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.