I’ve just returned from a visit to Los Angeles with my wife where we celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. During our visit we attended two different synagogues, both of which appear to be experiencing exponential growth and vibrancy at a time when studies show that overall synagogue attendance and membership are in rapid decline. Of course, it’s not just synagogues that are in crisis these days. For example, the Christian Post reports that “Methodism in the U.S. has lost membership every year since 1964”. The Presbyterian Church reports that it lost 15% of its membership between 2012 and 2014. Moreover, it’s not just religious institutions which are suffering membership losses. In his book Bowling Alone, author Robert D. Putnam examines the severe membership declines in a wide array of organizations such as political groups, civic organizations, fraternal lodges, religious groups, and service clubs. He describes this decline as a destruction of the social fabric of our society. I agree with him and I’ve been trying figure out what is driving this decline and how it can be reversed. This is issue is so important to me that I actually take notes when I visit synagogues regarding the size and composition of the people attending, the nature of the service, and other characteristics that are notable to me.
I want to tell you about these two synagogues because I believe they reveal some important truths about the changes in our world. The two synagogues I visited at first appear to be very different. The first, Beit T’Shuvah, is a synagogue led by an ex-con turned Rabbi, Mark Borovitz, and grew out of an addiction treatment center that is attached to the synagogue. It’s very focused on addiction recovery and, while the crowd is predominantly under the age of 40, there are plenty of people of all ages. The second synagogue is iKar, and it is led by a dynamic Rabbi, Sharon Brous. iKar does not own a building, but attracts hundreds of people of all ages to its services. Neither of these two synagogues are old legacy institutions. iKar was started in 2004, and Beit T’Shuvah about 25 years ago. The weekly attendance at both these institutions is in the hundreds and for holidays grows beyond a thousand.
One of the factors that I see in common between these two institutions that I believe is allowing them to thrive when their cohorts are withering and dying is that they are collaborative in nature. These are not authoritarian institutions run in a top-down model by the clergy and board of directors who insist upon complete and total control. Instead, the synagogues seem to exist for the purpose of providing a space or mechanism through which the members can create their own Jewish experiences. The clergy are facilitators of the experience rather than providers of the experience. This is very different from my experience where people attending services are passive participants whose participation is limited to responsive readings and where synagogue boards concern themselves with issues of whether or not congregants should be allowed to wear blue jeans to services on the basis of maintaining tradition and without consideration of what experience is being sought by the members.
The services I attended were very participatory, allowing member input and expression. This was especially true of Beit T’Shuvah, where members frequently got up to share their stories and give their reflections on readings. Musically, these two synagogues have moved far beyond the operatic cantorial solo and utilize music that is engaging and participatory. Although it has an excellent band, at Beit T’Shuvah members often get up to perform songs they’ve written or to perform with the band. At iKar, drumming combined with traditional lyrics provides a musical experience that draws in the audience to sing along, dance, and move expressively. At both synagogues when people are called up to help lead or give readings they are allowed an opportunity for self-expression rather than being limited to reading words on a page. The result of this is that the experience is not simply something that is scripted out by the Rabbi or Cantor, but is dynamic and is influenced by the people attending. The congregation is no longer a passive recipient, but is an engaged partner in creating the service experience.
A few years ago, I was at a legal technology conference where the keynote speaker was Don Tapscott, who spoke about the transition to a collaborative society and who wrote:
“Collaboration is important not just because it’s a better way to learn. The spirit of collaboration is penetrating every institution and all of our lives. So learning to collaborate is part of equipping yourself for effectiveness, problem solving, innovation, and life-long learning in an ever-changing networked economy.”
In my law practice I sought to become more collaborative and I found that it creates very happy clients. I now use software such as Mycaseinc and clio that allow me to share files with clients, exchange messages, and to better bring them into the decision-making process in their cases. Rather than being simply the problem-solver for my clients, I now see myself as in partnership with them, my role being a resource and advocate, as we seek to find a solution to their legal need or concern.
We live in a new era, where old models of authority and top-down structures are being rejected. Sadly, many of our social institutions have resisted the change to a more collaborative world, and they’ve been steadily paying the price as people vote “no” with their feet and head for the door. My experience with the two synagogues leads me to believe that there is a great need out there for religious and civic institutions. I believe people are craving community and connection, but I don’t think most will find it in places of arbitrary authority where they are expected to passively consume the experience. The question is, can the old institutions adapt to this change? Or will their demise be required so that new institutions can arise and meet the need?