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Urging synagogues to adapt to an era of choice
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Urging synagogues to adapt to an era of choice

With a variety of outlets and institutions for Jews to find expression for their Judaism, synagogues must adapt to changing trends if they are to have a future, said Rabbi Elliott Kleinman.

“Synagogues — and I’m not just talking about the Reform movement — now find themselves in an interesting place in the 21st century,” said Kleinman, chief programming officer at the Union for Reform Judaism. “They are confronted with an increasingly anti-establishment and open society, which means people can do lots of Jewish things in lots of places besides the synagogue.”

The future of the American synagogue will be Kleinman’s topic when he serves as the Diana S. Herman Memorial Scholar-in-Residence at Temple Emanu-El in Edison Friday-Saturday, March 2-3.

In a phone interview from URJ’s New York offices, Kleinman said that the Talmud and other rabbinic texts outline when and where a synagogue should be built and speak of the power of creating a gathering space. “I find it very interesting that the responsa through the ages dealing with the priority of building a synagogue are not talking about a physical structure, but rather organizing a community,” he said.

Kleinman said synagogues must adapt to the changing times because their continued survival is critical to the future of North American Judaism. “If they are going to adapt they are going to have to innovate and take risks they are not comfortable with or even aware of at this point,” said Kleinman, who also serves as director of Advancing Reform Judaism, coordinating the URJ’s presence both globally and in North America.

“But life is rarely that simple,” he added. “If there were a silver bullet, every synagogue would do it. We have to ask who we really are, what do we do well, and how strong is our community, not just how large is our membership.

“All new paradigms have implications for the synagogue.”

Synagogues that connect with congregants only in the sanctuary on Friday nights and Saturday mornings will find it difficult to navigate the future, Kleinman said.

The bigger question to ask, said Kleinman, is: “How strong is the connection to synagogue on Tuesday?”

Rabbi Deborah Bravo said the annual scholar-in-residence program “is aimed at teaching Torah and bringing the community together to study and celebrate Shabbat.” Kleinman was chosen as this year’s scholar, she said, because organizers thought he would be able “to bring a timely message rooted in Torah to the challenges of Judaism today.”

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