Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Future of Temple Israel of Great Neck

I have seen the light.

In August, I attended a two-day institute with LOMED, a program run by The Jewish Education Project through which our Religious School is continuing the work of Re-Imagine. I was there with RS Director Rabbi Tracy Klirs, RS teacher Jennifer Khoda, and Beth Hagan Director Rachel Mathless.

The keynote speaker of this institute was Dr. Ron Wolfson, who is a professor of Jewish Education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, and also one of the prime movers of Synagogue 3000, an organization that provides resources for synagogue transformation, so that synagogues can be equipped for current and future realities.

Dr. Wolfson’s message at this program was simple: the successful synagogue of the future is the one that builds relationships between people.  Judaism should be “relational,” and that synagogues that fail to build relationships will never thrive.

The overarching message of the LOMED Summer Institute was as follows: when synagogues offer programming, the central question surrounding each programmatic offering and its success should be, “Did this program, or service, or class, or Shabbat dinner build relationships?

Dr. Wolfson is the author of the book, The Spirituality of Welcoming (Jewish Lights, 2006), a book we all should read and perhaps commit to memory. In the introduction to the book, he notes that many synagogues (including Temple Israel) have the words, "Da lifnei mi atah omed" ("Know before whom you stand") written above the Ark. He quips that it should be replaced by, “But we’ve always done it this way!”

Ladies and gentlemen, I have seen the light.  

I am convinced that today, when it’s getting harder and harder to get people in the door, when synagogue dues seem an almost outrageous luxury, when the fastest-growing religion in America is “nothing,” we cannot afford to do things exactly as we have always done them.  

We have to re-examine, re-evaluate, and re-envision everything that we do.

To that end, I am pleased to report four items:

1.  I am happy that I received the first evaluation since I have been here (now four years and change).  I am sorry, however, that this was the first one.  Evaluations of clergy and other senior staff should be conducted with far more regularity, and not just in advance of contract negotiation.  Evaluation of everything needs to be part of our culture.

2.  Related to this, in a matter of days every single member of the congregation will receive, for the first time, a survey form regarding the High Holidays.  This represents a huge step - not only will the feedback be useful to the clergy, the office, and the other professional staff, but even more so it will send the message to you that we want to listen to you, and we care about what you think.

3.  During Sukkot, we held the first meeting of the Nitzanim Family Connection, a pilot program for which we have received a $6K grant to bring together parents of Nitzanim / kindergarten children in our Religious School, to build connections between parents and give them the opportunities to discuss their Jewish experiences and the Jewish education of their children.  The first meeting was in my Sukkah, next door, and was by all accounts a resounding success.  

We hope that this will be a model for building those relationships throughout the Religious School experience, and not only that this cohort will continue to meet, but that a new cohort will begin with next year’s Nitzanim class, and onward and upward.

4.  A final thing: on Shabbat mornings, one rabbi is now in the back of the sanctuary, and this has been not only a tremendous learning process for me (since the view from the back is quite different than the view from the bimah), but I think that this has also helped to change the tone of the sanctuary environment. I try to greet every single person that enters the sanctuary for tefillot / prayer. Many have told me that they appreciate this.


To conclude, I strongly suggest that you buy Dr. Wolfson's book and read it. I have already purchased copies to give to members of the Ritual Committee and the Membership Committee.  Furthermore, I am now in communication with Dr. Wolfson, and I hope that we will be able to bring him to Temple Israel as a scholar-in-residence and board-training weekend in May, so that he can bring this message to a much wider audience within our community.  I am hoping that a few more of us will see the light, so that we can make Temple Israel the community that we all want and need it to be for the future.

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel's semi-annual congregational meeting, November 7, 2011.)

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