‘The synagogue is dead. Long live the synagogue.’
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‘The synagogue is dead. Long live the synagogue.’

Locally and across the country, synagogues change but rumors of death have been greatly exaggerated

Lisa Harris Glass, left, Dan Ain, Sharon Brous, and Elie Kaunfer
Lisa Harris Glass, left, Dan Ain, Sharon Brous, and Elie Kaunfer

For 10 years, Rabbi Dan Ain has tried to take Judaism out of the synagogue.

He’s convened Friday night prayers in auditoriums with musicians like Matisyahu and Lisa Loeb. He’s held Rosh Hashanah services in a bowling alley/concert venue. He scheduled an interview earlier this month at an artisanal coffee shop in Brooklyn and showed up in a T-shirt and backward baseball cap, his long hair spilling out of the sides above his long salt-and-pepper beard.

Rabbi Ain was ordained, he said, because he felt like the synagogue model was old and tired. Just this month, he compared the typical American Saturday morning prayer service to “a Civil War reenactment.

“They’re dressed in the right clothing, they’re saying the same words that were said in 1863 in exactly the right ways,” he said. “But there’s no stakes involved, there’s no danger in their hearts. And for a lot of people services can feel like that.”

Which is why it may be surprising that this week, Dan Ain will become the pulpit rabbi of a Conservative synagogue in San Francisco that was founded nearly a century ago.

To Rabbi Ain, it’s not a contradiction. He is proud of the independent Jewish programs he built in Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan. But as he’s had kids and watched the world change since 2016, he says that he recognizes the need for stability, a reliable community, and, yes, physical permanence.

An organization that holds Shabbat services with the lead singer of Guster may create a moving musical experience. But Rabbi Ain knows that you can’t count on it if you have to say Kaddish.

“I was always in the back of my mind desiring of a community in which I could have a shiva minyan for people,” he said. “The ability to do stuff over a long period of time is something I haven’t had the opportunity to do because everything I’ve been doing goes up and comes down.”

Rabbi Ain is one of several pioneers of independent Jewish communities who have, in one way or another, inched back in the synagogue model they once rejected.

The informal model he represents began about 15 years ago, when some Jewish groups that thought the synagogue was not responding to their spiritual and ritual needs began forming. The groups each were different, but they shared a few themes: They did not have a permanent physical space; they did not affiliate with a Jewish denomination; and they did not charge annual membership dues. While some were founded by rabbis, others were proudly lay led. Many, though not all, were created by alumni of Conservative institutions.

Some, like Rabbi Ain’s Brooklyn organization, Because Jewish, which was founded in 2015, were successful.

Among the most well-known of them, Manhattan’s Kehilat Hadar, one of the first independent minyanim, is in its 18th year, and its founders are among the thought leaders of a wave of traditionally committed egalitarian Jews. Ikar, a Los Angeles community, is 14 years old. Its rabbi, Sharon Brous, gave an invocation at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.

But those once-scrappy initiatives are adopting traditional trappings. Ikar has a building, like other large Jewish houses of worship. Hadar just instituted membership and a board. Rabbi Ain has left his organization for a pulpit. The leaders of these communities say the move toward institutionalism isn’t a betrayal of their founding principles, just a necessary response to what their organizations or they themselves need.

In other words, the synagogue is dead. Long live the synagogue.

“When we started, it was a scrappy startup, and I can no longer describe it that way,” Rabbi Brous, who was ordained at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, said of Ikar. “People ask me, with a building, aren’t you going to be a regular synagogue? And I’m not worried about it at all.

“We’re really a question-driven and idea-driven community. The building is just driving us to ask these questions with greater urgency.”

When Ikar was founded in 2004, it held events and services in cafes, bars, and private homes; it focused on drawing in unaffiliated Jews. Ikar remains unaffiliated but is now constructing its own building. Rabbi Brous is also leading the community’s second annual mission to Israel — a staple of traditional synagogues. Ikar employs a large staff for its services, programs, and preschool.

It also has joined with six other independent communities (including one Renewal Judaism congregation) to form the Jewish Emergent Network. The network — which includes Romemu and Lab Shul in Manhattan, and congregations from Seattle to Chicago to Washington, D.C. — is not a traditional movement like Conservative, Reform, or Orthodox Judaism, Brous says. Its member congregations differ in ideology, but collaborate on fundraising and resources. And Ikar in particular, she says, is still defined by the ideas and priorities that animate it, not by where it meets.

“What we learned early on is that a lot of the successes and best practices of how to engage people in Jewish life were inaccessible or missing,” Rabbi Brous said. “People are even more desperate to find a way for their Jewish tradition and faith community to help them make sense of what it means to be an American, to be a Jew.”

One of the founders of Hadar, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, says that it makes sense that older independent communities look for permanence as they expand. In many cases, he says, young prayer groups don’t have a building not for ideological reasons, but simply because they cannot afford one.

“Having a building is about the benefits of having a space you control, which does track onto organizational maturity and the next stage of growth,” Rabbi Kaunfer, who wrote the book “Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities,” said. “Having a building or a permanent space is not an ideological step. It’s a practical step.”

Earlier this year, Hadar created a formal nonprofit board and membership structure based on either annual dues or a certain amount of volunteering. It has been meeting weekly in the same space, the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan on West 100th Street, since 2011. Although most of the people who came to services and helped run it were recent college graduates, now Hadar is creating more structured children’s programming. That includes paid babysitting every week, a regular children’s service, and early dinner for kids when the community meets on Friday nights.

But the new board president, Emily Scharfman, notes that the group still does not have clergy or paid staff of any kind.

“Kehilat Hadar is deeply interested in feeling like a permanent davening community,” she said, using a Yiddish word for prayer. “I think that’s fundamentally and deeply important to all of us here. I don’t think wanting some kind of permanency and routine is the same as the old-fashioned synagogue model.”

Back in northern New Jersey, where there have not been many examples of the kind of synagogue-less minyanim that Rabbi Ain, Rabbi Brous, and their peers have created, but where many people have ventured across the George Washington Bridge to sample Hadar, Romemu, and LabShuls, Lisa Harris Glass, the Federation of Northern New Jersey’s chief planning officer, listened to the story with complete aplomb.

“I wasn’t at all surprised,” she said. “I would go so far as to tell you that I expected it.”

Why? “Because I don’t think that the synagogue model is broken. I think that we fail to work the model.”

What does she mean?

First, she said, when we look at the state of synagogues today and analyze it, “we should insert the Chabad factor as well.” Chabad often does very well; their synagogues, built on a very different model than the standard suburban one, flourish in the suburbs. To do so, they attract some formerly unaffiliated Jews, but they also appeal to Jews who had been paying dues elsewhere.

“We often hear that ‘Chabad is poaching our members,’” Ms. Glass said. “That they’re taking ‘our people.’ My response to that is that people have free will, and if they are choosing to go elsewhere, they really weren’t yours to begin with.

“So how do these things” — the rise of alternative minyanim and their growth into space-seeking organizations, and Chabad’s growth in the suburbs — “correlate? It speaks to working the model.

“What is attractive about these alternative minyanim and the Chabad houses of worship? I think that there is an authenticity in mission and action. That what you feel in these types of institutions is what many people don’t feel in traditional synagogues.

“I say many, not all, because you can point to many examples of thriving traditional synagogues,” Ms. Glass said. Choosing to mention nearby institutions that still are outside the federation’s catchment area, she cited Manhattan’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun and Park Avenue Synagogue, Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, and the Orangetown Jewish Center in Orangeburg, N.Y.

The problem, she suggested, is “because, I think, there are many instances where we have professionalized and sanitized the synagogue experience — and it should be anything but. So when we start with rules and regulations, when we start with money, which is how most start their relationships, it doesn’t go well.” A relationship that starts by telling you how much money you will owe, and only after that’s out of the way goes on to discuss “you, and your Jewish journey, and what place God has in your life,” is not likely to succeed, she said.

“When you are single and you meet a prospective partner, you do not say ‘Hi! Will you marry me?’ You expect that you will get to know that person, you will come to care about one another, first. Most synagogues do it the other way around.

“It’s ‘Hi! Will you member me? Will you give me money so we can enter into a relationship where I hope we will get to know each other and care about each other and live in sacred community with each other?”

The conclusion she draws, Ms. Glass said, is that “the model isn’t broken. We know that there are places where it is thriving. There just aren’t enough of those places.”

There is some irony in alternative minyanim needing more traditional space, because in a way it is so predictable, she added. There are many stories of so-called library minyamin, alternative minyans that meet in shul libraries, at the same time that the main service goes on in the sanctuary. “The story is that the minyanim grow and grow and grow. There is singing. It is very freilich.

“What happens is that people start to get older. They have kids. Now they want to have a bar or bat mitzvah, but the space is too small. So now the library minyan wants to take over the sanctuary. They want — maybe they need — the accoutrements of a more traditional space, which involves, you know, a mortgage. And then the whole financial picture changes, because then your need does.

“So hopefully they don’t lose that which makes them less traditional, even though they really do have to have a more traditional dues conversation.

“We don’t know yet, one way or the other, how they will work out,” Ms. Glass concluded. “But I was not surprised at all to hear about these changes.”

An example of how institutional concerns can lead to a successful prayer group shutting down comes from Makom, an offshoot of a Dallas Conservative synagogue, Congregation Shearith Israel. Makom once counted 1,500 participants — a large number for an indie minyan in a midsize Jewish community like Dallas. Makom was active from 2012 to 2015, and met for services in a loft space wallpapered with whiteboards that attendees were free to draw on before the davening began.

Differences with the synagogue led to Makom’s folding, and its founders, Danielle Rugoff and her husband, Rabbi David Singer, moved to San Diego, where he is a Hillel rabbi. But Ms. Rugoff says they are exploring a return to Dallas, where they could re-create Makom as a fully independent organization.

“There’s nothing out there for Conservative Jews that was relevant and compelling, that also was a space where Jews by choice, Reform Jews, interfaith couples, where people could come in and be able to really witness and feel a Judaism that was closer to something that they would practice,” she said. “Talking about big ideas and the value of life and everything else Judaism can offer is something people want.”

For Rabbi Ain, the choice to move from a bowling alley to a bimah is partly practical — fundraising was tough in Brooklyn — but it’s also ideological. He believes that by attracting a group of like-minded young people, he was missing out on the sometimes difficult but also intricate mosaic of a typical synagogue community. People may not agree on everything and they’ll come from different generations, he says, but they will be there both for bar/bat mitzvahs and funerals. Today’s political polarization has only reinforced that notion for him.

“There’s a trend to silo ourselves,” he said. “I think there is a real reluctance for people to enter into synagogue life because of all of the meshugas that comes with community, all of the real intermingling of people and different personalities. But the fragmentation leaves people isolated and lonely.”

Rabbi Ain sounds like Rabbi Brous as he says being in a permanent and more traditional space will not necessarily have to mean letting go of experimental musical experiences, or even sometimes meeting at a cafe in a T-shirt. Rabbi Kaunfer also says that as some prayer groups have become more like synagogues, synagogues have adopted practices and melodies pioneered by the prayer groups.

Others still dislike the idea of permanence. If the second iteration of Makom does end up happening, Ms. Rugoff says, it will still appeal to people who are still looking for something other than what their parents’ synagogue has to offer.

“I don’t think Makom would ever become a brick-and-mortar synagogue,” she said. “I think we’re talking about people where the idea of membership doesn’t make sense to them. I built a community I wanted to raise my family in, and no matter where I go, I’ll be looking for that.”

JTA Wire Service/Jewish Standard

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