Rethink­ing Syn­a­gogues: A New Vocab­u­lary for Con­gre­ga­tion­al Life

Rab­bi Lawrence A. Hoffman
  • Review
By – May 21, 2012

Peo­ple are con­stant­ly com­ing and going for pro­grams, but in real­i­ty the syn­a­gogue is emp­ty,’” observed one rab­bi to Rab­bi Lawrence Hoffman. 

It was recog­ni­tion of this sit­u­a­tion that brought togeth­er Dr. Hoff­man, Bar­bara and Stephen Fried­man, Pro­fes­sor of Litur­gy, Wor­ship, and Rit­u­al at Hebrew Union Col­lege- Jew­ish Insti­tute of Reli­gion, and Dr. Ron Wolf­son, Vice Pres­i­dent, Fin­ger­hut Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Edu­ca­tion, and Direc­tor of the Whizin Cen­ter for the Future of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Judaism. Meet­ing in the once leg­endary Con­cord Hotel the week before it closed — prac­ti­cal­ly a sym­bol of the project they were about to under­take — they con­ceived Syn­a­gogue 2000, now Syn­a­gogue 3000, a trans­de­nom­i­na­tion­al effort to cre­ate syn­a­gogues that are sacred and vital cen­ters of Jew­ish life.” 

Only 40 per­cent of Amer­i­can Jews are affil­i­at­ed with syn­a­gogues, and most mem­bers are only mar­gin­al­ly involved. Syn­a­gogue prac­tices and pro­grams reflect these lim­it­ed demands of their mem­bers — edu­ca­tion for their chil­dren, bar/​bat mitz­vahs, com­mit­tee work, and Shab­bat ser­vices for those who are inter­est­ed. But this does not speak to fourth-gen­er­a­tion Amer­i­can Jews. Not drawn to the syn­a­gogue by eth­nic nos­tal­gia, the Holo­caust, and the cre­ation of Israel, this gen­er­a­tion seeks to sat­is­fy its spir­i­tu­al and per­son­al needs. Thus, Hoff­man main­tains, if syn­a­gogues are to per­pet­u­ate Judaism in the 21st cen­tu­ry, they must do noth­ing less than trans­form them­selves into wel­com­ing, sacred, thought­ful, adult spaces. 

As Hoff­man states at the out­set, this is not an easy book to read. The new vocab­u­lary” of the sub­ti­tle draws on soci­o­log­i­cal, orga­ni­za­tion­al, artis­tic, and philo­soph­i­cal research and by def­i­n­i­tion intro­duces con­cepts and lan­guage that are unfa­mil­iar, and may be provoca­tive, to syn­a­gogue think­ing and dis­cus­sion. But this is just Hoffman’s point, and any­one involved in Jew­ish con­gre­ga­tion­al life will ben­e­fit from hear­ing out and per­haps argu­ing with his premises. 

Hoff­man makes clear that this is not a how-to guide, and there are few exam­ples of syn­a­gogue trans­for­ma­tion. Each chap­ter clos­es with a review of the new vocab­u­lary and activ­i­ties and top­ics for dis­cus­sion. An index would have been help­ful. Notes. 

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions