Why Synagogue?

Amichai Lau-Lavie

(A reply to Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove)



My friend Dan is a rabbi in crisis. His small congregation adores him but wants to replace the apple of his eye – his 30 minutes Sabbath morning sermon  -with an interactive lay-led conversation. He wants quality scholarship, advanced literacy – they just want to schmooze and talk together about what is on their minds and hearts. Dan is young, smart, passionate and comes from a traditional/classical model of what happens in a synagogue and what’s the role of rabbi. But in more and more communities across the Jewish eco-system that model is fading out. Many wonder: What will replace it and how?  Dan’s crisis is one of many – and there are many of us who are trying to make sense of this change and turn crisis into creative opportunity.   Lab/Shul, the experimental congregation I founded in NYC is one of those attempts at refreshing the role of the synagogue. This co-creation is less than a year old and was born of precisely this charge for change and as the guy in charge – these questions are what’s keeping me up at night: What are the winning recipes (and are there any?) that can help us make more meaning in our lives while negotiating continuity and preserving some of the historical modes of our spiritual structures?  I am definitely not alone in this kind of late night thinking – the future of the synagogue is a priority item on the collective Jewish agenda – source of anxiety for some and creativity for others.


Just last Shabbat, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove delivered a sermon about this very topic at his Manhattan sanctuary. Cosgrove is an articulate scholar, eloquent speaker and very elegant rabbi, now at the helm of Park Avenue Synagogue – one of the flagships of the Conservative Movement. His sermon, based on that week’s Torah narrative that outlines the construction of the first Jewish sacred space, explored the very existence of the institution that employs him.  As is the (sometimes viral) fate of many sermons these days – I read it online. Rabbi Cosgrove runs a tight ship and Park Ave. Syn. is enjoying a steady success, but he’s right to be worried – pointing at recent studies that show the decline in synagogue affiliation nationwide within the context of emerging trends such as hyper consumerism, individuality and digital realities.  Why should the fate of synagogues be any different than that of Borders Books and Blockbuster Video?” Cosgrove asks, citing data about synagogue membership numbers in NYC even lower than other metropolitan and suburban centers across the US.


He’s got answers, too. Referencing the Biblical blueprint for the first portable temple, he suggests that meaningful spiritual experience should be the central value proposition of the modern synagogue. It’s sort of a no-brainer but he reacts to what shuls have often become in the U.S. and he wants to step away from the shul with a pool and a school: Not a community center with a gym or a social club/study hall – but a site for the experiential sacred.


I agree with the main thrust of this response – but I’m not sure he’s offering a formula that walks this talk for a wider audience and can move bigger numbers of non-shul-going Jews to even consider checking out a synagogue anytime soon or help existing congregations make it through another year.


One of the key issues, as in Dan’s case, is the difference in expectations – a growing gap is widening between what folks are looking for and what clergy know to offer.  Cosgrove wants the synagogue to be “ a place where God’s presence may be experienced” but I think he is aiming too high for today’s average ‘consumer/seeker’. Religious thought doesn’t have to be necessarily watered down to meet the masses but for this day and age – re branding is critical.

The issue of shared expectations is closely tied here to another core issue – vocabulary.  When it comes to marketing the sacred in the modern marketplace, there are baggaged words that spell out trouble and keep people away. Little words like “God”.


Cosgrove mentions “God” 19 times in his sermon, articulating what it is that drove, drives and may drive Jews in droves to a synagogue:


“Only here, only in a synagogue, is the unique and infinite divinity of every human being brought into full relief in a communal context…only in a synagogue, can you be part of a community whose operating assumption is that everyone – young and old, rich and poor, single and married, people you like and don’t like – all of us exist equally, collectively and covenantally in God’s image and presence.”


100% yes to the inclusive notion of ‘finding relief in the infinite divinity of our humanity.’ But easy on the God-talk. The challenge may be the wording – the fact that so many of us are allergic to the concept and the mere mention of God, even when seeking to connect to what soul and spirit and shared destiny and bigger picture is all about.


The issue isn’t faith – it’s terminology.


This is not just about semantics- the problematic word so overused it has become almost meaningless and hollow and oft abused by religious voices that make us cower. It does in some way reflect the evolving, if subtle, state of our theology: What IS it that the divine mystery means to us today? Is it different in tangible ways from what our grandparents held on to?  What is the current take on the metaphor of ‘God’ as it evolves in this relativistic neo-feminist, user generated, and Universalist paradigm-shift era?


Many of us want sacred experience and willing to suspend our disbelief to hold on to some big ‘mother earth’ version of big picture, but we want less old school God talk. If not the patriarchal punishing Lord of Hosts: What then? What words can be used to serve our old new formulations of mystery? Most of us crave meaningful experiences that stimulate our thinking, move our heart, encourage our more mindful behavior and connect us to history, mystery and to each other. But we want it on our terms – for better or worse – less top down dogma, less either/or doctrines, less heady (classical rabbinic?) formulations of worship and faith and devotion that recycle same old religion for a age that needs and calls for the new and improved.


We do want more transparent truth, honest expectations met and shared and cultivating what is so lacking in our modern lives: a place to be vulnerable with other people – a safe haven for our way too stifled souls.

The digital is connecting us like never before but also disconnecting us like never before. We need these safe spaces to be real again, to unplug and reconnect to what really matters in the ripples of our lives.


That’s why synagogues  – better translated from the Hebrew Beit Knesset – as ‘Entry Points’  (Thank you Craig Taubman for this idea) can matter again. The right design and ambiance is key, as are the music and the prose and poetry, the type of seats and food and access, when it happens, who’s there and why. We want our liturgy to match our modern intellectual and literary sensibilities, and our religious narratives and dramas to speak directly to who we are today and what values we embody in our hearts and in our workplaces and on the streets.  We need guidance to lead more balanced lives and hand over our heritage to our children. The last thing any of us wants is preservation of the ancient for its own sake, and not for ours. But this is often the first thing that most of us are getting – it’s not good enough and it’s simply not working.  And yes – we need a symbol for the greater than self that holds us together.  And we need a better brand. The ancient brand name – Adonai – AKA GOD, for so many, has already left the building.


Cosgrove is aware of this, of course.  For the atheists or on-the-fence among us he’s offering the notion of divinity through the eyes and hearts of others – and its beautiful- but not enough: “If God’s presence is elusive, then a synagogue bears the promise that another person may brighten our darkness by way of the light of their divine spark, and together we may mend a broken world together. “


Yes, again. But here’s what my friends will answer: why do I have to sit through three hours of Hebrew liturgy to feel a human spark?  What will make the ‘House of God’ a home to our soul and embodiment of our sacred pleasures?



Clarity or expectations, experimentation, and a new way to talk about the sacred – would help, I think, a lot.  For generations we have tried new things and it’s happening again, even is slowly. More of us are seeking and more of us are creating new forms of sacred spaces that offer our young and restless (and not so young and not so restless) lives real solutions to more meaningful, life-long, conversations and connections.  It’s an exciting time to turn crisis into creative opportunity.


That’s what I advised my friend Dan to do – listen carefully to the ones who do show up and find a way to make your sermon interactive, more lay-led, a conversation and an exercise in transparency and crowd sourcing. Everybody has a lot to learn here. Find other times to teach head on. Just inviting your congregants to think out loud with you about what they want out of shul – why they are there on Shabbat morning – and what it is that you are driven by – will get you all to clearer ground, on the same page, and clarity of learning curve, process, and one step further from crisis and closer to the sense of shared communal values.


Yes, we all can benefit from greater religious literacy and depth of learning our tradition- but how we get there is different than how our ancestors got there, back in Sinai or Warsaw or Fez. Let’s talk about it, together.  Clarity of expectations is key.


And I’d like to tweak Rabbi Cosgrove’s moving message  – only slightly, make it more compelling to the majority of Jews on the planet – esp. the reluctant ones among my friends and family who signed off the synagogue experience. It’s a small tweak but a big step and a not so simple re branding attempt.


Can we rebrand God?


When Lab/Shul started formulating our key messaging we added ‘God-Optional’ to our mission statement – right after ‘Everybody-Friendly’ and ‘Experimental’. This was our way to welcome all and be honest about the fact that we come with different assumptions about faith and that it doesn’t really matter. Then we removed it – people claimed it was too vague. The intention was to invite people to experience the sacred in their lives through the Jewish modes of contemplative practice with as little baggage as possible and as open as possible to whatever rocks their inner boat.

Our liturgy is projects on screens – we do not use prayer books. All translated references to God have been replaced by other concepts – ‘source’ or ‘creator’ or ‘being’ or ‘mystery.’ We’ve kept the Hebrew original but the open ended new translations offer us, I think, a way to play more freely in the playgrounds of our yearnings, gratitude and awe. It is, like soul and life and all, a constant multi layered work in process.


We are also still debating the mission statement. Some recently suggested GOD: DIY, or – our recent favorite – BYOG.  Time will tell…


The humor and the open source approach, help, I think, to keep us honest, modeling our intention – trying to make sense of our inherited sacred tool kit in an increasingly perplexing reality of competing ideologies and way too many options. Constant check in of our different expectations helps a lot as well  – getting us on the same page, as often as possible, with those who join us on holy days, weekends or occasional online.


So: Why synagogue?  to carve out a spacious safe space deep within our busy lives, making room for mystery to dwell, for compassion to blossom, human vulnerability to echo and a deeper connection celebrated with all of our body, all of being, and all of our soul.  


Lab/Shul is just a kid – starting out – proud to sit on the shoulders of giants and be part of a growing network of spiritual innovators worldwide who are busy reconfiguring the sacred. My friend Dan and Rabbi Cosgrove are but two of many more who are taking this challenge head-on – each in a different way. Exciting conversations about these new realities take place in interfaith settings as well, as brave leaders of all faiths are finding ways of not only upgrading their own religious narratives but share, care, and find meaning and solutions in the riches of each other’s legacy and treasured paths. The collective wisdom of our past attempts to make life holy and healthy offers new and noble ways to bless our present and help us create a beautiful and better future.


Is this a good enough reason to keep synagogues open or start-up new ones? I guess time will tell but I’m betting on it. The mobile tent of our ancestors morphed into a marble temple, holy huts and grand cathedrals of every imaginable human design. Like the concept of God, the synagogue is also a work in progress. It’s time for new labs that will ask different questions, try new replies, and re brand that old time religion, makeover style, to resonate radically in the here and now.



Amichai Lau-Lavie



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