Thoughtful Revolution

The Progressive Shul

shul (n., plural shuln) — a synagogue.

synagogue (n.) — A building or place of meeting used by Jews for worship, religious study, and, often, community activity.

For the last 12 years, I have taken it for granted that I attend what is commonly known as D.C.’s resident “hippie shul” — a Reconstructionist, egalitarian, environmentalist congregation overflowing with liberal politics, acoustic-guitar-powered liturgy, and tallitot (prayer shawls) resplendent in every color of the rainbow.  So naturally, we at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation tend to somewhat self-congratulatorily view our synagogue as the perfect model of a “progressive shul.”  Certainly, with our djembes and solar-powered sanctuary, we look the part.  But at yesterday morning’s Rosh Hashanah service, I was reminded of how far from perfect we are.  The structure of our services are still rigidly hierarchical, in effect becoming more like religiously themed performance than communal sessions of worship and reflection; any involvement during the service by laypeople seems more like “audience participation” than a genuine equalizer.  Excessive cantorial flourishes, particularly on the emotional High Holidays, put members into the role of listener rather than worshipper, and purportedly discussion-based sermons by our (brilliant) rabbi leave only a minute or so for congregational insight.  The congregation is almost entirely upper-middle-class, white, and employed in white-collar and/or “intellectual” career tracks — and, what is almost more worrisome, there are almost no members between the ages of 18 and 34, an age demographic that statistically should be drawn to the idea of a liberal, humanistic, accepting, socially conscious “hip shul.”  I’m not saying that Adat Shalom isn’t a wonderful community, because it is.  And I’m not saying that it hasn’t taken near-extraordinary steps to apply modern progressive ideals to the traditional setting, because it certainly has.  But, though it may be on the right path, it isn’t yet a perfect congregation.

All that said, like any good idealist, I have some idea of the synagogue I would like to see in the D.C. area.  In fact, if my congregants wouldn’t object to having a dyed-in-the-wool atheist as a rabbi, I might just start it up myself.  Below are some thoughts on elements of a model “progressive shul”:

1. Keep it round.
I’m absolutely serious.  In my mind, the number-one best starting place for tearing down the highly structured, hierarchical feel of most synagogues is in the shape of the seats.  One of the most powerful things about Judaism is its intense liturgical and practical focus on community; what better way to reinforce that than by praying within a circle, where you are both surrounded by and visible to fellow worshippers?  Likewise (as King Arthur figured out in fable so long ago), what better way to reinforce progressive, egalitarian ideals than to have no seat set apart from or elevated above the others?  Some might argue that this arrangement would take away the majesty of a service — but on the contrary, how much more powerful could a prayer like Avinu Malkenu be were it not sung only by one detached “main repenter” on a stage, but sent up by the voices of an entire community equal in their prayer?  How much more powerful when everyone else in your community can see your face, hear your voice, share in your reflection?  And practically speaking, if your progressive shul gets too big, don’t cave and build a souped-up auditorium: construct an ampitheatre.  Or just put in a whole lot of seats.

2. If you want to build your shul in a metropolitan area, build it somewhere with access to public transportation.
Not everyone can afford (or wants to buy) a car.  Heck, not everyone can afford a bike.  And if you do as Adat Shalom did and build your synagogue on the virtually transportation-less outskirts of suburbia, suddenly it’s going to be hard for students and other car-less folk to come to services.  Certainly, if your synagogue is in such a location, outreach to people who have never heard of the shul will become a major challenge.  I’m not saying that it’s necessary to start up in, say, the middle of Times Square (though that would be kind of cool), but ensure accessibility to all who are interested — not only the older, wealthier ones.

3. If you must invest in real estate, invest in a backyard.
There is nothing in the liturgy that does not sing the praises of human capital and resources.  However, there are many, many prayers devoted to the beauty and majesty of nature; as such, weather permitting, an outdoor service would be that much more powerful.  The original hippies had it right when they recommended meditation in nature — it’s thought-provoking, creativity-inspiring, and fundamentally spiritual in the most extraordinary of ways.  It also inspires a certain progressiveness on the environmentalism front, which brings us to my next point:

4. Bring out the social consciousness.
As any number of rabbis worth their salt can tell you, the Torah contains some remarkably leftist passages, especially for its time — from the importance placed on the sabbatical to the various eco-friendly exhortations, Jewish texts take plenty of positions (commendable or not-so-commendable, as I’ll discuss in another post) on social issues relevant even today.  So no progressive community could in good conscience fail to follow in those footsteps.  And I’m not just talking about fundraising drives — get involved in rallies, organize group soup kitchen outings, build houses with Habitat for Humanity on Sukkot.  Don’t be afraid to mention politics in “sermons” (see below), especially because people who disagree can feel free to speak out.  Please, please don’t pull punches for fear that they’ll be too controversial.  And definitely keep congregants informed, from a stack of flyers at the front door to an online community “bulletin board” to a discussion group after services.  Sometimes attempting to do good for the world can feel daunting: the community that the progressive shul provides would make that task a little more welcoming.

5. Introduce a new kind of sermon, and a new kind of Jewish education.
By “sermon” I mean “discussion group.”  Traditionally, Jewish tradition has placed great import on individual Torah study, and not only that of the rabbi; educators worldwide have long since figured out that the best way to learn is through participation.  The function of the rabbi in this nouveau sermon would be to begin, mediate, and periodically contribute, while the trajectory of the discussion would be determined by the voices of many participants.  The voicing of different opinions and spontaneous ideas would add the depth and breath that one voice, no matter how eloquent, cannot conjure up; it would also serve the crucial function of making services seem more about the community than the hierarchy.  Likewise, music should be community-wide, with the cantor more often playing leader than soloist.  Musicians should be encouraged to bring their instruments, both encouraging a broader knowledge of the liturgy and making for an exquisite, soulful cacophony during the prayers, allowing everyone to express themselves in what is perhaps the most visceral way available.

And education, for both children and adults, should be staged in a similar mode; it should also be free, open, well-staffed, and widely available.  In a perfect synagogue, there would be at least one class every night of the week, taught by community members in a wide variety of Jewish-themed subjects (and trust me, there are plenty) and structured like a tutorial.  A synagogue should be a place of learning, and not only the sort of passive, non-participatory learning that the current hierarchical structure invokes.

6. Make upkeep a communal effort.
Not just potluck lunches, though those are fabulous and should certainly be incorporated.  A shul is a building for all those who care to attend; as such, it is the duty of those attendees to (when permitting) keep it alive and maintain its good health.  Cleaning duties, cooking duties, even decorations for holidays: families should sign up for certain tasks as part of their “social contract” with the synagogue.  For a people that so admires elements of the kibbutz model, we are too often remiss in incorporating those elements into our own daily lives.

6. Be rational, understanding, and humanistic.  Accept those who have utter faith in their religion, those who are questioning it, and those who admit to having none.  Enforce no criteria as to “who is Jewish, and who is not.”  Get involved in interfaith work and dialogue, and do it frequently and seriously.  Ensure that all, no matter their ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, or income, are welcome.  Be, in the spirit of the Passover Seder, open to all who need you.
That’s pretty self-explanatory.


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  1. * Dirty Commie says:

    I’d think you would feel right at home in a Unitarian Unerversalist congregation. We don’t sit in a circle ( most of the time) but we are welcoming to atheists!

    | Reply Posted 8 years, 9 months ago

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