Vision and Change in a Conservative Synagogue

Gil Steinlauf, Adas Israel Congregation, Washington D.C.

steinlauf_gilWhen I first got to my synagogue six years ago, it was on its way to becoming an anachronism.  In many ways, it was advanced in that it had sophisticated programs and multiple minyanim.  Many members felt, however, that the clergy-led services were too formal and even passionless.  The members of the non-clergy-led minyanim felt “tolerated” but frowned upon by the synagogue leadership.  The lay-staff relationships were limited.  The various elements of the synagogue–the different age cohorts, the religious school community, the gan community, the older generations – these and many more were in silos.   The professional staff had very little sense that they were a team. Furthermore, at 150-years-old, it was the solid establishment synagogue of Washington. Its very prestige and history were weighing it down.  For some, it had a reputation of being cold and even snobby.

My first impression was that this congregation, a flagship synagogue in the Conservative movement, demonstrated the very sense of feeling stuck that was plaguing the movement as a whole.  I was well aware of the dramatically shifting patterns of affiliation and radically different needs and expectations of new generations—and how this congregation desperately didn’t want to be on a fast-track to irrelevancy.

My process began with going out and meeting with as many different members of the congregation as possible at evening receptions in people’s homes and talking about the importance of embracing change and moving beyond comfort zones.  Simultaneously, I began workshops with the board of directors where we talked about who we are, what are our core values, etc.

I had a lot of ideas about where a synagogue like this should go in the 21st century, but my primary responsibility was to listen to the congregants themselves.  During my first year, I sat down and wrote various vision papers for new innovations in the synagogue where I let my imagination go wild, unbounded, with visions of what could be.  I shared these papers with select lay leaders and senior staff.  And then I listened.  I listened to their feedback, and then slowly, over years, connected it with expressions of the needs and aspirations of the congregation at large.

I was fortunate that the congregation was ready for change.  I began to re-organize the staff into teams that worked together to solve synagogue problems and to brainstorm new ideas.  We had begun a capital campaign for a renovation of the sacred spaces in the congregation.  I used this campaign as an opportunity to focus my vision on the building. Originally, the lay leaders wanted this renovation to update the prayer spaces, but I instead asked lay leadership to envision together with me new ways the spaces could be used.

The renovation was a great blessing.  My ideas for the future of the congregation at first were very abstract for many people.  I kept talking about a “paradigm shift” from an “objectified Judaism” to “Judaism as a technology” for connection and meaning. My working with lay leadership and others literally concretized these ideas in a central, post-modern, 21st-century Beit Midrash.  Through this, the vision got traction:  Adas in the 21st century isn’t just about conventional services and educational offerings.  Now we lift up study and exploration of meaning as central in synagogue life.  But the study isn’t typical synagogue “adult and family education.”  Now it’s all about meaningful conversation, community building and organizing, and different cohorts naturally, organically intersecting over coffee in a “Third Place.”  Now it’s all about honoring the unique gifts and experiences that we bring as Jews just as we are, without having to be fluent in Hebrew or in observant practice.

Now, another secondary worship space isn’t just for tfilah.   The architects were tasked with creating a “Zen-like” worship space all about simplicity, and non-distraction, where the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington can house Jewish meditation, Jewish yoga and lift up spiritual practice as existing alongside conventional worship.

One of the greatest aspects of this process was to witness how my original vision papers changed and evolved as it was owned and concretized in the shul.  We hired a director of innovative programming who brought her brilliant insights to its development. She organized focus-groups of all cohorts to gain further insights and tweaks.  As financial and structural limitations presented themselves, we had to become more creative to stay close to the vision.

My goal is to experiment with “disruptive innovation” right smack in the middle of an establishment synagogue.   The greatest challenge is that it’s disruptive!   I want to disrupt anxiety-based Judaism:  Judaism that clings to conventional ways because of the fear that Jewish people are “dying,” or “under attack” or losing numbers.  I want to disrupt a Judaism where ideas or loyalty to standards in our national movement take precedence over people and relationships and experience.  I want to disrupt educating about Judaism for the sole purpose of ensuring Jewish grandchildren.  Of course, we must inculcate a devotion to the state of Israel, and we must memorialize Holocaust victimization—but these should not be the sole emphasis of what our children are exposed to.  I want to undermine conventional expectations of a synagogue and yet not dismiss them as irrelevant.  I seek only to add to conventional Conservative Judaism new (yet truly Jewish) features, values, experiences that make us better as human beings, not just as Jews.

Now you walk into the building itself and it feels like a different place because people are doing non-conventional things there.  The numbers at events and memberships are up. There are many indicators of success.  But these changes can be very challenging for the older generations of the synagogue! When not properly understood, this approach appears to undermine their values and expectations of what synagogues exist for, and how they should operate.  With a lot of compassion and understanding, my role is to explain the vision and reassure the congregation that they are not losing the synagogue and Jewish expression that they have known for decades.  Most importantly, I have learned a lot by listening to their concerns about change.  Their fears of disenfranchisement have also broadened my own understanding of what innovation in a synagogue has to be about.  Just because they are the older generations doesn’t mean that they can’t benefit from skillful and creative innovation for their sake!

We are now community organizing, programming and empowering older generations who crave to participate in a “vision of renewal” that speaks their spiritual language as well (i.e. engagement programs around issues of politics and social connections).

I believe that a vision of a transformed establishment-synagogue is work that never ends. I have to sell the vision constantly to new groups and over and over to groups that have heard it before but need to assimilate it on new levels.  Essential to the success was hiring a top-notch communications director to brand and market the new ideas and an engagement director to manage programs that focus more on relationships and community than on programs that just get large numbers of attendees.  We have yet to bring the vision substantively into our religious school and gan communities.  There is lots of work still to do!

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf is the rabbi of Adas Israel Congregation in WashingtonD.C. and a member of the CLI national mentor team. 

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