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Four Unintentional Sins Of Synagogue Life

"Al Chet Shechatanu... For The Sins That We Committed Willingly Or Unintentionally..." Four Unintentional Sins Of Synagogue Life
By Lawrence A. Hoffman
Synagogue 2000

I. Pediatric Judaism. We have planned for children only. In our understandable anxiety to pass on Judaism as their heritage, we neglected its spiritual resources for adults, leaving ourselves with no adequate notion of how we too might draw sustenance from our faith as we grow up and grow older. Worse: we were often the very children for whom our parents overplanned, so that we should have known better from our own experience. We are living proof that their pediatric approach failed: seeing no models of religious Jewish adulthood, we learned that Judaism is for children, so that many of our friends do not even have the basic commitment to a Jewish future and Jewish learning and life that we possess. And worse yet: we are committing the same error with our children, devoting all our institutional efforts on their childhood education, while ignoring our own adult needs, so that now, as we are grown, we have little understanding of Judaism as an adult faith, with adult consciousness, adult intellect, and answers to the challenges of adult life. Our synagogue is largely if not wholly driven by children.

2. Ethnic Judaism. In an age when memories of Europe were still writ large upon our consciousness, and when anti-Semitism dominated world affairs, we grew up thinking Judaism was almost solely ethnic, a combination of old-world culture, shtetl memories, defensive Judaism, and the primary need to save the Jewish people. Saving the Jewish people remains a priority, and the warmth that we associate with Jewish ethnic ways of life can still sustain us. But alone, they have proven insufficient to the task. Put very simply, Judaism must be more than lox and bagels, or Jewish jokes that were understandable in a time when Jews were on the defensive against anti-Semitism from without, but are often more embarrassing than funny these days. We are now, all of us, Jews by choice, or (better) by affirmation. Judaism today needs desperately to reassert its spiritual promise for the world and for each and every person, for only such a promise warrants adult affirmation. Our day features the threat of loneliness and despair, of spiritual malaise and ethical impoverishment, of the breakdown of old-time verities and the discovery of the need for wholeness and transcendent meaning in our lives. Our synagogue has been driven by ethnic Judaism, which it will have to expand into a serious engagement with Judaism of the spirit, if it is to matter in the 21st century.

3. Corporate Judaism: Efficiency is a fine thing, necessary, we discovered, in a time when businesses come and go daily, and Mom and Pop family stores cannot make it in a competitive market. So beginning around 1910, churches and synagogues adopted a strategy designed to institute efficient religion: things like managerial excellence, organizational clarity, and responsible leadership by boards, trustees, committees and management. It was a corporate model that rewarded busyness, programming, and delivery of services. But as much as efficiency remains a decided advantage over sloppiness and irresponsible leadership, synagogues that rely on corporate structures and style run the risk of spiritual irresponsibility. Our synagogue is widely perceived in the community as a corporate bastion. It does things efficiently, but without soul. Even the people who work there have to admit that it is distant, cold and impersonal. You need appointments for everything, for instance; the telephone system is demeaning; the front-office personnel treat you like a number. Even services seem corporate! We are filled with paperwork, and measure success by amounts of paper turned out -- paper to apply for this, paper to sign up for that, and paper reports in bulletins, committee documents, and even printed sermons. Lots of people come and go, but we know next to nothing about the lightness or harshness of their lives, and they take their real problems to therapists, 12-step programs, counsellors, or another and any place but the synagogue. We hardly even know the people whom we work with, and cannot name the faces of the vast majority of those who drop off their children, or sign up for lectures and for programs as if we were a mall for Jewish services. Our synagogue is driven by corporate busyness at the expense of human care and personal warmth.

4. Consumer Judaism. With corporate structure, American institutions developed a consumer mentality. The bottom line of business was the product, so synagogues approached Judaism as if it were a marketable entity, and the market was the Jews who buy it. Success was subtly defined as an ever-growing market niche of members, for which Rabbis (mostly), as the corporate CEOs, are responsible. Rabbis therefore supervise staffs to help them market Judaism for delivery, and when they or their staffs fail to increase the membership, or market share, they get fired by boards who observe the market segment fall. Conflict is ingrained in the scheme: rabbi against board, since boards judge rabbis, who are held responsible for the product; cantor against rabbi, as each blames the other for falling service attendance; staff against each other, since no one wants to be held responsible for the failure of the whole, when product lines do not attract the consumer loyalty for which they are designed. The members see the synagogue as a place for expenditure of discretionary income in return for service, and measurable, therefore, in market terms of cost effectiveness, not in personal commitment or religious mission. Our synagogue is unwittingly driven by its corporate structure, so that we are victimized now by a consumer mentality that prevents cooperation and mitigates against a reevaluation of our goals in the light of spiritual not consumer values.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, "Al Chet Shechatanu...For the Sins That We Committed Willingly or Unintentionally....:Four Unintentional Sins of Synagogue Life," Synagogue 2000, 1996, pp. 20-21.

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