Friday, January 1, 2010

Vayyehi 5770 - The Open Book Model

Five weeks ago, I delivered the first part of this sermon. I realize that some of you may not have been there on that day, so here is a brief encapsulation of what I said.

American Jewry continues to move away from communal identification. As Jews spend less of their time doing traditional Jewish activities, institutional affiliation is dwindling. The result for most American Jews is an even lesser sense of community, while institutions look to new models to inspire and lead. Some of these new efforts, I lamented, may not produce future generations of Jewishly-knowledgeable, strongly-identified Jews.

I had remarked at the time that I had done a terrible thing – in 12 minutes, I delivered lots of bad news, and did not offer any solutions, any hints of light in an otherwise gloomy outlook. As a sort of ad hoc band-aid, I came up with what seemed at the time to be an oh-so-clever idea – to put off the upshot for another month, thus allowing me time to come up with some solutions to all of American Jewry’s complex issues. Well, ladies and gentlemen, that’s exactly what I am going to do right now. Stand back! Do not try this at home.

Let me preface this by reminding us all that people identify with the Jewish community or seek a rabbi or come to the synagogue for a variety of different reasons, like educating their children Jewishly or lifecycle events or Shabbat services or saying mourner’s kaddish. But my primary goal as a rabbi is to get Jews more in touch with Judaism, to teach the words of the Torah and the rabbinic sages to as many people as possible, and to inspire them to, in turn, live holier lives, such that they are role models and teachers for their children and grandchildren. And it is this forum, this congregation, that allows me to do that.

Now this is not so easy. As is obvious to all of us, I do not see most of our congregants very often. (There is nothing wrong with that, by the way. I do not judge anybody for their choices.) But this contemporary reality points to the fact that we need a new model. We need a new way to reach most American Jews, because the traditional routes are no longer doing that.

As I have said many times in this space, the days when Jews came to synagogue just because it was the Jewish thing to do, or even simply joined synagogues for the purposes of identifying with the Jewish community, are over. Today, the focus of young Jews is almost entirely personal. If they pursue their Jewish heritage at all, it is through independent means, not connected to institutions.

Very few, for example, are joining synagogues. And fewer still attend services, even if they have the time in their schedule.

I read about a recent study of American Jews in their 20s and 30s. Among other things, the survey participant were asked was to choose items from a list of basic Jewish activities and concepts, those that were, to them, an important part of being Jewish. Examples: (from: "Grande Soy Vanilla Latte with Cinnamon, No Foam..." Jewish Identity and Community in a Time of Unlimited Choices)

What It Means to Be Jewish

A Lot
A Lot / Some

Remembering the Holocaust


Making the world a better place


Leading an ethical and moral life


Understanding Jewish history


Learning about Jewish culture


Caring about Israel


Feeling part of the Jewish people


Donating money to help those less fortunate


Believing in God


Dietary restrictions, such as avoiding pork, mixing milk and meat, or keeping Kosher


Having Jewish friends


Attending synagogue


"For you personally, how much does being Jewish involve each of the following?Would you say a lot, some, a little, or none at all?" (OMG!, May 2005)

What this study tells us is that what most of us perceive to be the primary entry point for Temple Israel, the most attended activity of the week, that is, this Shabbat morning service, is the least important symbol for what it means to be Jewish for young Jews. And furthermore, that we at Temple Israel are operating on an outdated model; this congregation functions according to the model of the ‘50s and ‘60s, when Jewish immigrants and their children were moving to the suburbs in huge numbers. That time and place was half a century ago, and much has changed in the way that American Jews relate to the world and consequently their Judaism.

The people that come to services regularly on Shabbat are roughly the same ones that come to adult-ed classes, Selihot services, Men’s club meetings, special programs, the Dinner Dance, and so forth. Most of my work as a rabbi, let’s say, 85% of my time, is devoted to serving 15% of this congregation. And the other 85% of our members are served only when they seek me out for lifecycle events like weddings and funerals. And this is true not just for the clergy, but for the office staff as well.

What this suggests is that we at Temple Israel are distributing our resources the wrong way. And the reason for this is that we are operating according to this model: the Club Model.

As you can see, what characterizes this model is the big, thick wall in the middle. This is the barrier to membership. This is not a financial barrier; many of our paid members are outside this wall. Rather, this is a participation barrier. Those on the inside are our active 15% - they come to all our events, because they have the desire and the knowledge and the personal motivations to do so. Let's face it - this is a very high barrier – services are in a foreign language and dreadfully long (including an impenetrable sermon); people on the inside all know each other and know the clergy and staff personally; for those on the outside, the idea of enriching oneself Jewishly through adult education seems somewhat far-fetched, or irrelevant, or overwhelming,. Those of us on the inside do not deliberately exclude those on the periphery; in fact, we spend lots of time talking about how to get more of those outside to come to events that take place on the inside.

But this unseen barrier is, for most, insurmountable.

So here is another model: This is the Open Book Model. In this model, the synagogue is a resource center, a place from which Jewish learning and activities leap off the page and into the general public, perhaps far beyond the scope of what goes on inside the building. These circles are activities based on social affinity groups. They might form within the congregation or extend beyond paid members, but they are (and this is the key feature here) given only an initial push by the clergy and synagogue staff, but largely motivated and operated by the laity. Some of the people within these circles are highly connected to the synagogue, and most are not. But they gather to do Jewish things together, under the subtle sponsorship and guidance of Temple Israel.

What does this accomplish? It allows for the congregation to reach a much wider audience for its programs; through social networks, it encourages people who might not be able to climb over the barrier for entry to be met at their level, in a comfortable, non-threatening environment. It creates an opportunity for personal engagement with Judaism for those who would otherwise never set foot in a synagogue. Let me give you an example:

Suppose I want to do a seminar on Jewish textual sources found in Israeli rock 'n' roll. In our existing model, the Club Model, I would promote it through all the various channels. I would speak to people who I know are interested in the subject; advertise in the Voice, announce it on Shabbat morning, send an email or two, put up posters, and so forth. I would likely get no more than 20 attendees, and they would all be drawn from the 15% on the inside of the barrier.

In the Open Book Model, I would find, let's say, 10 people who are interested in the subject and willing to open their homes to others. I meet with this 10 to give them the material and some guidance, and then they call all of their friends and invite them to a dessert reception at their homes, during the course of which there will be music playing and some discussion about Israeli rock 'n' roll in a comfortable, welcoming atmosphere. If each of the 10 invites only 10 more people, then we have reached 100 people, most of whom are outside the barrier of the Club Model.

Israeli rock is a fairly light example, but once these affinity groups are established and everybody is enjoying dessert and learning something about Judaism, then it is not such a stretch to move on to modern conceptions of God, for example, or the love poetry of 12th-c Spaniard Moshe Ibn Ezra. Or even selected topics in the Talmud.

I cannot, of course, claim credit for this model, but I can tell you that it is in place at a few other Jewish institutions, and it works. Furthermore, you should know that we are already experimenting at Temple Israel with this model. There are at least three such initiatives that are either in the works or under discussion, and there will soon be more.

As I was preparing for this morning, I noticed something in Parashat Vayehi that caught my eye. In the humash Etz Hayim on p. 304, verse 21 at the top of the page (Ex. 49:21), we read the following:

נפתלי אילה שלחה, הנתן אמרי-שפר

Naphtali is a hind let loose / Which yields lovely fawns.

This is in the sequence of blessings given by Jacob to all of his sons, the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. And, in fact, it is one of the shortest of these blessings; the poor tribe of Naftali gets only six words. And six difficult words, no less; as is sometimes the case with the Torah, and all the moreso when it is poetry, this verse is practically impossible to understand in the Hebrew. The translation that I just read, courtesy of the Jewish Publication Society, is just one opinion, and there are several others.

But taking for a moment the JPS translation, the image is beautiful. The hind, or female deer, that is set free, goes forth to produce lovely children.

Well, I would be thrilled to see this institution, and American Judaism in general, set free from its historical inside-the-institutional-box thinking, and move on to a new role suitable to this independent age, that will yield more fruit, more lovely fawns.

However, an opinion in the Talmud, Massekhet Sotah, takes this verse even one step further. Read not, imrei shafer, "lovely fawns," says R. Abbahu, but rather, "imrei sefer," words of the Book. Let's re-envision Temple Israel and set our words loose in the community, such that we may spread the words of Torah far and wide.

Shabbat Shalom.


  1. I think the open book model sounds great and would like to set a study meeting with family and friends. I think it may work to structure the meeting around a passage or prayer and to set the stage by discussing the historical context in which the passage or prayer was written. Perhaps you could do the following to help me: 1) pick a passage or prayer 2) pick out some links to the historical context (even wikipedia would be OK if you could give me some guidance) 3) suggest some references discussing the prayer or passage 4) perhaps suggest some discussion points. I will then review the references you suggest and write up an agenda for our meeting (a mini-syllabus). I don't think I'll have time to do this sort of thing that often but I do want to make sure that our meeting will be productive. Thanks for this initiative. I have to confess that I get little from services but am delighted to study Jewish material.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.