This year, an added note of thanks to the Pope for three important reminders.
The iconic image of that historical moment in ’67 is that of the paratroopers at the Western Wall.
This week, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, at yet another famous wall, another image is going viral and possibly iconic:  Pope Francis praying at the Separation Wall between Israel and Palestine.
Two walls, two photos, one more chance? So many stories.

When I was 14 years old, living in Manhattan, I hung up the photo of the paratroopers at the Wall on my own wall,  over my bed. I was religious, Zionist, homesick for Israel, and who knows, they were handsome and I was just beginning to come out.

4 years later I too joined the paratroopers, wanting to prove that I’m a man, get that red beret, be a hero, defend my country.
The paratroopers swearing-in ceremony was at the  Wall. Along with my brothers in arms I vowed to die for our ancestral land. We all received an IDF issue Bible.
That night I took a sharpie and added a mystical incantation to my gun strap- ‘All for the holy glory of God.’
Then the first intifada started. Our  platoon was sent to keep a  curfew in a Palestinian village.
This is not, never was, never will be, black or white, and there are at least two sides to each conflict – I know now more than I knew back then – but the experiences during those first few weeks of the intifada shattered many of my views, beliefs and convictions.  I began doubting: Was the vision of a Greater Israel that I grew up to believe in worth this terrible price of attrition to our sense of worth, compassion, justice?
One night, back home on leave, I heard Amos Oz speak on TV. We have dreams, he said, big dreams about a big land as always promised to our parents. It’s a good dream. But we are not the only ones dreaming here. The Arabs dream big too. And somehow we all have to wake up and make a compromise. This land can not contain the dreams. It needs us to wake up. Something like that. He quoted the verse from psalms that I knew so well from the prayer after meals, echoing the desire to return to Zion, to come home: ” We were like dreamers“.
25 years later, so many big dreams and rude awakenings later, I, along with so many of us, still struggle to make sense of the ways with which to make peace possible. And not just between Palestine and Israel. I try to reconcile  the dreams I was raised to believe in with  the realities that challenge us to wake up to what’s at stake, and wake us up to our role in co-creating a better reality.
I’ve been on the line between Jerusalem and New York for the last 15 years, living and loving in both places, privileged to have this often complicated dual perspective. When in Jerusalem I don’t visit the Western Wall often. It’s too loaded for me. In recent years I got more involved with  Women of the Wall‘s brave movement to make the Wall – and the Israeli public sphere – more welcoming to all of us. I’m glad for the progress in making – but the Western Wall is not where my hearts yearns to pray Too many human walls of conflict have grown up along this ancient sacred fence. The faith that guided that 18 year old paratrooper has in some ways deepened, and in other ways faded.
I’m trying, still trying, to come from love, and to make sense of letting all narratives be heard and honored so that progress can be made, together. I try to keep learning more and come from knowledge, not just feelings. I try meeting with people from all sides of this story, hearing all versions, respecting the differences, looking beyond them when possible. But there are so many walls.
This book really helped me make some sense of the bigger story: Yossi Klein Halevi’s page-turner   Like Dreamers.  On the cover is that photo I hung on my wall all those years ago. The book is the story of the paratroopers who were there in 1967 –  ‘reunited Jerusalem and divided a nation’.  I  finished reading it and posted a note  a few week ago. I keep thinking and talking about this book.
Klein Halevi followed the lives of six of these men, representing right and left, religious and secular, business and art, settlements and kibbutzim. Their stories are the story of my homeland, in many ways, my story. Yet he spins the bigger story  – human hope and despair and betrayal and second chances – not just as Israelis, or paratroopers – but just as people, with different dreams, shared hope, and a few decades worth of  perspective on the pursuit and price of dreams.
 I read it in Jerusalem, and in NY and on flights in between, on the fence between wanting to give up and refusing to have faith in the possibility of noble co-existence on the road to real peace.  Another great book I read this year is Jerusalem, the Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore – an epic journey that tells in rich detail how and why Jerusalem became so sacred for so many pilgrims and builders- and why all those narratives matter equally – together. That’s the only way to make it work.
This week, another pilgrim, Pope Francis, reminded the world about the role of religious leaders as builders of bridges, not walls. And he reminded us to pause, and to pray, and to believe that we can help make change.
He paused and prayed,  silently, for several minutes, hand on a wall on which was spray painted: “Pope we need some 1 to speak about justice Bethlehem look like Warsaw ghetto.” 
During his brief visit he paused to pray at national and sacred sites to all religions – including the Western Wall, Yad Vashem and the Monument to Terror Victims. But,  political manipulation or  spontaneous gesture, his prayer at that wall is what will be remembered. A powerful, almost prophetic icon of terrible despair – and incredible hope.
The Pope’s invitation to the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to come pray with him in Rome for peace is an extension of that prayer moment. Political and/or Religious –  he reminds us to blur those walls and labels as well, and wake up, together, to the bigger shared dream that transcends religions and nations and lands. Powerful and simple reminders. The gift of a pilgrim who comes with truth to honor the sacred.
On this Jerusalem Day, in gratitude and honor to all who love, live in and for Jerusalem and her many names, all who suffered and suffer on her walls, and all dreamers whose hands and hearts reach out for her real peace: I pause to whistle and pray another psalm:
Yehi Shalom : “Let there be peace within you, serenity in all your homes.”