Blowing Up The Bima: Reinventing The Rabbi – Congregant Relationship

My blog post for Darim Online’s Connected Congregations series. Reposted from

1983. The author was in Atlanta, GA serving in his first full time Rabbi / Jewish Educator position. As part of a synagogue renovation project, the synagogue’s school building (which once served as the state’s Ku Klux Klan headquarters!) was being restored after having been abandoned years earlier. The synagogue had been founded in the city of Atlanta. In 1946, it followed the move of Jews to suburbia. Consistent with the architecture of the time, the bima was an elevated stage several feet above congregant seating and positioned several yards forward from the front row of seating. The bima was illuminated by several spotlights, which easily raised the temperature to 10 degrees higher than that in the seats below.

During the renovation project, the senior rabbi and I questioned whether the bima could be moved closer to the congregants, or even to a location that would be nearer to the center of the seating, to be more consistent with an increasingly participatory approach. The answer given by the architect was that, to do so, “you would have to dynamite the bima, since it was built in solid concrete.”

Fast forward to 2007. I was no longer the Jewish educator embarking on a new career, but now sat with an energetic, bright Jewish educator embarking on her career. As I finished telling her the above story, she stopped me and said, “That’s it! To be successful in this work today, we have to blow up the bima!”

Today’s American synagogue model grew up in the post World War II era. The architecture of synagogues moved the attention from the center of the synagogue to the front, reflecting the idea that the “action” was going to take place on a stage, with paid lead actors (rabbi, cantor) performing from in front of and above the congregation, who would be participants, not leaders.

At the same time, the economic model of the synagogue was built on membership dues, which in turn relied on Bar/Bat Mitzvah, which in turn relied on synagogue “religious schools” to provide the financial means of keeping synagogues going (which also devalued both the educational program and the Bar/Bat Mitzvah).

Fast forward to 2012, and the (Jewish) world has changed, and the relationship of Rabbi to Community Member has changed with it. Today, only a fraction of Jews look to their rabbi as a sole authority on their spiritual or religious life and practice.

I propose that the model for the Rabbi / Community Member relationship must change to that of a Coach / Client relationship. In that relationship, the rabbi still is the scholar, but his/her role is not to try to impose one particular type of Jewish practice, as much as to set out options for people, and then empower them to set their Jewish life paths.

To make that happen, a few things need to occur:

  • Rabbinic training needs to continue a move that has already progressed away from growing rabbis as authority figures and towards growing rabbis as coaches or spiritual mentors. Conversations between rabbis and community members sound more like “here are some possibilities that Judaism provides for your life” rather than “this is what Judaism demands of you”.
  • Synagogue services must loosen up and move the “action” back to the Jews in the Pews rather than on the frontal bima. Among the ways to make that happen are interactive text studies during services, Storahtelling type theatre to supplement Torah reading, even Tweetups during services for those congregations that permit use of technology on Shabbat.
  • We need to worry less about the rules of the service and more about how services help people to move spiritually. Fundraisers talk about “move management” as donors are developed. We need “move management” for Jews on their spiritual journeys. Judaism is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Rabbis need to have discussions (and not merely sermons) that say “you’ve added X to your life; How do you think Y would work as a next step towards deepening your spiritual journey?”
  • Congregations and their rabbis need to not be limited by physical walls or by the walls of membership. There is an economic challenge to opening the doors, and some very creative communities are already trying to figure out how to keep congregations viable as these changes occur. But as the Jewish world has seen from examples such asSukkah City and Dawn. To use Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ expression, we must break down the synagogue’s walls.
  • Community members and rabbis need to talk to one another. It’s no longer good enough to have families on membership lists that rabbis only talk to on holidays or when there is a life cycle event. Rabbis need to have conversations with each family or individual during the year that say “How can I or Judaism be of service to you in your life?” And the meetings don’t have to be in the “rabbi’s study”. They can be at Starbucks or over a corned beef sandwich at a deli [that’s right, we like a good corned beef sandwich, too].

How will your rabbis and your community members join in leading change?

4 responses

  1. This is a powerful and timely teaching. As a spiritual director, I find people coming to explore these very questions of spirituality, meaning, identity and community. Many feel alienated, disillusioned, and judged by and in their congregations. They are fleeing from old outdated institutional models that are not working for anybody. By taking a painfully honest look at ourselves, we will hopefully deepen and strengthen our capacity to survive and thrive. And I might add that other faith communities are wrestling with these issues too–imagine how creative interfaith dialogue and shared practice could inspire all of us. Spiritual direction is an invaluable resource for transformation–maybe something more rabbis could use for themselves, and as part of their spiritual formation from the very beginning as well as on the lifelong path of leadership.


  2. Clearly Jewish life is going through an amazing transition. What surprises me is that while so many think that Judaism should change to meet the times, the reality is that it once did that, back in the 1950’s and we see today how those changes have quickly gone out of style.

    Synagogue architecture has become a barrier to Jews seeking the essence of their faith. Fundraising to maintain buildings has become our primary occupation, when this is really just a secondary duty. we do have to pay bills, but raising money to pay bills is not a spiritual journey. Decorum is a remnant of the 1050’s that really was over by the 1960’s. If congregations are hurting today, it is because we a few expectations of Jews other than to sit in a pew and pay attention. For all too many synagogues, education is for children but never for adults.

    That just does not work anymore. Jews don’t care about their buildings, they will sit in folding chairs, in basements and without stained glass windows, if the service means that they will be participating. If they can sing along, clap hands, lead prayers and connect with the people they are praying with. Synagogues are successful when they promote serious adult Jewish learning and not just school for children or classes for beginners. Jews today want to extend their Judaism out of the shul, into acts of Hesed in the local community, when it concerns world Jewish problems and when it affects all people, not necessarily Jews. that is what Synagogues did in Europe, in the early days of the United States and what they need to do again.

    I do disagree with the article on its first point. Rabbis are not just “advisors” although we do that too. Judaism does make demands on Jews. Rabbis need to address those demands and help Jews confront them in their own way and on their own path, We can disagree on how kosher we need to be in our homes but we cannot ignore the challenge of Kashrut. We can argue about how to bring Shabbat into our lives,and have a spirited argument about it, but we will never do away with Shabbat. There are so many ways to argue about the parameters of Jewish sexual morality but we cannot ignore it and the demands it places on us to respect others.

    Once upon a time I was one of those Rabbis who didn’t understand how Judaism was changing, Now, having left my comfortable pulpit, I have seen how the successful models reach out to other communities, work together to make Judaism meaningful in the lives of Jews. And these inspired Jews are not afraid to give money to keep these models going.

    To read more details about what I have discovered about how Judaism is changing and what we need to do, you check out “Revitalizing Your Synagogue” on my website:


  3. I think the Rabbi needs to return to its original concept of “teacher”. I don’t think we need the Rabbi to be a spiritual coach or meet congregants over a corned beef sandwich. I don’t think it matters where the bimah is. The Rabbi can be an actor on a stage, or a teacher in front of the classroom. Certainly synagogue walls need to come down, but synagogues need to finance themselves too, or else get help from the Jewish Federation or a similar type organization. Jews find their spiritual path through education and reflection. They can do things the “Jewish way” or another way, as long as they find value in Judaism, which they will if they know more about it and if Judaism is more inclusive and less rule-bound.


  4. I really enjoyed this article. I think it is relevant to working with NextGen Jews especially because they tend to avoid institutions. Finding ways to focus on relationship building such as spiritual coaching is so much more effective. I’m not saying that there aren’t benefits to pulpit-style teaching, but it dated. Thanks for sharing!


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