Monday, October 19, 2009

Synagogue Renewal: Just Do It!

We Jews are, for the most part, a heady people. We have a rich tradition of text and learning, and an abundance of scholars and scholarship. It is no surprise, therefore, that we like to discuss virtually everything in great detail. We tend to delegate things to task forces and committees that study them from all angles. This is a long-standing Jewish custom. In the Talmud, subjects are debated for scores of pages before any action is taken.

And yet there is always a time when it becomes necessary to "just do it." One can be too conservative, studying issues to death when what is called for is decisive action.

When God offered the Torah to our ancestors at Mt Sinai, they responded, "Na'aseh v'nishmah--we will do it and understand it." The order is significant here. They did not have time to read the small print. Instead, they acted on faith and committed themselves to transforming their community by entering into the covenant with God.

For the past few decades, Jews across America have been studying population surveys and other information about the declining state of Jewish observance. We've applied a great deal of brain power to these matters. But for far too long, there was much more talk (and writing) than action.

Over the past year or so, that has begun to change. Young Jewish groups have begun to press for change. Independent minyans are springing up all over, challenging the status quo. And foundations, like Legacy Heritage and Slingshot ( are now rewarding synagogues and communities that are innovating in practice as well as on paper.

Taking action like this always invites the possibility--no, the inevitability--of failure. But that is the price we pay for success. With no risks, there can be no gain. Besides, the status quo is, itself, a failure. Over the last century, American Jewish institutions have largely produced Jewish illiteracy and spiritual staleness. What do we really have to lose by trying something new?

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