Feature Article

Build Your Synagogue Out of Legos, Not Bricks

By Rabbi Joshua Rabin

“Build the newsroom out of Legos, not bricks. The right structure for today won’t be the right structure for tomorrow.”
—The New York Times Innovation Report (March 2014)

In December 2017, The New York Times announced that 37-year-old Arthur Gregg (A.G.) Sulzberger would succeed his father as publisher on January 1, 2018. While A.G. was a logical choice to become publisher given his lineage, his most notable achievement prior to assuming this role was his leadership in producing what is known as the “Innovation Report,” a call to action to the leadership of The New York Times to embrace a digital future for news. If a legacy institution chose a publisher who recognizes the transformation taking place in his industry, and will likely have a mandate to implement this ambitious document, then the Jewish community needs to consider what lesson this change teaches us as we consider what will happen and what should happen to our synagogues.

While the majority of the Innovation Report focuses on issues such as digital disruption or the role of “audience development,” the team concludes the report by making the recommendation that The New York Times build their newsroom out of “Legos, not bricks,” a metaphor equally apt for the future of synagogues. Newspapers and synagogues share key parallels in terms of financial models, upstart competitors and a tension between quality and distribution, all of which will determine whether or not either institutional model survives. Making the case that newspapers or synagogues should be “built” out of Legos is a powerful statement about the importance of becoming less attached to entrenched structures and more committed to a high-quality product that transcends buildings, bylaws and budgets.

Now more than ever, synagogue leaders need to think about what it means to strengthen the structures of our synagogues without becoming captive to them. However, Gil Rendle argues that, “mature organizations and institutions become like a giant hairball with twisted and interconnected constraints that make it increasingly difficult for the organization to actually address its purpose.” As such, helping synagogues change their guiding philosophy may be less about tearing the entire structure down and starting anew and more about seeing that our institutions can engage in smart, strategic changes that address the needs of today while not overly concretizing systems again so that they can change tomorrow.

To take those first steps, I’d like to suggest that the more synagogue leaders choose one value over another in how we lead, the more we can help our synagogues transition into an emerging future we are able to embrace:

1. Choose Experimentation Over Standardization

In his opening address at the USCJ Convention, our CEO Rabbi Steve Wernick shared with our attendees that, at a time of rapid change in synagogues, the convention participants identified the following five topics as most important for them to receive personalized consultations at our conference: membership recruitment, marketing, alternative dues models, interfaith families and board development. With the exception of interfaith families, each of these five topics has far more to do with the sustainability and maintenance of the synagogue’s organizational system as opposed to the synagogue’s mission and vision. And as Rabbi Ed Feinstein reminded our participants, “We will not find our way if we say: ‘Let’s have better board meetings and more strategic plans and better fundraising and different dues structures.’”

On one level, synagogues tend to be risk-averse, yet that it is not entirely true. Every day, synagogues around the world experiment with new models of prayersocial justicemembershiplearning and outreach, and the experiments of today will inevitably become the mainstream models of tomorrow. However, there is a persistent danger in letting any model become so dominant that it becomes impossible to try something new for fear of upsetting the established order. Any box of Legos includes an instruction manual, yet over time the enduring power of Legos is the way in which new creations can be made if we refuse to be overly attached to the original playbook.

2. Stress Portability Over Permanence

Ten years ago, I interned for Rabbi Kerry Olitzky at Big Tent Judaism (then the Jewish Outreach Institute) as his team was teaching Jewish institutions about the importance of “Public Space Judaism,” creating low-barrier entry-points to Jewish life outside the walls of institutions. Today, it is cliche to read about the need to do Jewish life in bars, coffee shops, supermarkets and public parks, but it’s important to remember how radical and transformative it was to tell Jewish leaders that the best way to engage unaffiliated Jews was to avoid making a first impression inside buildings owned by Jewish institutions. Big Tent Judaism succeeded in making Public Space Judaism a part of our lexicon, and the next stage is to teach leaders to turn public space into the default mode of Jewish engagement.

Every year, I teach a Torah study on Shabbat afternoon at Sulam for Presidents, USCJ’s keystone program for synagogue leaders, about the tension between the portability of the Mishkhan, the tabernacle, and the permanence of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, the temple in Jerusalem. When we study these texts together, I point out that scholars such as Jon Levenson argue that “the very portability of the Tent [Mishkan] may have served as a critique of the tendency to regard Jerusalem and its Temple as immutable cosmic realities” (Jewish Spirituality, ed. Arthur Green, 33). When we create our synagogues as if they are built out of bricks, we tie ourselves to one location and lose sight of Judaism’s unequivocal preference for bringing Torah to the Jewish people, as opposed to assuming that the people will show up no matter how or where we offer Jewish life. The burden is on leaders to recognize that difference.

3. Value Human Capital Over Physical Capital

Jonathan Sarna writes in American Judaism that the building of synagogues in the suburbs following World War II, “aroused a spirit of religious activity, enthusiasm and mission even among people who rarely attended worship services themselves” (279). However, Sarna also points out that it was the “planning, designing, fundraising and furnishing” of these synagogues was the most important activity of these Jewish leaders, not the Judaism practiced inside. Today, when fewer and fewer Jews identify with organized religion, it should come as no surprise that the construction of buildings is no longer a practice that they believe plays any role in finding spiritual transcendence.

Yet beneath every challenge lies an opportunity. As someone who grew up knowing only the contours of traditional suburban synagogues, what I find most inspiring about the models promoted by Ikar, Mechon Hadar, Nashuva, The Kitchen and others is the strategic choice their leaders make to invest in human capital, as opposed to physical structures. Placing greater emphasis on the depth of experience over the quality of the meeting space comes with tradeoffs, yet if we want to build our synagogues out of Legos and make them adaptable enough to thrive in this moment and moments to come, we have an obligation to discipline our leaders make the same choice.

Today, too many synagogue leaders with whom I work serve under the shadow of a depressing equilibrium, where they know that the model they inherited is unsustainable, yet fear the disruption of even a step towards radical change. But the journey to transform synagogues does not begin with a technical change, but a mindset change, a way of dreaming a synagogue model that is portable, adaptable and experimental. Our synagogues are literally and metaphorically made of bricks, built with blood, sweat and tears, yet too often paralyzed by the very systems we created. My prayer is that God will make us “bold with strength in my soul” (Tehillim 138:3) so that we might embrace models of Jewish life flexible enough for us to better serve the Jews of today and be prepared to adapt once again to serve the Jews of tomorrow.

Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Director of Innovation at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), and is the Program Director of the USCJ Convention. You can read more of his writings at www.joshuarabin.com.

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