Synagogues must reach out to ‘the uninspired’

A few months back I saw “Moneyball,” a film about a creative reimagination of Major League baseball. In my favorite scene, Billy Beane, the legendary general manager of the Oakland Athletics, challenges his scouts to think differently about the game if they are to have any chance at success. Beane declares, “Adapt or die.” These words haven’t stopped echoing in my head.

In this new era of Jewish life — an era defined for many by the abundance of choices we face in every aspect of our lives — our synagogues must adapt or risk becoming ossified. Synagogue life is too important to be entrusted solely to those who already are within congregational walls. We must, emphatically, expand the notion of what a synagogue means. That’s the path being blazed by the Union for Reform Judaism and others seeking to widen the embrace of Jewish life.

Today, less than 50 percent of American Jews are synagogue members. The fastest growing group in the Jewish community is what we too often call the “the unaffiliated.” The term, of course, puts the onus on them. I  prefer to call that group “the uninspired”; it’s our job to inspire and help them find their place in the Jewish community.

Rabbi Rick JacobsHow? By reorientating our synagogues to address the needs of this group. Most of the time the synagogue is not reaching them. Synagogues must speak to the soul; they must challenge and educate.

Against a secular culture that places each individual at the center of the universe, we can choose to be part of something larger than just ourselves. Taking responsibility for others lifts us out of the indulgence and narrowness of self and connects us to a world of meaning and purpose. Rebuilding broken lives in the developing world is surely a part of our sacred calling, as is caring for our Jewish elders in Brighton Beach or the Ethiopian Jewish girl living in Beersheva amid rocket fire from Gaza.

Synagogues must be places where we extend ourselves to people we don’t know. It is easier to associate only with those who are just like us, but being part of a sacred community makes us responsible for those who think, earn, practice and vote differently than we do. That is how our souls get stretched beyond their narrow reach.

Our web of mutual responsibility doesn’t end with those in our congregation. Rather that’s where it begins.

Synagogues must reassess their focus on what happens outside their walls. Young Jews on the outside are not knocking on the door. It is our collective responsibility and challenge to reach them by breaking down the synagogue walls and engaging them, wherever they may be.

A growing network of urban congregations including Temple Israel in Boston, Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco and Temple Emanu-El in Dallas are doing just that. In Atlanta, St. Louis, Washington, Miami and elsewhere, Reform congregations are going where young people are — to coffee shops and bars, gyms and apartments. Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, N.Y., sponsors Shabbat in the ‘Hood: Unaffiliated Jews host a young rabbi in their homes for a festive and educational Shabbat dinner.

When I served as the senior rabbi at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., we hired a rabbinic intern from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and told him never to step inside the temple. We knew that most of our young people weren’t in the synagogue or even in the suburban neighborhood anymore; they were seeking new lives and careers in New York City, and that’s where they needed to be found.

A bright Jewish future requires us to widen our circles of responsibility and geography.

We must create a web of mutual extension that begins in the congregation and, in theory, is limitless. That web is something that our morning service calls “elu d’varim she’ein lahem shiyur” — the things that have no boundaries, no limits, because the good they do goes on, making individuals into congregations, congregations into movements, movements into one united Jewish people and the Jewish people into a force for good and for God — everywhere. The congregation is simply, and crucially, where the “me to we” begins.

In his commentary on Leviticus, the great scholar Nachmanides wonders why God had to summon Moses to enter the first praying place. His answer imagines that Moses hesitated to enter because he was intimidated by the holiness of the ancient Mishkan, or tabernacle. Today, too many of our people remain outside the walls of our synagogues sometimes intimidated, but even more often simply uninspired. We can change; we can adapt the enduring institution to this dramatic moment in Jewish history.

What are we waiting for?


Originally posted on


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Rabbi Rick Jacobs

About Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the URJ. See his full bio and other writings on the URJ website.

17 Responses to “Synagogues must reach out to ‘the uninspired’”

  1. avatar

    This is a refreshing and urgently needed approach. I would like to suggest an additional innovation which I think would bring more people into the tent: Interplay! It is a joyful inclusive approach based on improvisation, movement , storytelling, and music. Many US cities have Interplay groups. It began over 20 years ago in Oakland CA . It is a great tool for building community and is easily adaptable for Jewish settings. I hope to see it offered at the next Biennial!
    Chag sameach

  2. avatar

    This piece spoke to me with a loud and clear voice. I am one of the unaffiliated young people Rabbi Jacobs is writing about. This is not by choice; I have struggled to find a Jewish community post-college, and so far, I have not been as successful I would like. Upon moving to Boston a year ago, I did everything I could think of to find a new community. I asked friends for their suggestions on synagogues, but by and large, they had not found any where they felt at home. I signed up for newsletters from the Jewish Boston 20s and 30s website, and while they have some amazing events, most of these events are not synagogue-hosted. I get the newsletter from the Riverway Project, which is the Temple Israel program that Rabbi Jacobs referenced. Unfortunately, they seem to have events once a month or less. When I’ve gone, I’ve spent the evening talking to the friend I went with, just like everyone else there.

    I am not trying to whine. I just feel homesick all the time for my Jewish community, my sense of belonging to something bigger. I go to Shabbos most often at a small conservadox shul; they serve a kosher dinner after Kabbalat Shabbat, and everyone is so outgoing and friendly there. This shul, while it does not share many of my Reform traditions, reaches out to me regularly. They have young professionals events on a weekly basis, sometimes more than one. Whenever I go, people introduce themselves, ask me about myself, ask me about my Judaism, and encourage me to come back. In short: they’re very recruiting. I’ve heard similar stories from friends who were raised Reform and go to Chabad every week now. We’re not trying to leave the URJ. We’re just trying to find someplace to belong.

    I love being Jewish. I love being a Reform Jew. I was raised in a household that observed every holiday and festival and made dinner on Shabbos. We all spent our summers at a URJ camp. I pushed to have a NFTY-affiliated temple youth group in high school, and I eventually had the honor of serving as President of our NFTY region. In college I led services at Hillel. I never for one moment expected that when I graduated, I’d be unable to find what I’ve been a part of my whole life, a kehillah kedoshah.

    The more I typed in this email, the harder it got. I don’t want to admit how lonely I am. I just want to come home.

    • avatar

      Hi Hannah. Sorry Temple Israel is not working for you. Try Temple Sinai (Reform) in Brookline. It is a small warm welcoming community with young professionals such as you. Everyone will speak to you. The Shabbat services, led by Rabbi Vogel, are joyous. Enjoy and be happy.

    • avatar

      Hannah, if you live in the Boston area, and Temple Israel is not to your liking, there are at least two very good alternatives. One is Temple Sinai, as Connie has pointed out, and the other is Central Reform Temple in the Back Bay, which, despite its name, is actually very small, unusual, and cutting edge congregation. It manages to be both a vigorously modern, liberal, LGBT and social justice-oriented congregation while at the same time being the spiritual home for Classical Reform Jews in the area. At any given service, you might see guitar and soloist, choir and organ, or both! They use an innovative, gender-neutral, updated version of the old Union Prayer Book that seems to satisfy hippie-liberals and old-line Classical Reform Jews alike. The juxtaposition of old and new is a lovely experience, and their rabbi, Dr. Howard Berman, is one of the kindest human beings you will ever meet. Services are mostly in English.

  3. avatar

    Terrific article! I participated last night in a wonderful Mussar class led by Rabbi Gary Shaffer at Beth Elohim, and it’s these types of innovative programs that reach out to the community in ways that are accessible and inspiring, that breathe fresh life into the Jewish community!

  4. avatar
    roberta kalmanson Reply March 30, 2012 at 8:52 pm

    Perhaps the high financial price of belonging scares some families with children away. In terms of after school sports, piano, etc..Temple must find a way to compete for the same dollars…budgets are tight and the value is not visible..there are no trophies for Temple membership!
    The intrinsic value to the soul is not apparent to the unaffiliated…money may be an excuse but we need to address it.

    • avatar
      Netzach Benyochanan Reply May 20, 2012 at 8:43 pm

      So sad… So truthful…

    • avatar

      Money is an issue and so is time. For families with kids involved in sports, and time is used up. Another issue may be lack of other Jewish kids in their school classes and sports teams. What could work would be to invite these kids — preteens, teens — to specific youth group activities — games, movies, bowling, pizza, whatever — to enable them to make Jewish friends and begin to develop their own ties, even if they don’t attend religious school.

  5. avatar

    I agree with the sentiment in this article. I live in a place where the sole Reform synagogue–to which I and my family belonged for many years–has become unwelcoming and even hostile to those who try to express views they don’t want to hear. Like Hannah in the message above, I am lonely for the affiliation I once had.
    I and some others are trying to create an alternative and more welcoming Reform Jewish presence in our small city but it is a difficult and time-consuming thing to do. How sad that this is necessary! And, as Hannah indicates, the void is often filled by Chabad.
    I would like to see the URJ establish an avenue for membership by those of us who don’t have a current affiliation with a URJ synagogue.

  6. avatar

    As a cantor having been inspired by my involvement at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in NYC many years ago to lead a more Jewishly committed life (ultimately leading me to become a Hazzan), I resonate with that Rabbi Jacobs says.
    It seems there are many longing for connections to their Jewish roots and it is not only young people but Jews of all ages and backgrounds who are searching for a deeper connection.
    My question would be how we seek to accomplish some of the same goals that Rabbi Jacobs is talking about in the suburbs (as opposed to the cities) where life is more “settled”, centered around family and activities such as sports, and where many seem content with life as it is and are not “spiritually seeking”.
    We have much to offer at our congregation for whom there’s a spark of interest and a desire to either connect or re-connect with a congregation. But for the majority who seek to remain on the periphery of Judaism and Jewish life, what do we do?
    Cantor Mark Perman

  7. avatar

    As a follow up to my previous comment I’d like to add: ” Many do take advantage of what we have to offer at the synagogue….For two Shabatot in a row our sanctuary was filled both for a special Music Shabbat and a Sisterhood Shabbat. We are also planning to go out more into the community where the unaffiliated Jews are as Rabbi Jacobs says.

  8. avatar

    While I appreciate Rabbi Jacob’s attempt to think outside the box in terms of increasing membership, I think that it is not very well focused. Why for instance would he send a rabbinic intern assigned to his suburban temple to meet 20 somethings in Manhattan when in all reality if they join a temple it will be in the city not in Westchester. I believe that programs not individuals are the most important things in bringing in unaffiliated Jews. That is how you get institutional loyalty. The problem with the relationship before programming approach of Rabbi Jacobs is that should the person be it professional or lay leave the temple the person or people who were brought into the institution by that person might leave.

  9. avatar
    Netzach Benyochanan Reply May 20, 2012 at 8:39 pm

    Hi, all!

    I’m just tired of reading and reading articles like this one, and listening sermons related to outreach, inclusion, civil rights defense, etc. etc. etc. within the Reform Movement. Everything sounds so nice, so beautiful, but in reality it just do NOT exist.

    I grew up Reform, I have a Reform heart, I do agree with almost 90% of what Reform Judaism “preach”, believe, promote, etc. But several years ago I drifted apart… Decided to become an unaffiliated.

    Guys, one thing is what URJ Press & CCAR Press publish, and other VERY different thing is what most Reform Congregations actually practice.

    Here where I live, for instance, there’s a temple calling itself “benevolent”, but in reality it is more cruel and dry than anything else. A snobby rabbi dealing with conversion, always paying more attention to his iPad than to the people in from of him, telling people upfront “we’re paying for your conversion, but you have to agree in advance to pay your membership dues right alter; this is how much you have to pay”.

    Another female rabbi looking at how and what you’re wearing or how you look like, and… of course she will do that right after Shabbat service (very “spiritual” and “inclusive”, heheheh).

    I’ve been coming and going through the years hoping to finally see a change, an improvement, just to find out that it gets worse and worse every year. Oh well…

    Most Reform temples are currently suffering economical crisis, but clergy and board members don’t realize they (THEMSELVES) are the problem. Who wants to become a member and pay dues to get or witness this kind of behavior? Temples are NOT social clubs anymore. Whoever wants to belong to a social club or alike, there’s a vast universe of options out here…

    We don’t need to pay high dues to belong to a dry and NO-benevolent club or congregation. We do NOT need or want to pay dues to benefit a clergy that doesn’t deserve to be called such. I will never pay to feed snobby “sacred cows”, who believe that being a rabbi or cantor is merely a business.

    These days Jews (and people in general) are looking for spiritual and meaningful oasis, but unfortunately that’s not present in most Reform synagogues. So please, try to solve that situation first before you guys can even think about a renewal of Reform Jewish Outreach.


  10. avatar

    While I admire the idea I am wondering why no one seems to realize that the cost structure of congregations is at odds with engagement with constituents outside of the congregation. How do you afford a human resource intensive program ( clergy) and a fixed site ( a building) and send them to the local Starbucks to do a “free” program ? The financial model for congregations as dues based organizations relying on membership at a fixed location is fundamentally at odds with our apparent need to shift in and out of various interests groups and communities in a much more fluid yet segmented way. Until the organized Jewish world is serious a about aligning the models it will organize itself out of relevance.

  11. avatar

    Having been a member of two different synagogues over the last 32 years and having worked in both Reform and Conservative synagogues, I would venture a guess and say that not only are Jews outside the synagogue uninspired but also those inside the synagogue are just as uninspired.

    For many, synagogues have become a way station – they stay as long as the synagogue serves their immediate need and then leave – there is no sense of attachment or community. And usually this need revolves around their children. I have always maintained that we have three or four years to make new members feel connected. If we have not succeeded in doing that, we have lost them when their immediate need is fulfilled.

    Before we waste precious resources on attracting the uninspired non-members, I think we need to look at our own uninspired current members.

  12. avatar

    If you substitute Unitarian Universalist Church/Fellowship for Jewish Temple, the message rings equally true! We call our vision “Congregations and Beyond.” Thank you for an excellent article.


  1. Reforming Reform: 2. The ‘Platform,’ ‘Principles,’ and Cafeteria Judaism | RJ Blog - October 29, 2012

    […] Jacobs, the new head of URJ here has rightly emphasized the need to inspire current and potential members of Reform synagogues. This I believe is not only a matter of how […]

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