Where Fools Rush In: Spiritual Leadership for a Changing Jewish Community

Note: In January 2014 I was invited to deliver the keynote address at the Ohala national convention, the association of Jewish Renewal Rabbis that was held in Boulder, CO. It was significant because my charge from the leadership of the organization was to speak about Jewish Renewal in light of the fact that the charismatic founder of Renewal, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, was approaching 90 and the movement clearly had think about leadership succession. It was a tall order, made even more challenging because Reb Zalman was not only in attendance at the conference, but he sat in the first row for my presentation. Reb Zalman was well aware of why I was invited to speak and he not only gave me his blessing to do the talk, but he expressed his deep appreciation for what I said after I concluded my remarks. Sadly, this would be Reb Zalman’s last conference as he passed away six months later on July 3, 2014. Rabbi Rachel Barenblatt, who blogs under the name the Velveteen Rabbi, was in attendance and did a remarkable job of capturing the essence of my talk. This excerpt comes from her website: http://velveteenrabbi.com/. 


This morning I attend a keynote address by Rabbi Sid Schwarz, whom I have known since that PANIM interdenominational rabbinic student retreat I was blessed to attend all those years ago. He’s now involved with Clal (the Center for Learning and Leadership, the parent organization of Rabbis Without Borders), and has most recently published Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future, which makes him a perfect fit for an OHALAH conference themed around He’Atid, the future of Jewish Renewal. His talk is entitled “Where Fools Rush In: Spiritual Leadership for a Changing Jewish Community.

In a recent presentation to CLI, R’ Sid offered a metaphor of broadcast and receiving — that rabbis need to be able to both broadcast and receive. He suggests to us this morning that we might understand Torah as 70 wavelengths on which we might receive truth. Most of us can only broadcast on a few wavelengths and can receive on fewer than that, and that’s something we need to work on.

He reminisces briefly about how he wasn’t able to hear Reb Zalman’s Torah back in his early rabbinic school days, and indeed regarded it as “strange fire” within the Reconstructionist rabbinical college… and because God has a sense of humor, here he is today, in full awareness of the debt he owes to Reb Zalman and to this neo-Hasidic / Jewish Renewal world. He talks about the shift which unfolded in the 20th century — thanks to R’ Mordechai Kaplan, R’ Abraham Joshua Heschel, our own Reb Zalman — between the vertical metaphor of God (God’s up there, we’re down here) and a horizontal metaphor of God (we and God are interrelating in an I/Thou fashion.)

I came to understand that what I’d seen as dichotomies in the Jewish world were in fact overlapping truths. We all need to work on our antennas so we can access one more wavelength than before so that we can acknowledge that truth has many faces, as does Torah, at least 70 faces.

He uses his work as a historian to try to help him understand not only the past but also the future. He acknowledges that we read in Talmud (Bava Batra) that from the time of the destruction of the Temple of old, prophecy exists only in the hands of children and fools. But notwithstanding that sugya, we have to try to take the risk of understanding not only the past but how we’re going to address the future.

In his newest book Jewish Megatrends he talks about the moment we’re at today in American Jewish history: a simultaneous decline of legacy Jewish institutions (synagogues, Federations, JCCs, membership organizations — the “organized Jewish community”) and also a golden age. If you look at the legacy Jewish institutions, the current situation looks like a decline; but if you look at the innovation sector of Jewish life, you see amazing pockets of renaissance.

He files these renaissance happenings under the headings of four pillars. The first is chochmah, wisdom. In 50 years, he suggests, the world will be amazed that religious communities ever though of themselves as independent silos, rather than interconnected. Reb Zalman was way ahead of the curve on this! We all need to understand the overlap between our wisdom traditions and every other. The second pillar is tzedek, justice. And the third and fourth pillars are kehillah (intentional spiritual communities) and kedushah (helping Jews live lives of spiritual purpose.)

He asks: what is the nature of the kehillah we need to create? And what kind of spiritual leadership is required to lead such kehillot?

The American synagogue, he tells us, has gone through three stages, and we now need to figure out how to reach the fourth. First as new immigrants we created little shteiblach, informal home-based communities. As we became better-established in this country, we moved to secondary areas of settlement, creating ethnic synagogues. There might be a modest building, maybe hiring a rabbi with a small salary. In the post-WWII period Jews acquired affluence, moved to suburbia, and in this third era we were living in areas where we were no longer the majority. The synagogues built in that third era were “synagogue centers,” which is still the dominant paradigm in congregational life today. And congregations which operate under that paradigm, he says bluntly, are failing. We need to move toward the next stage of the American synagogue.

The synagogue center is failing because it’s essentially in a consumer relationship with Jews, marketed like a commodity. Jews decide they need a certain set of goods and services (usually education for their children and of course the bar / bat mitzvah) — but that b’nei mitzvah tends to be the terminal degree in Jewish life, both in the sense that we won’t see most of those families again after b’nei mitzvah is celebrated, and because that in turn suggests the end of the Jewish future. People make decisions based on: what synagogue is convenient to me and offers a fair market price? People join synagogues when their kids are five, and when their youngest child is 14 they exit the synagogue. And during those years, nothing has changed in the life or heart of the neshama of the Jews who are members of that synagogue center.

Today, given the changing economy and the rise of the internet, the goods and services which for a long time Jews joined a synagogue to acquire can now be acquired á la carte, more cheaply, and sometimes at higher quality than via joining a shul. So the primary draw for Jews to join synagogue centers has evaporated.

Here’s the good news. Over the past 20 years, some new thinking has emerged about the nature of synagogues. (See Synagogue3K, STAR: Synagogue Transformation And Renewal, etc.) In the early years seminaries were grouchy about this new way of thinking, but today most seminaries are getting clarity around the fact that the kind of rabbis they’re training, and the synagogues for which they’re training them, will not serve the needs of the American Jewish community of the future.

Synagogues which are stuck in the synagogue center model, he says, are doomed. The best development consultants in the country can’t transform those old-model synagogue centers into what’s needed now. Change needs to come from rabbis; from inspired spiritual leaders who have a vision of what inspired spiritual community could look like. Beyond that, we need a toolkit for that transformation, because otherwise all of our energy and passion is going to lead us nowhere and we’re going to crash and burn in frustration.

Organizations naturally resist change. And in synagogues it’s even harder because resistance to change takes on a theological cast. We feel the weight of the challenge of trying to preserve a tradition which we love, as rabbis, but which (practically) nobody else gets. He quotes R’ Harold Schulweis: “Rabbis have answers to questions which Jews no longer ask.” (A rueful and knowing sigh moves around the room.)

You can broadcast [your teachings] all you want, but if you don’t tune in to the wavelength of the Jews you want to touch, your broadcast is useless.

There are, R’ Sid says, three barriers in this work. First: the nomenclature problem. Second: a turf problem. And third: a play-it-safe problem.

When he wrote Finding a Spiritual Home, he was writing about people who had a deep desire for spiritual community and hadn’t found it anywhere in the organized Jewish community. In the late 90s, it was hard to find four synagogues to profile. Today there are several dozen new-paradigm synagogues! But here’s the nomenclature problem: many of them don’t want to call themselves “synagogues,” because the word is so poisoned. Think of Ikkar in LA; The Kitchen in SF; Mishkan Chicago; Romemu in NY. These places are doing amazing work in this new paradigm model, but they often don’t call themselves synagogues.

And, people are using different words to describe the same phenomena: “the synagogue community,” “sacred community,” “the emergent synagogue,” “commanding community,” “visionary synagogues,” “kehillot.” There’s so much overlap in the work of creating these kinds of communities — but if we’re going to have a social movement, we need to agree on nomenclature! It sounds like a minor thing, but having common language can make a real difference in terms of galvanizing the people who understand that we can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing in the ways we’ve been doing it.

The second problem is the turf issue. Three years ago, within a span of 3 months, the Conservative movement came out with their strategic study of their movement and the numbers were dreadful; the Reform movement experienced a revolt in some of the largest synagogues in their movement, and those communities declared intention to bolt; and the Reconstructionist movement sponsored a program on “rethinking the rabbinate.” So R’ Sid wrote an essay called “Are Synagogues Still Relevant?” which argued that there’s idiocy in every movement trying to do the same thing, competing to see who’s going to get to the finish line first.

There’s a growing body of expertise and best practices among everyone who’s trying to solve these problems. If there were ever a time when the denominations should come together and say ‘we should work on this collaboratively,’ this would be the moment!

(That draws spontaneous applause.) But, he argues, it’s not going to happen. The denominations won’t want it to happen — and, he cautions, even we here in this transdenominational gathering are challenged by this work.

Jewish Renewal emerged as a nondenominational phenomenon. But Max Weber and Reinhold Neibuhr draw out the trajectory of all emerging religious movements — from sects to churches. Sects begin with charismatic leadership, which we here in Renewal clearly have. They have “insider language,” which we here in Renewal also have. But ultimately in order to survive, we move from the sect stage to what looks like a much more conventional denomination, and R’ Sid sees that hapening here. “I’m not saying ‘don’t do that,'” he notes. “But before we cast stones at the denominations which have been functioning for a century or more, remember that you too are on a trajectory.”

“To say that there are many ways of being Jewish is a narrow ridge to walk, but we must walk it.”

And the third problem he cites is a taking-risks problem.

We need to encourage our rabbis to be risk-takers — to dramatically rethink what synagogues can be and need to be. And we need to educate our lay leadership to be in partnership with us, the spiritual leaders — we need them to give us space to take risks and to fail! As long as we learn how to “fail forward.” Because nothing ventured, nothing gained. If we want to play it safe, we condemn ourselves to stay on the trajectory of synagogues that will continue to shrink.

With awareness of those three obstacles, he moves on to the four pillars of intentional spiritual communities. An intentional spiritual community needs to be mission-driven. Writing a mission statement and then ignoring it — that’s not enough; that’s not a living document. We need direction. If you have no destination, any path will do; but if you’re clear where you’re going, you can correct when you stray from the path.

An intentional spiritual community needs to create an empowered and self-generating culture.Kedusha (holiness), like love, can only be created with reciprocity. It’s not a one-directional relationship. To get the gift of Torah, we take upon ourselves the ohl mitzvot, a sense of obligation. “Even if you’re agnostic about the idea of Torah from Sinai, you can understand that community itself can be the commanding voice which gives shape to the desire of God.” We are all b’nei brit, children of the covenant. We are born into a sense of obligations and we need to make comnunities understand that we are obligated to a higher sense of purpose and also to each other.

The greatest gift we have in Jewish community, which remains untapped in most synagogues, is the brilliance and gifts of the people in front of us. And so often we reduce people to “dues-paying members.” We have an obsession with size and membership, which has no meaning whatsoever. We need to move to a commitment to ownership. It’s not how many people pay dues — it’s about how many people feel that they are part of a community of Jews who are committed to some sacred purpose.

He moves then to talking about framing serious Judaism. Larry Kushner has a great piece,  The Tent-Peg Business, written back in the 70s and still relevant. The way he judges success in his community is how much Jews engage in primary Jewish acts. And he defines those primary acts the way the tradition does: Torah — avodah / service / some encounter with the divine and with sacred purpose — and gemilut chasadim, acts of personal lovingkindness and acts of global and social repair.

One of the greatest errors made by non-Orthodox Judaism in the 20th and 21st century is the belief that the only way you get Jews in the tent is by offering “Jewish Lite.” The communities which are thriving are those which offer a sense of authentic Jewish encounter with Torah, avodah, and gemilut chasadim.

To be fair, the reason we went down the road of Jewish Lite was that earlier generations wanted to desperately to “be American” that they wanted to fit in, not to stick out like a sore thumb. But that’s no longer an issue with the next generation. Now the next generation is asking, “do I need Judaism?” Many of them look at religion and see narrow-mindedness, chauvinism, and fanaticism. If we want to reach that sector of Jews, we need to think of other ways of talking about what sacred community might look like.

He cites the Pew study: that 94% of Jews say they have a positive feeling about being Jewish. This is an amazing thing! People already have a positive feeling about Judaism — but the way to get them to live out that positive feeling is to give them serious Judaism, Torah and avodah and gemilut chasadim.

The fourth pillar of building intentional spiritual communities is, he says, visionary spiritual leadership. In the mid-20th century as the Jewish community was building synagogues and community centers all over America (proving that we could build shuls as large and beautiful as their churches), rabbis were trained to be CEOs of those synagogues. (And this is something about which Reb Zalman spoke as recently as yesterday at the smicha ceremony — that it’s fine for our boards to want to run synagogues as businesses, as long as they remember that synagogues are in the “business” of doing Jewish, not the business of earning dues.)

The chavurah movement arose in response to this — the yearning to create rabbi as teacher, friend, colleague instead of the “imperial rabbinate” paradigm. That was a good corrective to the CEO model, but that also doesn’t turn out to be all that’s needed. We need to own our power as rabbis with sincerity, clarity, integrity, strength. Rabbis need to listen — but we also need to be able to dip into our well of deep wisdom and to share that wisdom. We need to be able to share what people could aspire to become, and to put that out there, and then listen to their reaction. That, he says, is the recipe for success.

Our tradition, he reminds us, is not value-neutral. Judaism is in favor of certain ways of being in the world. We as teachers and rabbis need to give voice to that as strongly as we can! Jews are hungry for rabbis who can make some sense out of a world that seems to get more materialistic, more superficial, more profane and less compassionate every day. They need our vision of what sacred community can look like. Rabbis can’t be CEOs, but neither can we just be facilitators. As important as learning Tanakh and rabbinics and Hasidic texts, he suggests, is taking time to study the works being written around leadership.

We are on the cusp of enormous potential. But we need to tune up our antennas, to listen to the fact that Torah comes in at least seventy faces, and to understand that the Torah we have to offer is a Torah that Jews are hungry for.