Making Orthodox Synagogues More Meaningful

The Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals challenged the community to submit ideas for making modern Orthodox synagogues more meaningful and attractive. My essay was one of the winners, and appears at The rules allowed for only 300 words, but I’m sharing my thinking here without limits. My ideas:

  • Rabbinic Leadership – The role of the Orthodox rabbi as THE authority on Jewish knowledge and practice is out of synch with today’s world. Knowledge is too vast to only be managed horizontally. There needs to be a flow of Jewish knowledge vertically, with rabbis as facilitators, connecting pods of knowledge and knowledge holders. Throughout Jewish history, Jewish practice was determined not simply by decree, but often by crowdsourcing – observing what the masses are doing. Orthodox communities can return to that approach.
  • Maximizing Benefits of 50% of its members – One of the most incongruous parts of the traditional prayer book is the prayer for the community, in which Orthodox Jews prayer for “the community…their wives, their children…”  The clear meaning is that women are not members of the community, but are spouses of members. Orthodox synagogues have retained the wording, along with its implications. Orthodox synagogues, many of which do not allow women to speak publicly even after services, are losing out on the knowledge, leadership and insights of 50% of their members. While understanding separate gender seating and the limitations that halacha as understood today imposes, the Orthodox synagogue must find ways to fully benefit from the potential contributions of women. It’s not enough for this to happen only in Riverdale, NY and the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The commitment, through concrete actions, must permeate Orthodox Jewish communities everywhere.
  • Relevance – The messages of the Orthodox synagogue must become one that integrates into the real life of its members. The vast majority of Orthodox Jews are fully integrated in the workplace and into their broader communities. The synagogue must communicate the values that can add to that broader society in which its members live, and empower its members to bring those values to bear on a multi-cultural, democratic society.
  • Increasing meaningful access – Orthodox synagogues, through their architecture, language and prayer books, communicate that they want their members to be fully mobile, Hebrew reading, theologically monolithic Jews. It’s time for every Orthodox synagogues to be fully handicapped accessible (including the bima). Synagogues need new siddurim that have modern translations, do away with some of the inexplicable Kabbalistic meditations on God’s secret names and such, and challenge pray-ers to explore what the prayers are about rather than spoon feeding pre-digested answers. Rabbis and those who teach Torah in Orthodox synagogues have to be more honest and open to the fluidity of traditional practice and beliefs that has been true throughout Jewish history, and allow openness to a variety or perfectly acceptable alternatives in so many areas of halacha and practice.
  • Language – Orthodox synagogues must stop, and encourage members to stop, using the word “religious” to equal “traditionally observant” or “Orthodox.” They are not synonymous. I have friends in each Jewish movement (as well as those outside of movements) who are deeply religious. Spiritual superiority complexes do not have a place in our world or communities.
  • Expand chesed – Many Orthodox congregations (including the one I attend) are amazing in responding to Jews in need. Those who are ill, have just had babies, or are in mourning receive meals and other support. Now the synagogue needs to bring that value outside. Orthodox synagogues should be leaders in bringing those values to the world. Time for them to ante up, working in food kitchens, volunteering in homeless shelters, running blood drives.
  • Move towards spirituality – Jewish prayer and practice are designed to be ways in which one achieves spiritual goals. Those goals need to be better articulated. The rote services cannot simply be put out there. Synagogues need to help Jews to recognize the connection between the practice, service, and spiritual goals.

My appreciation to Rabbi Marc Angel and the folks at the Institute for Jewish Ideas & Ideals for getting me thinking and writing.

2 responses

  1. Funny, not once did you mention faith; sounds a lot like my temple- a humanistic one. Come visit and I'll bring you to services.


  2. Interesting point, Rachel. In fact, I am not sure that "faith" is one of the things needed to make Orthodox synagogues more relevant [which was the essay topic]. To me, that is a very individual matter. And I would love to visit your temple. Where am I going?


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