Tag Archives: synagogue

What do you want to read on a synagogue sign?

 

thou shalt not.jpg

We live in a visual world, right? So why not go with that? My morning commute is peppered with the various church signs I pass on my way to work. I wonder who actually writes these pithy things.  Is there a team of writers in a back room somewhere brainstorming a year’s worth of compelling sayings to post outside on the church lawn? Do they mail a smattering of weekly messages to the church elders who get to select which ones to post on their outdoor billboard sign? Seriously, who writes these? I smile as I drive by signs like “Yes, We’re Open Between Christmas and Easter”, “Home Improvement Needed? Bring Your Family Here”, and “What’s Missing Here? Ch….Ch. UR!”.

Signs like these are old buddies, enticing you in, knowing your faults but pretty much accepting you as you are. “Haven’t been here for a while? Don’t worry, c’mon in, you’re good here.” “Having a bad day? I can relate. Stop by”. The welcoming spirit is what these churches advertise, it’s what they’re about, and they know it, and they’re just waiting for you to come around.  Take a peek at these church signs which are so engaging to read.

Not so with the synagogues I see. When I Googled (in images) ‘synagogue signs’ not a one made me chuckle. They were all quite boring, actually. Not exactly like a beckoning buddy, but an authority figure; more staid, formal, and reserved–and sometimes even indifferent: “Here’s our name. Isn’t that enough?”. “Here’s a list of services and times.”

Am I wrong? Sometimes you can’t even tell it’s a synagogue that you’re passing by  –fear of ensuing graffiti? Attacks? Perhaps. On the whole, synagogue signs don’t accuse you for not believing, cajole you to enter the sacred space, or even seem to welcome you in. Lack of judgement can often substitute for apathy. Okay I’ll admit, there might be some signs that say “Welcome”, fine. But sometimes being so mild-mannered can be construed as disinterest. We all know that person who doesn’t want to ‘intrude’ in our lives by asking us questions, but to us, it just feels as if the person can’t be bothered.

What I do see sometimes are program announcements on billboards: “Rockin’ Shabbat”, “Shabbat Under the Stars” and once I even saw an audacious sign that proclaimed:  “A Synagogue You Can Believe In”.  Take that one in and let its spiritually arrogant message sink in. It’s revealing that the sign is about the building. Really? I’m going to join because of that? What exactly are synagogues of today offering? The most common thing I see on signs is the word “Free”. If a consumer message is what is displayed, what else would someone think about?

Why should the synagogue downplay its message? Are we that insecure about our spiritual lives? Perhaps we’re not as clear as we think about who we are and what we communicate to the outside world. So, what would you want to read on a synagogue sign?

 


What I Learned About Leadership From An Evangelical Minister

lessons-learned

Here’s what I learned about engaging lay people from an Evangelical minister during a holiday dinner party: a faith community’s goals should be reflected in its paths toward leadership.

Last week I sat diagonally across an intense yet energetic, full-of-spirit kind of guy who gives greatly of his time in his church, and who has subsequently become a minister. In that role, he leads study groups and connects closely with church members, taking on their stories and their pain, and in the process, connects them to their faith on a very personal level. The group studies scripture, but the group isn’t just about studying. Teachings are put into practice right then and there.

One of the members of the group said an elderly woman in the parish didn’t have enough money to pay her heating bill. In very short time, group members found the funds for her, paying her electric bill for the winter. I asked if anyone informed the priest, to see if there was a pathway for things like this to ‘bubble up’ to that level. “No,” he quickly responded, “there was no need, this was within our ability to do, and we took care of it quietly”. I didn’t need to ask for elaboration, what he didn’t say filled a huge space. This was true leadership by lay leaders, taking on responsibility to do what needed to get done. No fanfare. No bureaucratic red tape. They knew it was in the mission of their work to care for other members.

He finds immense spiritual nourishment from this work and engages in it while working full-time, attending to his marriage and his two teenage daughters. It’s what he does, what he feels called to do, and it kind of makes you wonder about your own free time.

It took no time at all for us to find common ground about topics that in other circumstances would cause a lot of eye-rolling and polite excuses by others who would choose to converse about much juicier topics. But, we were at a holiday gathering, and the spirit of the season was seated at the table. We soaked up our differing ideas about faith, belief, the bible, and the role of organized religion in people’s lives. I learned a lot from him, and he from me.

Among the things we talked about was the structure of his church, and how lay people who are so moved religiously, are gently led on a path to leadership. The priest encourages them to receive training–doing so incrementally and slowly, and then, when ready, they provide ministry to others within the church. This is accomplished within a small group model, one person ministering to several small groups, even though the church might have thousands of members.  It keeps things small, intimate, and full of personal meaning.

Certain positions within the church lead to ordination by an Archbishop, like that of Deacon, who after years of study and involvement attains a level respected highly by other church members. I thought about what this means, especially when comparing that to the many synagogue lay leader positions that seem mired in fiscal management, operations and building maintenance, and fundraising.

I know that the entire structure of synagogue life is different, but what can I learn from this? How could my experience of synagogue life be so radically different from the picture of spiritual meaning that I heard? It seems like a commitment to living a Jewish life is not generally a requirement for attaining synagogue leadership roles.  What if there was a pathway of leadership that involved religious and spiritual growth?  Can you imagine that? What if there was a requirement for leaders to be personally committed to advancing their spiritual and religious practice? How inspirational would that be, to see people in leadership roles involved in holy soul-work?

If the synagogue’s goal is to build a faith community, how are we working towards that? We know that there are Jewish spaces that have transformed themselves, and it would be interesting to know if their leadership pathways are reflective of that change. What strategies might we employ to incorporate this kind of thinking?

For example, The Union for Reform Judaism developed a strategy for small group work that might operate on the method mentioned above, though I’m unaware of any evaluative material about the outcomes of that enterprise. There might be other innovative approaches to this as well.

We need to learn together, pulling from as many different sources as we can, to reinvigorate the purpose of creating community.

 


From Jewish Camp to Home: Five Easy Things to Do

camp

 

How can your Jewish community maximize campers’ experiences when they arrive home?

Summer camp is exhilarating for our Jewish teens. For most, living Judaism 24/7 and not as an ‘add-on’ activity that so often happens on the home front is a powerful experience.  The ways in which it’s different are probably obvious but some still deserve mentioning:

  • Weeks at camp have the rhythm of Shabbat
  • They’re socializing in a “Jewish bubble” surrounded by staff and friends who are all Jewish and who are making a commitment to be together for several weeks
  • They’re being challenged in unique ways that stimulate thinking and growth
  • Many or most of their activities are highly interactive and engaging
  • The adults they interact with are supporting and non-threatening
  • Camp is a socially safe (usually) environment where problems and issues are sorted out in real-time, when they occur.

So, how can we bridge these experiences to foster a deeper connection with Judaism when they arrive back home? 

How can we assist our Jewish teens,  who have just spent the summer being energized about a Judaism that is alive, pulsing, vibrant, and changeable, return home?

Here are some suggestions for using the talents our teens have gained over the summer:

#1.  Mentor a group to begin a ‘camp style’ group at the synagogue, or community center. Members may have been to camp, or just be interested in this new offering.

#2.  Put one or more Jewish teens on your committees to infuse it with some new ideas and approaches that they’ve learned at camp.

#3.  Help the teens develop goals to incorporate one new and different thing from camp into experiential programming for your youth.

#4.  Feature these Jewish summer camp experts as part of a panel that explores the ways in which your community can learn and be enriched by their experience.

#5.  Get these teens in front of younger kids to share their experiences and foster motivation for a Jewish summer camp experience.

(optional #6: tell me  how it goes!)

 

Photo credit: Wikipedia


One New Way To Join A Jewish Community

Judaism = Community

Judaism = Community

This season, when so many emotions surge through us, it is comforting to be within a community. That’s part of the grand design, for Jews to be together to usher in the New Year. We collectively hear the shofar’s urgency of now and decide that this year, things will be different….we’ll be different. But one thing is stubbornly the same and I need to write about it.

For those who were not part of a synagogue community last year, has their situation changed? I’ve spoken with many people who don’t connect to the formalized Jewish community and miss the experience of belonging. They were once members, somewhere.

Yet they haven’t received any personal communication to return to the synagogue. Not a letter, not a phone call. I wonder what their experience is of Klal Yisrael and what our obligation is to them? (For the most part, these issues don’t arise for those who identify as Orthodox, as their entire experience of community is different).

Their feelings of being separate must hurt and are in total opposition to the goal of feeling close to G-d and community. The pain they share with me is palpable, but often buried.

Most synagogues don’t have the volunteer power to do outreach. Yet for years, as a communal educator, I have listened to stories of exclusion peppered with harsh memories and I feel helpless. The problem is so overwhelming.

Programs like ‘public space’ Judaism, online workshops, concierge services or outreach spiritual leaders are part of innovative responses to this growing problem of disconnected Jews.  But for those who are searching specifically for a re-connection to their synagogue, personal outreach is required. We need to initiate teshuvah  by encouraging them to return.

Sometimes the reasons for leaving a community have to do with finances so we need to change the dues structure paradigm by thinking beyond the synagogue. Ultimately, it might cost more to exclude those we are not reaching. If we want individuals to belong to a community, then we need to offer wider access to that community. Right now, our definition of belonging is defined exclusively by which congregation someone belongs to.

For example, my experience is that even if a synagogue event is open to the public, people from neighboring synagogues don’t attend. I’ve witnessed this phenomena multiple times, though I don’t understand the behavior at all. So, how can we make others feel welcome in any synagogue in a given community….without feeling that they don’t belong? Because every Jew in a Jewish community belongs.

A community could establish a communal membership fee, whatever amount works for them, on whatever scale, which would be a way to say ‘you belong’. A person would then be a member of all synagogues in the area. This manageable fee could be an option for people who are new to an area and want to ‘synagogue shop’ for a year or two. Or it could be for those who would like access to a wider range of social programming.since prayer may not be the way they connect to the Jewish community. The fee would also work for those who are already a member of one synagogue but elect to additionally support the Jewish community in this way. There also might be levels of giving to reflect these different needs.

Just imagine, everyone could feel part of the community, with no artificial borders and boundaries.

If some of these discussions occur, then next year, when it comes time for us to think about Teshuvah, we might just agree that the return to an old paradigm is worth a change.

Related posts: 

When You Say Jewish Community, Who Are You Talking About? 

Patchwork Fixes Don’t Work for The Jewish Community


Why Jewish Organizations Need To Be More Like The Food Industry

Fresh and Appetizing!

Fresh and Appetizing!

Fortune magazine recently published The Food Issue and I was struck by how the CEO’s of major food corporations are facing head-on the huge loss of market share and consumers. I mean large corporations: Campbell’s Soup, ConAgra, and Hersheys just to name a few. A top analyst in the business stated that the top 25 companies have lost about $18 billion in market share just in the past few years: “I would think of them like melting icebergs, every year they become a little less relevant.” 

Since I’ve been on the front lines, witnessing the many ways in which Jewish education is trying to transform itself, the iceberg analogy above sounded all too familiar to me. The issues we may think are isolated are not endemic to Judaism. It seems that much larger organizations need to restructure, regroup, and refocus. So I read on, wondering how the leaders of these corporations were tackling these difficult issues, and if there was anything Jewish organizations could learn from their approach.

One thing was clear, no corporation was pretending that the loss of market share was a fading or fleeting trend.

There seemed to be very little ego involved in these corporate leaders’ decisions to rework things in order to gain footing. There was also recognition and some frustration that it would take time for an upswing to occur.

So, I took in what they said, and found commonalities in the list below:

  • People want simplicity and the companies are striving to deliver: by collaborating with other food purveyors, buying smaller, successful companies, or developing entirely new product lines to meet the demand. There is an honest appraisal of the company’s strengths and weaknesses, resulting in adaptations that are essential for survival.
  • The consumer’s desire for fresh means that the recycling of old products, i.e. “new and improved” just doesn’t cut it anymore. Customers are discerning and pressed for time. There has to be a new, relevant, approach that appeals to the consumers’ needs for what they want, when they want it. Brand loyalty is not generally a factor.
  • The customer wants authenticity and integrity above all. Slick packaging or as one CEO says “the barn on the package” (referring to the false advertising of wholesome nutrients) doesn’t fool the customer into thinking that the product is all natural. There has to be substance beneath the product.
  • Large organizations, with lots of structural barriers, are at a deficit when they aren’t able to move fast enough to meet the demands of the marketplace.

Many Jewish organizations are in the midst of enacting some of the changes, but many are stubbornly hoping the tide will turn back in their favor. Time in this case, is a luxury that the Jewish community just can’t afford any longer.

Related Posts:

Judaism As A Polysystem.

Praying for Pluralism


Hiring Jewish teen aides? Five things you should know

I promise, keep reading, and you’ll get to my five suggestions. But first, some advice…..for a student named Rachel.

Here are some things about Rachel that you should know:

She absolutely loves working with kids, and has done so for the past several summers at a Jewish camp. The kids love her, parents rave about her as well, plus she has a lot of patience. In addition, everyone says that ‘she’s a natural’. And naturally, she’s thinking of majoring in elementary education. If she went to college, in four years, she would earn a teaching degree, and may even decide to go for an advanced degree. College costs are a real concern for her family, though her parents assure her that with loans, they will be able to handle the tuition payments at a state school. Just last week she was offered  a job as a classroom aide at an after-school program. For her, it would mean a real job and money. Now. She could save some money by living at home, at least for a year, and she could also save for college to show her parents that she is willing to help. Besides, she wouldn’t get to work in a real classroom until her junior or senior year in college and the after-school program really thinks that Rachel will be an excellent role model for the younger students, and taking the job would mean that she could make an impact on those children—-now.

What should Rachel do—work as an aide now or continue her education?

You probably are wondering why I’m asking the question, but please continue reading because you know I have to ask: what is your advice for Rachel?

Right about now, you might be thinking that this is a no-brainer. Would anyone recommend that she forego her own education in favor of the immediate: earning some money even though she’d be using her talents and skills? We know that society places a real premium on an education.

So, let’s take a leap and say that Rachel celebrated a Bat Mitzvah, and is being offered a job at her synagogue’s Hebrew School. What could be wrong with that?

In many synagogues around the country, on a weekly basis, students get paid to work in Hebrew schools at the very age when they should be furthering their own education. Sure, their choice is not necessarily to go off to college to earn a Jewish studies degree, but why is their own education sacrificed in order to hire them as classroom aides? I’m specifically talking about the many students I hear about each year who say that they can’t go further in their Jewish education because they’re working as an aide at a Hebrew school and would be too busy.

Here’s FIVE reasons why synagogues should supplement teen aide programs with an educational component:

#1. Why shortchange a Jewish teens’ education at this important time in their lives when they’re ready to intellectually grapple with Jewish ideas?

#2. Hiring teens creates ‘instant role models’ at your synagogue, but you’re also saying that really, continuing Jewish education isn’t nearly as good as getting a paycheck.

#3. Hiring teens makes the statement that there isn’t much to a professional Jewish educator, after all, someone who has just completed a bar/bat mitzvah is perfectly suited to help out in the classroom.

#4. Students working in these classroom rarely receive the additional support or training to deal with the many issues that come up or the questions they have.

#5. Instead of learning to change paradigms, and thinking creatively about Hebrew school options, students often cycle through the very ineffective system that they experienced.

A recent study regarding the placement and retention of close to 3,000 public school teachers found that when they were student teachers, they should have been considered students, and not teachers in order to get the support they needed. How much more so would this hold true for our Jewish teens placed in classrooms? 

Still, it is really wonderful to have the teens around, as a presence in the school. Additionally, it’s a built-in retention tool for engaging members past the usual drop-off Bar/Bat mitzvah age.

So, what is a Hebrew school to do?

Well, for starters, tell the aides that in order to work in your school they must be enrolled in further Jewish education (online, adult study, Hebrew high school—- something). An additional option is to offer teens a training program, to receive the much needed support I mentioned above.

Unless we do that, I believe we are failing our youth with this practice.


Surprisingly Simple Strategies: How a Presbyterian Church Reaches its’ Teens

All Teens Welcome

All Teens Welcome

What might other faith communities teach us, as Jewish educators, about engaging large numbers of teens in religious activities?

We clearly have what to learn, as more and more teens are opting out of Jewish learning past the age of 13, just as they’re beginning their adolescent journeys.

Recently, The Jewish Education Project hosted a webinar called “Interfaith Teen Engagement Exchange” with a team from the Christ Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis.  The purpose was for us to hear how they successfully reach teens in a new engagement model.

Briefly, I’ll distill for you what I believe worked for them.

Some of the strategies will not give you an ‘aha’ moment, and even if they did, some would require a more long-term approach, as in building a culture of volunteerism with active lay leaders.

I’ve simplified things a bit by including several related things in one category. Where that was not possible, you can see additional notes at the end. So, here is my take on the three top strategies that help create their successes:

#1. Empower and train volunteers.

There was an entire system of engagement based on the tireless efforts of unpaid individuals. An army of volunteer coaches, mentors, house group leaders, and peer leaders are part of this model. The volunteers are on board with how important it is to give their teenagers a moral grounding both for socialization in high school and to ensure a connection with their faith later on.  All peer facilitators are trained before becoming a leader, and receive support from a coach or mentor throughout.

#2. Make the program goals ‘stick’.

Create a system of credentialing for leaders. The teen peer leaders have to apply for the position, then are interviewed, trained, and supported in their roles. They can, after a period of time and with further training, move on to other roles. Although the program seems informal at first, with a closer look there is a hierarchical structure that supports the structure and gives teens goals to achieve more responsibility (and status). There are requirements of time and attendance that are clear to volunteers and participants alike. In addition, peer leaders make a multi-year commitment to the program.

#3. Relationship-building is part of the program, not a by-product. Move from small to larger groups. 

The weekly program begins with teens participating in small groups (7-10) where they get to know their peers in safe settings. In those groups, they learn a piece of text that their peer leaders have already experienced in their own training sessions. The discussions are informal, but have a purpose: to relate the text to real life experiences. After the small group discussions, everyone moves to a larger session (100 or more teens). The focus is on fun, interactive, and dynamic experiences: a game, simulation, workshop, or contest.

Additional Techniques:

Branding: the levels of responsibility were given catchy names and logos

Getting out of bounds: An important part of the program was to create relationships within small communities. These meetings were held in people’s homes, with House Group Leaders in charge of the program. People willingly open their homes on a weekly basis to host these programs.

Frequency is key: The programs themselves were not that long (1 hour, 15 minutes from small to large group), but are held weekly. Again, relationships deepen when experiences are shared regularly.

Have you found these strategies to work in your settings?

What would aid in the implementation of such a model?

I’d love to read your feedback! Please share below.

Photo courtesy of wikimedia.org