Rabbi Andy Bachman’s blog, Ideas, today pointed me to a New York Times article called “An Unlikely Megachurch Lesson.” The article is worth a read. Some of this post may make little sense if you don’t read the article. Just read it. You’ll feel better afterwards.

Rabbi Bachman and his blog hold a very unique and special place in my current version of my life story. During a life-changing summer at the currently collapsing Kutz Camp, Andy became the first Rabbi who made me want to be a Rabbi. I have had always had the good fortune of having great Rabbis in my life, but Andy sparked something new in me. His unabashed way of saying what he means about things was new trait in a Rabbi to me and something I saw (and continue to see) in myself. Andy connects with people of all ages in a way that I never will. The man is more than twice my age and can engage someone my own age three times as well as I can. He now works at Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, where, since Andy joined their team, they draw new twenty and thirty-something members in ways that other synagogues across the country seem unable to.

That inability which Andy has somehow overcome and that Time article highlight the greatest challenge facing Jewry in America: de-affiliation. It was my impression for some time that I would be part of the solution to that problem as I mature and as I eventually join the Rabbinate. But this article along with a number of recent observations has led me to believe that I will never be a part of that.

I don’t like the kind of things suggested by the Times article. I don’t want guitars or bands or spiritual testimonials when I go to synagogue. I want traditional melodies and chanting and an honest, progressive and academically sound liturgy. It is clear to me that because of that, far from being part of the solution, I am part of the problem.

David Singer, my esteemed teacher, friend and fellow blogger (on the FAR side), would tell you that if you take what I described above as my desired mode of prayer and present it to people with passion and honesty, they will like it. As much as I would like for that to be true I think that David and I may have been born out of our time. We may not even have a time. My desire for truly progressive and truly reform liturgy seems to shared by almost no one. It certainly isn’t a priority for others.

So where does that leave me? What kind of Rabbi could I ever be and for what sort of congregation? I see that things described in the Times article are the way they may need to be to attract Jews to the pews, but how can I present that to others if I can’t stand it myself?


10 responses to “Conflicted

  1. Well, you definitely got one thing right. I do believe that. I also believe that mega-churches are nice, but not mega-Shuls. Judaism, frankly, does not work well amongst mega-groupings. It works in the intimate, in the small, in the close connections. We got rid of our mega-Church, the Temple, two millenia ago. Thank you Romans.

    But there is still much to learn from the article. Success comes in relationships – one-on-one. That’s why the Evangelicals do well, and that’s why Chabad does well too.

    Damn! If Chabad can sell their repressive, antiquated form of Judaism-like religion, then we certainly can sell ours! It just takes elbow grease, some money and a lot of commitment.

  2. The interesting thing, I find, through all of this issue, is that we still speak of “selling” Judaism. We want to move away from a model of “fee for service” Judaism, and yet we still speak of marketing, image, money, and products (guitars, siddurim, etc.).

    Perhaps the problem is not so much the issue itself, but the way in which we are approaching it?

    Perhaps we need to move away from this antiquated notion that religion should be sold?

  3. davidamwilensky

    That would be lovely Jesse. And it would be lovely for me to say, “Well, I don’t really mean sell. I mean convince.” And I’d be right. People do need convincing. But convince and sell are basically synonyms.

  4. Are they?
    I’m not so sure they are.

    I think for some who “buy into” Chabad’s approach (and there I go again using a marketing metaphor — although I do use it on purpose) it is indeed a matter of being sold on something – that is they give up something akin to money and receive something in return.

    For others, it is truly a matter of being convinced. But I don’t the terms are interchangeable or synonymous.

    Let me explain in another way…

    Having only joined a Reform shul when I was eight, I didn’t grow up entirely in the movement. But I must say that I was never “sold” on Judaism, or Reform Judaism for that matter. My “convincing,” as you put it, has taken place over the past 16 years. I’ve never “bought” anything.

    Buying into something implies a one-time exchange. A one time event… Much like Aish HaTorah’s and Chabad’s kallot where they try to sell Judaism. These events are designed as a one-shot engagement in Judaism. Sure, they work… but at what price?

    My “convincing” has been an entirely organic process. There have been ups and downs, highs and lows, but I have never sold out or bought anything. Judaism is not a stock market. You don’t buy and sell as you go along.

    My point… which may or may not be clear as I write quite tired at 1:00am… is that all of these “one-shot” attempts at solving the problem of affiliation and identity are never going to work, because they don’t truly foster commitment to Judaism as a whole, rather they attempt to hook people into little pigeonholed aspects of Judaism.

    Notwithstanding birthright’s multitude of successes, all other niche-marketing attempts at solving the affiliation problem are innately prone to failure.

    Get out of the stock market.
    Get into an organic farm.

  5. I should add the following, as I reread my comments:

    birthright is able to succeed as a niche-based program only insofar as it is tied to Israel and Zionism. This is a testament to the all-encompassing power of Israel and Zionism as a unifying aspect of Judaism and Jewishness, and must not be overlooked.

    No other such program has had the astonishing and concrete successes that birthright has, let alone in as short a timespan. Not the Kabbalah centre, not Chabad, not Aish, not the Jewish adventure programmes, not NFTY, not KESHER, not USY….. nobody can claim the successes that birthright has.

    And this is because it is about Israel… The State, and the People. For those who claim that Zionism is dead and Israel is irrelevant, they should think again. The whole issue of affiliation would be moot if shuls had the membership rate that birthright’s alumni lists boast.

  6. In reading the article, it seems that what Rick Warren and his church do best is to help people encounter God immediately through personal connection. They take seriously Martin Buber’s insight that we are able to encounter God through relationship and Mr. Warren’s church builds relationship from the beginning. They welcome people and tie them in to other established members of the community and they do so in such redundant fashion that even if several of the welcoming families can’t reach out others will.

    I don’t think it’s about the music or the liturgy, but the human and Divine connections that we build. Isn’t that what religion is really about, the human and Divine connection? You can, and I predict will, be a successful rabbi if you follow through, but not because you’re giving us the greatest liturgy (and definitely not because of your singing) but because you are a caring human being who connects to others and helps others make connections among themselves and to God.

    Mini-shuls through Mega-shuls are all capable of working well, if the web of connections is maintained. A large gathering can feel as intimate as a small one, if all feel connected. Everyone I’ve talked to (though I haven’t experienced it myself yet) describes how 5,000 Jews worshipping together at Biennial is an amazing, transcendant experience. A small gathering can be painfully isolating if there is no connection. Haven’t you ever been the third person and felt completely disconnected and out of place?

    Thank you, David, for bringing the article to my attention and the opportunity to think seriously about it.

  7. BDS –

    Worshipping with 5,000 Jews together at Biennial can also sometimes feel anything but amazing and transcendent. Truly, sometimes it feels like we’re not worshipping together. One of the problems with mega-shuls and the Biennial t’fillot is that they have to find a lowest-common-denominator, thus inherently making some people feel disconnected and out of place – just like the third person.

    A large gathering can also be painfully isolating if there is no connection. I refer you to my previous remarks — there is no singular, one-shot, solution to affiliation. It’s a process.

  8. BDS is right. It is about connections: to God, to other members, to the institution, to Israel, to the liturgy, etc. Each person needs connections of some sort. What the evangelicals and Chabad do so well, is establish the connections immediately.

    What the article did not mention is that when the official greeter meets the newcomer for the first time, he or she finds out what that person’s interests are and then knows with whom the connections should be made. If that person like to fish, he is introduced to the head of the bass fishing club (no joke; I learned this from a friend who attends a local megachurch and the bass fishing club is a big draw.) If they are interested in global climate change, they are connected to the “Green Club.”

    What we Jews seem to do is ask the newcomer to sign the guest book, introduce her to the president of the shul and maybe the rabbi and that’s the end of it. We may send her a new member packet in the mail. That is clearly insufficient.

    David, I don’t think your issue about whether one should offer an “academically sound” service or a service with a rock band is an either/or situation. Congregations–if they have the resources to do so–should offer both. Some people will respond to one and some to the other. The congregation, and the rabbi need to meet the people where they are.

  9. davidamwilensky


    Dad-I refuse to offer a litrugically correct service AND a band service. I’m okay with two, but they will both be correct even if one has music I find abhorrant in services.

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