A few weeks ago, I indicated that the President of $mens_club at $current_congregation had given me some books he had ordered at the recent MRJ (Men of Reform Judaism) conference. I’ve been slowly working my way through them, writing up my thoughts as I finish each. While on vacation, I finished the third book in the stack: “ReThinking Synagogues: A New Vocabulary for Congregational Life” by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman. This is, in many ways, the twin of the previous book “The Spirituality of Welcoming: How to Transform Your Congregation Into a Sacred Community” by Ron Wolfson. Both are reporting on the conclusions of the Synagogue 2000, now Synagogue 3000, effort on rethinking what synagogues should be in the 21st Century. I’m trying to figure out how to apply this effort to the organization that was once called “Brotherhood”.
The basic notion that I’m operating under is that $mens_club should be a role model, just as a father is a role model to their children. If we can internalize the ideas from these books, we can work to improve the congregation. I touched upon this notion in my second post. I also probably approach this issue differently than most, bringing an engineer’s perspective to the issue — in other words, I want to figure out and solve the underlying problem, as oppose to just applying bandages to the situation. This seems to be the goal of Synagogue 3000 as well.
The basic goal of the effort was to turn congregations into what were referred to as “Limited Liability” organizations into Sacred Communities. A LL organization is one where people go to get particular services and don’t expect more. I go to a theatre to be entertained; I go to the YMCA to exercise; I go to shul to pray and get my kids a Jewish education. Essentially, it puts the congregation as a “fee for service”, and creates the question of “What do I get for my dues dollar?” That’s not an attitude that improves either the members or ensures congregational survival. The ultimate goal should be a Sacred Community — one that builds long-term person-to-person relationships that make people want to stay. Building relationships will also move people towards greater participation, and will move them to improving the sacred-ness in their lives. Now I don’t necessarily understand all the spiritual side that Hoffman talks about — because I tend to only be spiritual at camp — but I can understand building relationships. Here’s a great quote that captures this:
Synagogue is not a building, it is the set of sacred relationships that constitute the community and the equally sacred acts that flow from it.
In terms of $mens_club, the question becomes “What is the spiritual purpose of $mens_club?”. How do we make $mens_club a sacred space? Does $mens_club exist just for the purpose of raising money for the congregation, or is there some deeper purpose? How do we go beyond the traditional mens club, doing traditional “mens” activities (gambling, drinking, sports, burning meat)… or how do we make those activities sacred? My contention is that the answer is in building relationships. Every activity that $mens_club does should serve to (a) build relationships between the participating members, and (b) encouraging those on the periphery to start establishing relationships. As part of this building relationships, we also need to remember that Judaism treasures differing opinons (think of Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai). One opinion will win out, but all must be treated with respect.
So what does $mens_club want to be? I can detail what I think it should be: An organization that values every member, that strives to build personal and enriching Jewish relationships between members, and in doing so, serves as a role model to the remainder of the congregation in how to be welcoming and moving people to greater spirituality and participation. But that’s my view. I do think we should start having dialogues to see what the active membership wants. Are they happy being a traditional Brotherhood by any other name, golfing and BBQing to raise money for the congregation? Is the real emphasis the BROTHERhood, as brothers care about each other as a family. One line I particularly liked: “Cease being communities people join as consumers, buying services with dues.”
To do this, $mens_club needs to understand what it is. What practices serve to regulate behavior to address a problem that occurred in the past (I’m thinking many financial practices are likely in this category, as well as some of the election rules), and which practices are constitutional, defining what $mens_club is and what it does? Which of our traditional activities (Pancake Breakfast, Poker Night, Golf Tournament, $mens_club Shabbat, Yom HaShoah Candles, Shabbeques, Mens Only Discussions, Mens Only Seders, and monthly meetings) are traditional / non-traditional? Feeding the spirit / Feeding the coffers? For those that aren’t spiritual, how do we adapt them to build relationships?
One thing emphasized in the book was the importance of seeing people as people, not adversaries. Get people to tell their stories. Learn what has happened in their life since the last time we saw them. Also emphasized was the importance of the sacred side. Connect the activity to Judaism — bring a little Jewish thought to everything you do. Basically, the notion was to embue every activity with 5 components: Prayer, Eating, Study, Action, and Check-In (stories). The movement needs to be to a God- and Prayer- (and People-) centered community, as one that thinks in terms of “programs”.
The book also discussed the importance of finding out member’s gifts and what they are passionate about. Discovering the “gifts” allows people to give in ways other than just money (this is important for the people that don’t have a lot of money to give). People that have BBQ-ing skills can cook; those who build things can work on the infrastructure; those with IT skills can help with webpages and such. Discovering passions allows people to share them, and then to form smaller affinity groups to find others in the group with similar passions (which builds relationships). There’s no reason there can’t be subgroups within $mens_club that share love of various activities, and then share the stories of what they are doing with the larger group.
One complaint that Hoffman has is the atomic nature of congregations and groups within congregations. Basically, the issue is moving from thinking of oneselves as competitors in a business to elements of an overall community. Translating this to $mens_club terms, the question is why don’t we work horizontally with other boards and entities within $current_congregation — developing activities to build relationships, promoting those activities, etc. Why is it all little fiefdoms? Thinking larger, why aren’t we working together with the other mens clubs in the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles. There’s no reason why we can’t build relationships with men in other congregations for the overall betterment of the community — we’re not businesses trying to keep our customers to ourselves at the expense of others. I personally can’t think of a reason we shouldn’t have relationships with the nearby congregations.
The book also noted that synagogue transformation depends on how well rabbinic leaders work with the laypeople. To that end, I think we should be working with the rabbi and cantor to figure out how to do role models right.
In doing this, it is important to recognize the style of the congregation. In terms of style, the book discusses three: corporate (400-500 members at an event), program (200-350 in attendance), or pastoral (under 150 people). It also distinguishes public from private religion — private caters to the spiritual life of members; public states out public claims in worship style or action (think “the gay congregation”). There’s also the issue of leadership style: charismatic, traditional, or rational. The first has a charismatic leader; the second has more of a traditional “king”; the third operates by rational rules. Understanding where you are helps you move to where you want to be. In particular, it is important to recognize and see problems with the congregational culture, and to work against “but we’ve always done it this way”. It is also important to take risks, and not be risk adverse (hmm, sounds familiar). Far too often, congregations are scared about scaring off a single member, without realizing that you might lose one or two, but make a change that brings in a lot more. I’ve seen this in practice: $current_congregation-2 was scared about moving away from Classic Reform. They took a risk and brought in a Charismatic young rabbi that increased membership. However, it was too much of a cultural change. The Rabbi left… and the congregation, though surviving, is slowing shrinking and providing traditional services at low cost…. on life support but hanging in there. The important point is that they tried something, and (I think) learned from that failure.
Lastly, the book explored how to reach GenX, which is looking for something very different than the Baby Boomers (my generation). GenX, according to the author, likes to sample and not to commit. They distrust organizations (leading them not to join easily), and crave experiences that are authentic and not plastic. They also want to see excellence in something before they commit. Far too many synagogues are not authentic — “marble houses of plastic people”, and this turns off the GenX until they have a specific need — and then they only commit as long as it takes to meet that need. Working the group to build relationships and make things authentic is important.
This post has probably gone on too long, but I learned a lot of useful stuff from this book. As always, I welcome your comments on the subject.