Re-Inventing Synagogues: From Within

rabbikipnes2Jewish pundits love to predict the eventual demise of the synagogue, decrying its dearth of deep ideas, shortage of spiritual inspiration, and absence of warmth and meaning. They say that Jews and Jewish families are opting instead for DIY Judaism, where one can rent-a-rabbi to “do it yourself,” or to start their own shuls, unencumbered by the trappings of traditional synagogue sloth.

True, there are plenty of temples stuck in the 1970’s, whose music, methods and message seem to ignore that fact that the world and its spiritual seekers have changed. But contrary to these doomsday scenarios or the radical embrace of only newly birthed synagogues-without-walls, synagogue life is alive and well. Innovation is not the exclusive province of entrepreneurs. Across the country, a handful of rabbis are re-inventing their synagogues from within, proving that the American synagogue can be re-imagined in exciting ways that will appeal to Next Gen Jews.

Last year’s Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial convention in Orlando underscored this insight. Just as businesses must constantly re-assess their products and respond to changing conditions in the marketplace, so too must synagogues. Those that do are proving that it is possible to transform themselves into flexible, all embracing, relationship-focused engines for a refreshingly exciting and deeply spiritual Judaism. Here are five features of synagogues that “get it”.

  1. Deep Commitment to Social Justice

When we reach out to others, we end up lifting ourselves up as well. Jews cannot wait for someone else to bring an end of war, poverty, violence, prejudice and more. Rather we roll up our sleeves and do the work tikkun olam, repairing the broken world we inherited.

We live in a world that seems more in need of tikkun than ever before. Our communities need to take up the challenge to address critical issues facing our nation and the world from racial justice and transgender equality to fighting poverty and working for peace in Israel. We rediscover a central Jewish truth: synagogues that marry deep learning about the Jewish foundations of tikkun olam with regular and meaningful social justice work continue to attract vibrant participation.

  1. Audacious Hospitality and Radical Inclusion

Walk in the doors of too many synagogues, sit in the pews, and notice how few people will greet you. Try bringing a child with special needs into many synagogues, and see whether the leadership will alter their program to embrace you. Similarly, so many other barriers to participation keep large groups of Jews and Jewish families away. Changing that dynamic holds one key to transforming a synagogue into the much-sought-after kehilla kedosha (holy community) that can sustain itself.

Recently, Rabbi Rick Jacobs with the support of the Ruderman Foundation designated Congregation Or Ami and 21 other synagogues (out of 850) as Exemplar Congregations, in recognition of excellence in disability inclusion. They honored “Yes, let’s together figure out how,” as the only acceptable answer to the question, “Can my special needs family member participate in the synagogue?” At last year’s Biennial, Cantor Alicia Stillman and I had the chance to model and co-lead an “audacious hospitality”-themed morning service; we patterned it after what we do regularly at our congregation. We welcomed everyone in multiple, inclusive ways: with name tags, moments to greet others, opportunities to hold hands, embraceable niggunim, and a daf (written page) that let everyone know what we were doing and where we were going.

What did so many worshippers comment upon thereafter? That in addition to feeling spiritually moved, they felt warmly embraced. Synagogues that flourish in this new era trumpet this fundamental Jewish value: “No one belongs at here more than you! Whether you or your Jewish family includes special needs, multiethnicity, LGBTQ, interfaith partners, older adults, empty nesters, young people, recovery from addiction, healing from brokenness or more, we embrace you always.”

  1. Deep Learning and Spiritual Searching

Back to basics. Jews and Jewish families today are seeking something that transcends their daily pressures and priorities. As synagogues return Torah to people in accessible ways, we must provide wellsprings of inspiration. We must create spiritual opportunities that point us back to Jewish sources; those sources, in turn, encouraging us toward holiness and holy living. Similarly synagogues must embrace wide-open discussions about Israel. Synagogues that prosper are providing their communities with deep study, often wrapping primary text study in with framing in a contemporary idiom – Torah on Tap, Men’s Night Out, Rap with the Rabbi, Loving Israel/Learning Why. Watch the people keep coming back for more.

  1. Innovation Makes the Difference

Synagogues that embrace innovation – technological, programmatic, financial, and relational – are reenergizing and renewing. Social media, once seen as the impediment to real relationships, becomes a powerful tool to tell and retell fundamental communal stories that share core Jewish values. With the energy especially of forward thinking clergy and lay teams (and at Congregation Or Ami, also by visionary student interns), the experimenting synagogue – older in years perhaps, but unafraid of occasionally failing – can become the new “synagogue start up”, illuminating an engagingly new Jewish entre point for Jews and Jewish families.

  1. Let the Young Run the Shul

The old adage, “The old shall dream dreams but the youth shall see visions,” reminds us to engage our youth in real ways. Guide them to mentor younger students, teach them to teach classes, partner with them to develop community social justice projects, and let them regularly lead Shabbat services. Their energy, enthusiasm and technological prowess are infectious and will lead their parents and grandparents to reconnect themselves.

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Where once buildings excited people, we now know that social justice work, inclusion, learning and innovation seems to bring them back for more. While there are increasing numbers of start-up synagogues that are focused on these approaches to spiritual life, don’t count out legacy synagogues. There are dozens of synagogues, like our own Congregation Or Ami, that are doing the hard work of retooling, experimenting, failing at times, and picking themselves up to innovate anew. The results are exhilarating and bode well for the future of the American synagogue.


Rabbi Paul Kipnes is the rabbi of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA. He co-wrote with his wife Michelle November, Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness (Jewish Lights). He leads substance abuse awareness and prevention programs, and ensures full inclusion for Jews with special needs. He serves on HUC-JIR’s Rhea Hirsch School of Jewish Education clinical faculty and mentors rabbinic students. He tweets @RabbiKip and blogs at