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A Centennial Vision for The Jewish Center: The Synagogue as Crossroads - A Better Jewish Future

A Centennial Vision for The Jewish Center: The Synagogue as Crossroads


by Yosie Levine

The information age has brought with it great benefits for humankind and the Jewish community in the process. But it has also created challenges that our community has not yet adequately confronted. On their surface, the technological advances of the past twenty years offer us the means to bridge gaps of time and place by bringing people together virtually. In reality, however, we are quickly discovering that while the internet age allows people to have more relationships, those relationships are more remote, less deep and ultimately less meaningful.[1] How do we get people talking, meeting and engaging personally with one another rather than substituting texts and emails for the in-person communication that deepens relationships?

For the Jewish community, this first challenge is compounded by a second, concurrent challenge. Not that long ago, the synagogue represented a center, not just for prayer, but for social interaction among multiple demographics across a broad swath of the community.[2] Today, synagogues compete with independent minyanim, partnership minyanim, shtiebels and chavurot.[3] By definition, almost, each of these alternatives represents a kind of affinity group wherein like-minded, like-hearted, or like-aged Jews come together. The immediate effect is that there are precious few opportunities to meet and engage with members of the Jewish community who are not exactly like you. Our children are poorer for having no regular contact with Holocaust survivors. Our young activists are poorer for never having befriended a fellow shul-goer who rallied on behalf of Soviet Jewry. And our seniors are poorer for having little or no exposure to the vibrancy and creativity of a younger generation.

This paper proposes that it is possible to conceive of a new synagogue model that facilitates these kinds of interactions in an organic way and enriches and ennobles its members in the process. Bearing in mind the natural and real limitations of denominationalism, this model may be applied to any segment of the Jewish community. The idea is to transform the synagogue into a crossroads – a commons that brings together Jews who are young and old; politically and religiously liberal and conservative; veterans and beginners; and who come from different backgrounds and find themselves at every age and stage of life.

Our goal at The Jewish Center is to become this crossroads – not just a center for Jewish life and learning – but a venue in which both strategically planned and chance meetings bring together our most silo-ed individuals and enclaves. The collision of conflicting beliefs and varied experience is a hallmark of our tradition.[4] We endeavor to create a community woven together from the most colorful and variegated spools of thought and life experience.

Like many urban synagogues, the Center has a wonderful legacy of opening multiple portals of entry. From ski days to cooking classes; from book clubs to barbecues; there are a plethora of avenues for participation beyond just prayer and Torah study. The problem remains, however, that each portal tends to connect only the like-minded. The question that emerges is: How do we bring together those who have come through each portal?

Because the kind of interaction that we envision is happening less and less on Shabbat and less and less in the sanctuary proper, The Jewish Center is now exploring how it can become a center for Jewish creativity and entrepreneurship on the other six days of the week. Located in the heart of New York’s pulsating Upper West Side, The Jewish Center is uniquely situated to merge the worlds of the new and the innovative with the established and historic.

Practically speaking, we have experimented with strategic partnerships between groups like Manhattan Jewish Experience, PresenTense,[5] Yeshiva University, Hebrew University and Gvanim.[6] In each case, individuals from outside the establishment or outside our community have had opportunities to collaborate with Jewish Center members. Almost without exception, the results have been mutually beneficial.

A recent success illustrates how this venture yields practical results. Thanks to our involvement with PresenTense, a Jewish Center member was selected as a PresenTense Fellow. Her initiative aims to respond to the growing number of Jewish singles throughout the country, who are having difficulty getting married. Her goal is to establish an umbrella organization, with highly trained professionals, which would address all facets of the problem including training specialized matchmakers, guiding volunteers and implementing a complete educational curriculum for matchmakers, singles, communal leaders and parents.[7] She is now being mentored by a senior member of the community with years of experience in marketing and public relations. Both of these members would have entered their own portal of entry without ever meeting one another.  Thanks to our strategic partnership, we were able to bring these individuals together in a way that is not just mutually elevating, but potentially transformative for our entire community.

We have also experimented with a professional mentorship program internally among our membership. Junior members in a given sector are paired with more senior members who may be well-suited to provide wisdom or guidance or serve as a networking resource.

We envision at least two further advances that would push our agenda forward. First, we aspire to professionalize these partnership and mentorship processes. Rather than passively responding to invitations for strategic alliances, our goal is to identify a professional, part of whose portfolio would be to envision and implement the kinds of associations that could strengthen both partners symbiotically.

Second, our goal is to create a designated space in the building to serve as our crossroads. In addition to the creation of co-working spaces, networking opportunities and strategically-planned points of integration, the crossroads would also allow members and visitors to meet naturally: Jewish entrepreneurs or visitors would know that they could reserve space in an environment combining the feel of a 19th century Parisian coffee house with the most cutting edge resources of a Silicon Valley start-up. Students attending a Jewish history class would flow into the space just as social action volunteers would be passing through on their way to another activity. Participants in a kosher cooking demonstration would meet up with members of a Jewish environmental group.

The New School’s Institute for Retired Professionals is a wonderful model on which to build.[8] Between sessions, students who have attended different classes convene for a coffee break in a centralized location. They share comments and thoughts on what they have studied, socialize and eventually build relationships with fellow students whom they might otherwise have never met.

Under the wide umbrella of Jewish interest, we would aspire to bring together participants from the widest possible demographic spectrum. Such a model would expand exponentially opportunities for dialogue, discussion and the exchange of ideas within the walls of a safe and a known Jewish institution.

What is more, in the near future, we envision producing opportunities for these points of interaction to be actively constructive. As David Brooks recently wrote, “creativity is not a solitary process. It happens within networks. It happens when talented people get together, when idea systems and mentalities merge.”[9] We want to harness our most creative energies and parlay them into future successes. In an ideal world, people would not just be meeting and talking at our crossroads, but actively contributing to an ongoing project. In addition to the particular area of interest that brought them into the building, participants could work collaboratively on solving a communal or local challenge; share a holiday memory and submit it to a communal reservoir for eventual editing and distribution; or they could contribute creatively to a project in Jewish art that relies on the pooling together of resources and submissions.

The internet has taught us how to harness the power of the community.[10] The idea of the synagogue crossroads is to take this same collaborative energy and in the process of bringing ideas, knowledge and wisdom together, bring people together, too.

Measuring success would entail constant quantitative monitoring. We would incentivize our capacity to track members or non-members involved in a mentoring, networking or crossroads relationship by offering to showcase the results of their relationship.[11] In addition, we would invite those who have been mentored or who have otherwise benefited from these face-to-face interactions to volunteer to become mentors or benefactors at a future time. Annual surveys of all our participants would help us understand how best to adjust our working models.

The possibilities are endless. Whether they are always conscious of it or not, members of our community are in desperate need of human contact. And through that human contact individuals have the capacity to generate more creativity than they do from within their own silo-ed lives.[12] By creating a crossroads at which to meet, we can elevate both our members and the members of a much broader and much less connected Jewish community.

[1]For more on the phenomenon of the internet and the rise of superficiality, see Nicholas Carr, The Shallows, New York (2010), pp. 58ff.

[2] For a more thorough treatment of this historical phenomenon, see David Kaufman, Shul with a Pool, Hanover (1999), particularly pp 232 ff.

[3] See Margot Lurie, Minyan 2.0 in The Jewish Review of Books, Winter 2011, pg. 25.

[4] See for example Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia 84a.

[5] The PresenTense Group engages and inspires the most creative minds of our generation, investing in their ideas and energy to revitalize the Jewish community. PresenTense enables young Jews to have global conversations about new ideas and envision a better future. And when they’re eager to act upon these ideas, we educate and equip them for success. See http://www.presentense.org.

[6]Gvanim was founded to enable leaders from diverse walks of life to devote a significant portion of their lives to a diligent exploration of the challenging encounter of Jewish religion and culture in the modern, independent state of Israel. See http://gvanimsanfran.com.

[7] This story was featured on the front page of The Jewish Week on November 4, 2011. http://www.thejewishweek.com/news/new_york/yenta_20

[8] See http://www.newschool.edu/irp.

[9]David Brooks, The Crossroads Nation, The New York Times, November 8, 2010.

[10] See Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, (New York) 2008, pg. 55ff.

[11] PresenTense currently uses this model to great effect.

[12] See Jonah Lehrer, The Importance of Physical Space, Wired, February 10, 2011, http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/02/the-importance-of-physical-space.


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