Shuls must remain relevant, says rabbi

Rabbi Aaron Levy [J.M. MacLeod]

TORONTO — Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman of Hebrew Union College believes synagogues that don’t change will become irrelevant.

Unfortunately for a packed crowd at Holy Blossom Temple on April 11, a snowstorm kept Rabbi Hoffman in New York for the second in a series of two lectures on “The End of the Shul as We Know It?” co-sponsored by Holy Blossom, Beth Tzedec Congregation, and the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.

But with such an urgent question on the agenda, Rabbi Hoffman’s keynote lecture was delivered eloquently by U of T’s Prof. Jeffrey Kopstein.

“Non-Orthodox synagogues have never been very religious,” wrote Rabbi Hoffman. Instead, they focus on gains that “[do] not require them to wrestle with God.”

This must change, believes Rabbi Hoffman, the author of dozens of books and co-president of Synagogue 3000, an organization re-envisioning synagogues as “sacred and vital centres of Jewish life.”

Will religion here in Canada go the way of Europe, where “tourists [view] religion under glass,” Rabbi Hoffman asked, or of the United States, where it’s alive and well?

Religious institutions compete just like businesses do, he contends. In the United States, religions have operated in a “free market,” while in Europe, established churches have enjoyed state aid.

“As goes the church, so goes the synagogue.” In England, the position of chief rabbi has traditionally privileged Orthodoxy, while other denominations struggle for market share.

“The future for non-Orthodox synagogues in Europe is bleak, unless they are forced into the market.”

The same is true, Rabbi Hoffman believes, in Israel, “where one brand [of Judaism] enjoys power.”

Rabbi Hoffman sketched the evolution of the North American synagogue, from late-1800s immigrants who built shuls on the model of grand churches and cathedrals like those they’d seen in Europe to later immigrants from Poland and Russia whose cultural Judaism fuelled the growth of the Conservative movement as what sociologist Marshall Sklare called an “ethnic church.”

When the end of overt antisemitism threatened to make cultural Judaism obsolete, each era redefined the synagogue in various ways: the fight for civil rights, saving Soviet Jews, supporting Israel, and later, life-cycle events, “ritualized demonstrations that family ties still bind.”

Today, organizations such as Chabad compete for life-cycle events, and the synagogue is again in trouble, even as evangelical Christianity prospers and “America finds itself awash once again in spiritual awakening” – an awakening too often neglected by synagogues, Rabbi Hoffman argies.

Any other strategy to regain market share usually backfires, as “religions compete not only with each other, but with other cultural offerings.”

Religion as community is a lost cause if “synagogues are not perceived as communities that care,” he contends.

Courting young families alienates baby boomers with a “purely pediatric religion that doesn’t have anything to offer adults.”

Meanwhile, leaders still perceive Jewish life as a wheel, with the synagogue at the hub, while young adults seek a less centralized Jewish life, leading to the “growing irrelevance of programs to bring in the troops from the periphery to the centre, and while they're at it, bring in the dues.”

“The last thing overly busy people need is more ways to keep busier,” wrote Rabbi Hoffman, “but what busy people still need is transcendent meaning… spirituality.”

This is where the synagogue may yet find its strength and its future. “As synagogues abandon their old tasks of ethnicity… programs, busyness for its own sake, pediatric Judaism… Can they become communities of meaning?”

Canada, Rabbi Hoffman argues, may find its own answers. It could follow the path of Europe or of the United States, or perhaps, in our climate of multiculturalism, find “a distinctly Canadian model.”

Two local rabbis carried on the discussion. Rabbi Aaron Levy, of Makom: Creative Downtown Judaism, spoke about how his organization is reaching younger Jews unaffiliated or disinterested in Jewish life through “unabashed Jewish spirituality.”

He says some strategies are no longer effective. Programs centred around “the Holocaust and Israel… while understandable… don't appeal to young adults today. Many Jews are now less or not at all concerned with the perpetuation of the Jewish people in and of itself.”

Rabbi Levy added: “Judaism predates modern political Zionism and the Shoah by millennia.”

Rabbi Michal Shekel of Or Hadash in Newmarket, agreed with Rabbi Hoffman, that there’s “so much focus on youth that we're forgetting everyone else.”

Rabbi Shekel, current chair of the Toronto Board of Rabbis, said synagogues have “lost track of what we have to offer: Torah, tfillah, kehillah.”

Shuls must “focus on what is unique to us: Torah, serious study, not for a particular demographic… The answers [are] not out there in the secular world.”

Holy Blossom’s senior associate rabbi,  Yael Splansky, and Beth Tzedec’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, spoke about how their large synagogues are trying to meet these challenges.

Rabbi Frydman-Kohl said he never wanted to serve a large congregation. “I thought large congregations had passed their prime… and the real action was in small communities.”

He initially rejected Beth Tzedec’s invitation but later reconsidered. “I said, ‘If Jewish life is going to succeed in North America… we have to make it succeed in these large communities.”

The first of the two lectures in the series was delivered last fall at Beth Tzedec by Prof. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University and has spurred ongoing conversation among Toronto synagogue and organizational leaders.