Making synagogues more welcoming

Making synagogues more welcoming

On Oct. 26, Rabbi Ronald Wolfson, Fingerhut Professor of Education at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, will tell attendees at UJA Federation of North Jersey’s Synagogue Leadership Institute that synagogues can no longer settle for “business as usual.”

Rabbi Ronald Wolfson

“We need synagogues that can be on the front lines of growing the Jewish people – spiritually and physically,” said Wolfson, author of “The Spirituality of Welcoming: How to Transform Your Congregation into a Sacred Community” (Jewish Lights, 2006).

At the SLI meeting, to be held at the UJA-NNJ building in Paramus from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Wolfson will focus on three areas: “welcoming ambience, welcoming worship, and welcoming membership.” In other words, he said, “How truly welcoming are our synagogues – physically, spiritually, and in terms of hospitality?”

Wolfson, who has visited hundreds of synagogues across North America as a consultant, teacher, and scholar-in-residence, explained that ambience extends to simple acts like greeting newcomers and includes such things as utilization of physical space.

He said he will ask participants to think about questions such as “What does it feel like when a newcomer enters the shul?”

He will also discuss “Building Good Tents: Envisioning the Synagogue of the Future,” during kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday, Oct. 24, at 8 p.m., at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake.

“Most synagogues are good places with good, well-meaning leaders,” he said. “They’re working their hearts out,” he added, noting that he would describe many of these places as “functional.” But, he said, “functional synagogues have to raise the bar.”

“Synagogues often do a fine job of offering a variety of opportunities to study Judaism, to participate in social action activities, and to provide comfort for those who are mourning or caring for someone who is ill,” he writes in his book. “That is business as usual. The times, however, require synagogues to be much more.”

Wolfson, president of Synagogue 3000 – described on its Website as an effort “to empower congregations and communities to create synagogues that are sacred and vital centers of Jewish life” – was co-founder with Rabbi Larry Hoffman of Synagogue 2000, a 10-year study involving more than 100 synagogues of all denominations. Its mission, said Wolfson, was “the transformation of American synagogues.” (Hoffman is a professor of liturgy at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.)

“Synagogues have made significant changes in the way they do business,” he said of the congregations who participated in Synagogue 2000. In an effort to become more welcoming, for example, “some have transformed their lobbies, while others have thought of new ways to integrate new members.”

His new book – he has published more than 20 books, including, in 2006, “God’s To-do List: 103 Ways to Be an Angel and Do God’s Work on Earth” (which has been translated into several languages and, said Wolfson, “is the most popular book I’ve ever written”) – is based largely on the findings of Synagogue 2000 and focuses on “how synagogues can fashion a kehillah kedoshah, a sacred community, infused with the spirituality of welcoming leading to a deeper relationship with the congregation, with each member and guest, and with God.”

Wolfson said that at the Oct. 26 session, he will impart “creative ideas on deepening the connection between synagogue members and the congregation.” Pointing out that many synagogues have a “revolving-door membership – with members joining on a ‘for-service’ basis” and leaving after their children’s b’nai mitzvah – he said that “if we fail to connect the adults in some meaningful relationship with the community in the years they are members, then we are doing something wrong.”

The program will include three workshops: “Tot Shabbatot – Welcoming Families with Pre-school Kids,” led by Rabbi Paula Feldstein, UJA NNJ’s Shalom Baby coordinator who is writing a book on tot Shabbat; “Membership Integration,” by Eva Stern, assistant executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, and “Torah Study,” with Dr. Hal Jacobs, president and CEO of Torah Explorations. The event is free and breakfast will be served. Reservations are required. To register online, visit,
or call Gael Burman at (201) 820-3904, or e-mail

Curricula developed for Synagogue 2000 can be found at the Synagogue 3000 Website,

All are welcome to the Temple Emanuel discussion. For information, call (201) 391-0801 or visit

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