Rela­tion­al Judaism: Using the Pow­er of Rela­tion­ships to Trans­form the Jew­ish Community

  • Review
By – October 30, 2013

A num­ber of years ago, I moved with my fam­i­ly to a new com­mu­ni­ty. As commit­ted Jews, one of our first tasks was to explore our new neigh­bor­hood to find a syn­a­gogue that would work best for us. We spent a few Shab­bat morn­ings at the syn­a­gogue that had become the most pop­u­lar choice of those mov­ing into our area. To our sur­prise, one evening a gen­tle­man from that par­tic­u­lar con­gre­ga­tion appeared at our door. We invit­ed him in and sat with him. With­out so much as a ques­tion as to whether we had an inter­est in the con­gre­ga­tion, he launched into a speech about mem­ber­ship dues, high hol­i­day tick­ets and more. He con­clud­ed his pitch by telling us about bur­ial plots in the synagogue’s ceme­tery (Note to syn­a­gogue mem­ber­ship chairs: par­ents with young kids do not want mortal­ity waved in their faces, even if bur­ial plots are a priv­i­lege of mem­ber­ship). I was total­ly dis­gust­ed, and this vis­it became the final insult that sent me to the oth­er” shul.

Fast for­ward to recent times: We are now in the process of relo­cat­ing to anoth­er part of the coun­try. This time, we explored syn­a­gogues before we decid­ed where to live. The front run­ner: a con­gre­ga­tion in which the rab­bi, see­ing me, a new­com­er, prac­ti­cal­ly ran off the bima to greet me. What’s more, when I extend­ed my hand to shake his, he instead hugged me. That’s right, hugged. And look­ing around, that was indeed what every per­son was doing when greet­ing others.

And that is the point of Ron Wolfson’s game chang­ing book: that con­nect­ing Jews to syn­a­gogues, Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions, and to Judaism itself is all about rela­tion­ships (or what I have called con­nect­ed­ness in my work). Rela­tion­ships between Jews, between Jews and oth­ers, between Jews and Judaism, between Jews and God, and more. The­ol­o­gy, pro­grams, and gim­micks don’t dri­ve Jews to con­nect. Nor does an inter­est in join­ing” a par­tic­u­lar orga­ni­za­tion. Per­haps these things were once pow­er­ful, but not today.

The author presents exam­ples of orga­nizations that get it” and suc­cess­ful­ly use rela­tion­ships to con­nect Jews to insti­tu­tions, com­mu­ni­ty, and Judaism: Chabad, Next Dor, inde­pen­dent minyan­im, some very high­ly in­novative syn­a­gogues, and more. He also men­tions some of the peo­ple, lay and pro­fes­sion­al, who are lead­ing these var­i­ous orga­ni­za­tions and initiatives.

Rela­tion­al Judaism has already moved to the front of the read­ing list of many rab­bis, Jew­ish edu­ca­tors, and Jew­ish com­mu­nal pro­fes­sion­als, and with good rea­son. Whether you’re a Jew­ish pro­fes­sion­al, a com­mu­ni­ty leader, or sim­ply some­one con­cerned about the future of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty and its orga­ni­za­tions, this is a book that will get you think­ing about the changes that need to be made in order to assure the future of the Jew­ish peo­ple. The next ques­tions, and I hope and expect the author to address this fur­ther in future works, is how to retrain cur­rent pro­fes­sion­al and vol­un­teer lead­ers to lead in a rela­tion­ship-cen­tered Judaism, and how to best devel­op the pipeline of new lead­ers imbued with a pas­sion for rela­tion­al Judaism. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, index, notes.

Read Dr. Ron Wolf­son’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe


Rab­bi Arnold D. Sam­lan is a Jew­ish edu­ca­tor and rab­bi liv­ing in Mia­mi, Flori­da. He serves as exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Orloff Cen­tral Agency for Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion of Broward County.

Discussion Questions