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on September 13, 2000
By Alan. D. Abbey
Virtual Jerusalem Senior News and Business Editor
From the title alone, it is clear that Rabbi Sydney Schwarz is taking on a big topic in his book, "Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews Can Transform the American Synagogue." He offers a perceptive analysis of the current malaise affecting American synagogues (of all denominations, although he focuses on the less stringent ones) and some useful suggestions.
Nonetheless, in the end, he falls
short of offering anything other than programmatic solutions. In part, it's not his fault, because he is not only part of the system that created the problem, but because a true solution to the problem would require a major change in the way most American Jews live.
Schwarz, rabbi of a Reconstructionist synagogue in Bethesda, Md., doesn't shy away from describing the stultifying, boring, uninspiring and essentially unspiritual activities that comprise most Friday evenings and Saturday mornings in American synagogues.
His short history of the development of the American synagogue, from vibrant, crowded, urban, ethnically identified neighborhood "shul" to suburban, palatial, cold, (often) empty and spiritually dead "synagogue center" is right on point and pitiless.
I have sat in many such "Jewish centers," and he is right in his descriptions of them. Except for rare moments - usually self-generated - such places are the last locations one can find an emotional, spiritual charge. There is even one shed of a synagogue I know that people refer to as the "airplane hangar," for its forbidding size, sound problems and empty feeling.
On the bright side (and it isn't all gloomy), Schwarz offers uplifting tales of spiritual renewal in the words of a handful of Baby Boomers who have found homes at synagogues he describes as truly filling the needs of their congregants and community.
Then he offers short histories of each of those places, one each from the four mainstream Jewish denominations in the U.S.: Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Reform. The Orthodox-educated Schwarz conceded he barely penetrated the vast and diverse world of Orthodoxy and consequently found only one extremely liberal synagogue in Riverdale, N.Y., that met his criteria.
Beyond the mainstream movements, Schwarz also has kind words for the distinctly American Jewish Renewal movement, a hodgepodge of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach-style folk festival Judaism, psychoanalysis, Eastern mysticism and New Age trendiness.
While the numbers it has drawn in absolute terms aren't particularly large, Schwarz lauds Jewish Renewal for its energy, creativity and willingness to experiment.
Even Schwarz finds its syncretism and abandonment of most traditional practices as problematic. He is probably right in predicting that some of its less way-out practices will find themselves mainstreamed over time. For example, Jewish-style meditation practices already are finding a home even in traditional congregations.
Schwarz's programmatic suggestions are all worthy, some, however, more than others.
His first idea is the businesslike call for a "mission statement." Surely a product of a technocratic society, a "mission statement" to me sounds ludicrous and bureaucratic.
Second, he calls for bringing more "singable music" to services. That, too, is fine, as far as it goes. But it can lead to the odd practice (one I've heard) of singing important, traditional prayers such as the Kedusha portion of the Amidah (Shmone Esray) to Broadway show tune melodies.
Others are simply no-brainers, such as creating systems for personal support. If a community isn't doing that in the first place, what kind of community is it?
Schwarz also proposes bringing a social justice agenda into synagogues - a distinctly liberal American ideal, although admittedly one that is practiced by some of the right-wing Orthodox synagogues he never got close to. They are probably pursuing political agendas to which Schwarz doesn't subscribe (unrelenting unwillingness to support compromise in the Middle East, school vouchers and anti-abortion positions).
Many of his ideas, however, seem far from what I see as the "mission statement" of a synagogue - providing a warm and comfortable place where Jews can engage in a dialogue with God. Schwarz also fails to address the point that the American synagogues he lauds in his book not only have programming to draw the masses, they also are led by charismatic leaders who are the real draws to the place. Mission statements aren't going to bring people to synagogue, but dynamic leaders will.
Furthermore, it is the architecture itself that works against the American synagogue. Unless you are going for "high church" style services with organs and choirs (If you want that, Catholics do it better, anyway.), giant American synagogue sanctuaries just can't work as places of worship, because they are simply too big (even if - or especially when - no one shows up for services).
Furthermore, in such large synagogues, the badly built, poorly used and rapidly aging structures tend to become the main concern of synagogue leadership, rather than the quality of the time spent in them.
If American Jews spent their davvening time in groups of 30-50 in small, tight quarters that echoed with their voices, instead of the cathedrals they built themselves to emulate the Christians, they would find more authentic, spiritual experiences than they ever can now.
How that could work in the sprawling American suburbs, where each town has one giant "synagogue center" of each denomination, and when rich and successful Jews still want to build monuments to their egos, is the big question Schwarz doesn't answer.
- Virtual Jerusalem News and Business Editor Alan Abbey has davvened everywhere from tiny "shtiebls" in Jerusalem's Old City to airplane-hangar style Jewish centers in American suburbs.
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on June 11, 2000
Anyone who has ever been turned off by, tuned out from, or--even more common--unaffliated with a synagogue or church, should pick up this book. Sidney Schwartz provides history, analysis, and personal stories of individuals that will resonate with anyone not really happy with his or her current religious experience.
This book contains enough pearls of wisdom to turn the most cynical person into an excited, active participant in a movement that could change the face of organized religion in the twenty-first century. The book spotlights congregations from the four major branches of Judaism, but reference to the enormous growth in evangelical churches provides a context for a similar rejuvenation of traditional churches.
Testimonies of individuals from each of the four congregations profiled in the book describe various routes to the kind of active participation that is rarely seen in traditional congregations with a hierarchical structure. Some people searched for years and explored every possible alternative. Others stumbled into a congregation in response to the needs of a child. The theme that emerges is of the deep satisfaction each person feels when he or she has found a spiritual home.
The author's historical analysis of the development of the American synagogue and the American Jewish community is brilliant, as is his study of the baby boomer generation. Here he helps us understand why contemporary Jews have such a hard time connecting with the synagogue. He examines obstacles to synagogue transformation and ways these might be overcome. He frankly admits to the challenges of replicating the success of the institutions profiled in this book, but he does not leave us with the easy option of saying that it can't be done. The epilogue offers 10 strategies for transforming a congregation, which could also serve as an agenda for creating a new synagogue-community. That is followed by a discussion guide for any group ready for brainstorming the subject.
This book contains enough wisdom to make it a classic resource for the transformation of religious experience in the new millennium. Read it and think about whether any of the ideas discussed make sense for you today.
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Simply put, this is a must read for any Jewish communal or spiritual leader, anyone who serves on a synagogue board, or any active synagogue member. Rabbi Schwarz presents a short history of American synagogues, a cogent analysis of four successful synagogue models, interviews with some of the members and searchers, and a clarion call to action for a fourth stage of synagogue evolution. It is extremely readable. His hypothesis is similar to those found in Christian lit, such as Mike Regele's "Death of the Church," that it is time for synagogues (and churches) to adapt or die. I cannot tell you how many highly successful Jewish men and women I know, who are at the tops of their fields and professions, who are made to feel stupid, awkward, and worthless in many synagogues. They turn their back on synagogue life, they receive no benefit from congregations. They are not disloyal, just unaffiliated. Is it any wonder that the latest reports state that only 41% of American Jews are affiliated with a synagogue, down from a recent 48%, and down from an 85% rate fifty years ago? Schwarz, who was raised in a Long Island Orthodox family, whose big rebellion was driving on Shabbat in college, discovered that synagogues could be interesting, while he was studying for the rabbinate and had a student pulpit. His study begins with the three stages of history of the 20th Century American synagogue: the immigrant synagogue of recent immigrants, the ethnic, more prosperous synagogue of the anchored middle class Jews, and the child-focused, shul-with-a-pool synagogue center, where the focus was lectures, Israel, and basketball, and the least attended day was the Judaism-lite program on Saturday. The four synagogues that Schwarz highlights are New York City's B'nai Jeshurun (C), Beth El of Sudbury MA (R), the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (O) in the Bronx, and Schwarz's Bethesda MD Adath Shalom (Reconstructionist). Among their commonalities are a focus on participatory prayer, support groups; real Judaism (not Judaism lite); walking the talk/social action; energy; connectivity and community; learning; congregational ownership; and even `god talk." Simply a must read.
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VINE VOICEon February 5, 2002
I concur with most of the praise of other reviewers, though as someone who willingly chose a megashul I am probably a bit less dissatisfied with ordinary synagogues than they are. A caveat or two: (1) Schwarz seems to be writing for a distinctly "new agey" audience -- baby boomers, politically ultraliberal, oriented towards mysticism rather than learning. I suspect that many unaffilated Jews aren't the type of would-be congregant that Schwarz is most interested in. (2) I don't think Schwarz emphasizes education as much as I would have; certainly, I chose my shul partially because it seemed to have more educational opportunities than smaller ones (e.g. a study session after services on Saturday).
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on July 31, 2000
The following is excerpted from an article in the New York Jewish Week by Gary Rosenblatt, Editor in Chief. He agreed to allow his article to be reprinted as long as credit is given to himself and the Jewish Week. Other Jewish publications have highlighted this book, as well.
Most synagogues today, whether they are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionsist, are struggling to increase, and even maintain, membersihp. And most of their services are, well, boring. Across the denominational lines, congregants complain services are too long, too routine and less than inspiring, even as they wonder why more young people aren't joining up. Now comes a Washington-area rabbi, Sid Schwarz, who has written a thoughtful analysis of why synagogues are not meeting today's needs and a thought-provoking plan to help them make the paradigm shift he asserts is necessary for their survival and success. The book, "Finding a Spiritual Home," describes in detail four model congragations, one from each denomination, and how they are serving and inspiring a new generation of American Jews. It also includes personal essays from congregants about how their synagogue has given new meaning to their lives, and concludes with "ten strategies to transform your congregation." Rabbi Schwarz's thesis is both simple and revolutionary, making the case that most synagogues have not satisfied or attracted the baby boomers, many of whom are spiritual seekers turned off by the formality and rigidity they've found in established congregations. The new American Jews are looking for more personal meaning in their lives and a strong sense of connectedness and belonging. What's needed, he asserts, is to change the institution from a primarily child-centered synagogue-center, with its educational, cultural and social components, into a warmer, family-oriented syangogue-community, a synthesis of the synagogue-center and the havurah, combining informality and participation within the structure of the traditional synagogue. Easier said than done, the rabbi readily admits. "Even synagogues that understand the need for change find it difficult to move forward," he said during an interview from his office in Washington, where he is founding president of the Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values. But it can be, and Rabbi Schwarz profiles four congregations he feels successfully respond to the religious needs of younger Jews. While there are striking differences among the four congregations, they each have a welcoming environment, and an articulated mission promoting serious Judaism. And they each have inspiring rabbis who seek to empower their members, making them feel part of a real community of caring Jews. But Rabbi Schwarz is quick to point out that the key to success is not dependent on "superstar rabbis who do everything themselves," but almost the opposite, spiritual leaders able to teach their congregants that "they, the members, own it all. We have such talented people in our synagogues who are untapped," says Rabbi Schwarz, who advocates giving them a gentle push. The proposals Rabbi Schwarz offers for profound change are compelling and merit serious attention and discussion. They seek to help young American Jewish, and the institutions created to serve them, realize that meaningful Jewish lives cannot be lived vicariously, through a surrogate synagogue or rabbi, whose goals should be to teach, guide, inspire and empower. He makes the convincing case that only if we recognize the need to harness the energy of alternative services and spiritual seekers into the mainstream will we be able to transform our synagogues into living institutions able to meet the needs of the new century.
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on April 29, 2013
A lot of statements in this book are a bit too fluffy to my rather down to earth taste ( I am one of those who immediately get distrustful upon hearing the word " spiritual", but that can surely be my fault) .
Several of the descriptions and suggestions could and should be taken to heart though if ,as concerned and active Jews, we want not only " Judaism to survive " ( it will) , but if we want to reach disinterested Jews, too. Judaism is too good to just leave it and it is a shame if so many Jews do miss out , not knowing how to find what can be given to them by Judaism.
Esp his plea to let members of a community take responsibilty is important and should be the basic rule of all our communities.
That said , I had the feeling that I was frequently reading the same sentences over and over in different chapters, and I do have this sneaky impression that the book could have been about 1/3 shorter.
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on July 4, 2000
I think that anyone interested in the future of a religious organization that they are involved with, particularly Jewish, or in the future of spirituality in America in general would find this book of interest.
This book should be required reading for all temple board members. In fact after reading the first two chapters I emailed all my fellow trustees and recommended it. As I've read further, I've continued to find a virtual feast of food for thought.
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on September 22, 2001
The book focuses on issues faced by many of our generation. One can easily relate to the searching and the questions posed by the people portrayed.
The clear and readable style of writing, along with "down to earth" anecdotes makes it an enjoyable read.
Recommended for all those trying to figure out how to enjoy a Jewish spiritual experience in today's world.
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on February 7, 2004
Finding A Spiritual Home: How A New Generation Of Jews Can Transform The American Synagogue by Rabbi Sidney Schwarz is an informed and informative examination of a new synagogue model for the contemporary American synagogue community. Profiling four synagogues (each of which sports unique innovations and each of which is connected to one of the major movements of Judaism), Finding A Spiritual Home is a thought provoking and far-reaching discussion of what it means to congregate together and share experiences, understanding, rituals and celebrations of the Jewish faith.
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on July 5, 2013
Community leaders and clergy should read this book. Good conversation points for discussion amongst leaders, community members and teachers. Share it with people who are looking for positive changes
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