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Reinventing synagogue for the iPhone age
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Reinventing synagogue for the iPhone age

By Laurence Groffman

Nearly every day, I come across another article, book, or conference on the issue of transforming synagogues for the 21st century. It comes as no surprise really: The American Jewish community is in a state of evolution, between the way American Jewish life was organized after World War II, and how it will need to be organized in the new century.

The old model of American Jewish life was based on the idea of joining a synagogue, if not for purely religious reasons, then for social reasons. As Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman has taught, Jews were new to the largely gentile suburbs to which we moved after World War II. Being part of a church or synagogue was equated with being a good American; it was the essence of American civil religion. Add to this the fact that that people were joiners back then — the Elks, the Masons, the Rotary Club — and the result was a post-World War II boom in suburban synagogues.

Members would volunteer to run activities and auxiliary groups, like Sisterhood and Brotherhood. Even if people resigned after their children became bar or bat mitzva, there was a new pipeline of families. It was the B’nai Mitzva Economy, and it worked well, in a certain sense.

So what has changed? For one thing, in more and more families, both parents have paying jobs, and the definition of work is radically different today. Thanks to technology, people are connected to their work whether they are in their office or not. There is less time for leisure, for volunteering, and assuming leadership roles in the temple. The little discretionary time we have, we want to spend with our kids.

Being sensitive to how people work and how little time they have will be an important part of developing new leaders.

One innovation made necessary by today’s time crunch may be the reduction of that staple of synagogue life: the committee meeting. While there will always be a need for people to meet in person to discuss important issues, people in their 30s and 40s are not as amenable to coming out in the evening for a meeting. We will most likely see increased use of web-based meetings and conference calls, so that people can participate no matter where they are.

In place of decision-making by committees, a more decentralized model may come to the fore: asking people to do a specific task, within a certain budget (if applicable) and with certain goals, and then turning them loose to do it without having to check in with a committee.

We also live in a far more child-centered world than we used to. When we were kids, my parents and older brothers often “encouraged” me to go outside and ride my bike. I doubt that the noun “playdate” was even in the lexicon of my childhood, much less the verb “parenting,” and I am sure the book stores were not filled with endless volumes teaching my parents how to be parents.

Today, kids play travel soccer, learn more and more advanced material at younger ages, have more homework in grade three than I probably had in grade six, and are impossibly over-scheduled.

As a result, many families have less time for religious education and synagogue involvement. Judaism and religious education are important to them — after all, many young families are making the time and spending the money to join a synagogue. However, they invest so much time and energy into helping their kids take advantage of the seemingly limitless opportunities available to them that their schedules quickly fill up.

We live in an increasingly individualistic society. I remember the days of the LP and 45 RPM records, when you either had to buy the whole album or just the single. Now, we live in the age of the iPod and iPhone — emphasis on the “I.” You can buy any song you want from almost any album and download it to your MP3 player. You can easily make playlists — Springsteen and Bach can play one after the other if that’s what you want. Life is totally customizable to our individual tastes and preferences.

Not surprisingly, then, younger generations tend to be less inclined to “join” an organization and to make a wholesale commitment to it. Instead, as Rabbi Hoffman has noted, we are interested in experiences — pop in for a yoga class here, a few sets of tennis there — without having to make a long-term commitment to an organization.

In days gone by, the synagogue was a place where people made friends. To this day, many of my parents’ friends are those they met at temple in the 1960s. Today, many people do not look to or need the synagogue to make friends. We “friend” people on Facebook, or hang out with them on the sidelines at yet another soccer game. We have friends from many different places.

The irony is that precisely because life is so hectic, people may need what it is hard to find time for — real, not virtual, connections with other people.

An essential mission of the 21st-century synagogue will be to continue to focus on creating connections among members. Not only are such connections one of the great benefits of religion, but children are more likely to continue their religious education after bar or bat mitzva if they like being with their classmates and if their parents are connected to the parents of their classmates.

This is an exciting time. We have the opportunity to create new models of Jewish and synagogue life in the 21st century, just as the post-WWII generation created the current model.

The good news is that new ideas are being generated all the time. My guess is that we will witness a period of great experimentation. Already, many synagogues have tried different educational, worship, financial, and governance models. And this is where the veterans of synagogue life and the newcomers can collaborate, leading to a new and engaging model of synagogue life for our time.

Laurence Groffman is rabbi of Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove.

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