Decentralized congregations

Decentralized congregations

Ofer Goren, a prominent Israeli mime artist, came to the region this past week. He performed for Jewish communities in Wheeling and Morgantown, W.Va., as well as Yeshiva Schools and the Ellis School in Pittsburgh.
A man who wears many hats — literally (he changes characters every time he dons a new chapeau), many of Goren’s performances touch on Jewish themes and are meant to educate as well as entertain.
Soul Train, an Israel-based program designed to bring Jewish cultural activities to small Jewish communities around the world and draw more people into the synagogues, sponsored Goren’s three-week tour of the United States.
This is hardly a new idea. Congregations in Pittsburgh and, well, everywhere have developed social and educational programming to enhance synagogue life and reverse declining synagogue attendance. In Pittsburgh alone, congregations have hosted concerts, cabaret nights, lecture series and social action projects to name just a few activities.
All of which is good. Synagogues, like the home, should be centers of Jewish life.
But the trend to social and cultural programming does pose some difficult questions, with which congregations have wrestled, and will continue to for years to come.
Namely, what comes first: worship or programming? Should one have a higher priority than the other?
The answer may seem obvious: Synagogues are houses of worship, so of course, job one is to emphasize the religious component of Jewish life.
Not so fast. What if the programming — the comedy nights, film series, etc. — draws more warm bodies into the buildings than the services, including unaffiliated Jews who might finally be ready to affiliate?
Subsequently, what if our congregations become a collection of subcommunities under one roof? What if these minyan communities, school communities, social action and cultural activities communities pass each other in the hallways, but otherwise never meet?
In many congregations, such situations already exist.
As we reported earlier this year in “The Future of …” series, congregations need to reinvent themselves to appeal broadly to a 21st-century Jewish community. Decentralized congregations may be one solution, especially if the idea connects Jews who otherwise wouldn’t connect at all.
But whatever the solution the congregations embrace, we must think differently about synagogues. Strictly speaking, maybe they’re no longer houses of worship. In fact, maybe labeling them as such is a turnoff to many young Jews who only now are starting to explore their Jewishness.
We want synagogue life to survive — and thrive — in the United States, but it can’t be traditional synagogue life; too many young Jews have voted with their feet on that model. Synagogue life in the 21st century must be about all aspects of Jewish life, not just the religious aspect.