Rabbi Hayim Herring will bring a straightforward message to the synagogue leaders of Jewish Pittsburgh this weekend: adapt or die.
He’ll say it more gently than that, but the message will be just the same.
Herring, the executive director of STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal), and included on Newsweek Magazine’s list of the 50 most influential rabbis in America for the last three years, is the featured speaker of the Ruth and Bernard Levaur Contmeporary Lecture at 8 p.m., Sunday, at Rodef Shalom Congregation. The title of his lecture: “Will Congregations Thrive or Wither? An unequivocal ‘Yes!’”
“What I want them to understand in a positive vein is how synagogues can survive in what in some ways is an unprecedented environment,” Herring told The Chronicle. “The ‘unequivocal’ [in the title] depends on what actions the synagogue takes to perpetuate itself.”
He even spelled out those actions.
He said congregations are reeling from a perfect storm of a steep recession, Bernard Madoff and overbuilding, the last problem leaving Jewish communities with infrastructures they can no longer support.
There’s another problem, as well: Jews have options other than the synagogue these days.
With so many challenges facing them, one thing synagogues can ill afford to do is fight amongst themselves.
“One of the most critical things that Jewish communities are going to have to do quickly is move from competition to collaboration,” Herring said. “Instead of competing for the same small number of affiliated Jews, they have to reach out to the majority of Jews who don’t participate in Jewish life.”
If that doesn’t happen, he warned, “if we don’t get our act together and work collaboratively, then we will hasten our own institutional demise.”
Herring has first-hand experience with the challenges Jewish communities face. Ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1984, he spent 10 years as a pulpit rabbi in Minneapolis, before going to work for the Minneapolis Jewish Federation for seven years. He joined STAR in 2002.
Established in 1999 by three heavyweights of Jewish philanthropy — Edgar M. Bronfman, Michael Steinhardt, and the late Charles Schusterman — STAR’s mission is to renew Jewish life through congregational innovation and leadership development.
One of the most effective tools STAR provides congregations is called Synaplex, a framework in which rabbis and leaders build community on Shabbat “by allowing people to enter the synagogue on their terms, at their times. Every synagogue takes that framework and adapts it to their unique culture.”
That could be anything from a “preneg” (a play on the word “oneg”) at 5:30 p.m. for parents picking their kids up from day care or an empty nesters dinner for congregants who feel synagogue life has forgotten them.
“We never tell congregations what to offer. They think of this on their own, whether it’s study or prayer or just socializing around an issue,” Herring said. “The idea is to look inside your community at the talent you have, then outside your community as well.
“Synaplex is a framework that congregations can adapt to who they are.”
So far, he said, the response in the 130 participating synagogues is “just remarkable.” He said many congregations have doubled, tripled even quadrupled their participation rates.
“It shows there is a hunger out there,” Herring said.
One Pittsburgh congregation, Beth El, is part of Synaplex.
Even with such success, the question for STAR is, can they work fast enough and well enough to revive synagogue life in America?
Even Herring feels a little anxiety about that question.
“Sometimes, it feels like there’s not enough of a sense of urgency, and I would like to feel that more,” he said. “I think maybe the economy has helped to create that — not the best way to bring that about — but I think more rabbis see if they don’t do things differently, then the role of the congregation and its long-term viability is questionable.
“I’m optimistic about Judaism thriving,” he added, “but it’s still an open question as to what institutions are going to survive, what they are going to look like and what else will come about to challenge them.”
One of those challengers likely will be Chabad, which sometimes has rocky relations with synagogues near where it opens its houses.
Yet Herring tipped his hat to Chabad.
“To their credit, Chabad has created a different model and synagogues have not yet found that magic formula to sustain the work they do that Chabad has,” he said. “I think we all have a little Chabad envy in that regard.”
As for his Newsweek status, Herring takes it in stride.
“I had a mentor early on in my congregational career who said don’t believe your own press clippings,” he said. “If it helps further my work then that makes me happy, and if it gives it more gravitas, then that’s good for synagogues.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com or at 412-687-1000.)