My Big Mistake!

“Tell you what, Rabbi,” he said, “I’ll give you a million dollars to start a mega-synagogue!” The “he,” in this case, was an evangelical church-going Christian, who, however, was the manager of a Jewish philanthropic fund. I will call him Brian (not his real name).

            It was the 1990s, and I was fundraising for Synagogue 2000. For readers who don’t remember those days, Synagogue 2000 was an initiative I cofounded with Conservative Jewish educator, Ron Wolfson, to transform synagogues into “spiritual and moral centers for the 21st century.” We were funded by wonderful people and foundations, but we were always seeking other funding partners, and that is what brought me to Brian.

            “Why would I support synagogues?” Brian asked. “They are a lost cause, like most churches. What you want is a Jewish renaissance, which is what we Christians have, but only in the novel form of megachurches. I belong to one myself – with 12,000 attendees! Give up on synagogues as they exist today. Think big. Start a megasynagogue, a Jewish version of my megachurch, and I’ll fund it handsomely.”

            I already knew a lot about megachurches — Ron and I had visited and studied them, as examples of entrepreneurial religion with much to teach us. More than just big churches, the megas are big ideas – doing church differently. “You don’t have to be mega or church,” we told the synagogues with whom we worked, “but the megas know something about American spiritual yearning that we can apply authentically to ourselves.”  I therefore appreciated Brian’s touting of megachurches. But start a Jewish version myself? That seemed altogether absurd. 

            The next day, I looked up the overall population in Brian’s city, then the number of attendees at his megachurch and figured out the ratio between the two. I then applied that     ration to the same city’s Jewish population. If my hypothetical megasynagogue were to attract the same percentage of Jews as Brian’s megachurch did Christians, I calculated, I would have 39 members. Of course, a megasynagogue was a silly idea.

            And that was my mistake. 

Here’s why.

            I have come to see that Judaism has a universal message, born of Jewish principles, informed by Jewish texts, nurtured by Jewish culture, grounded in Jewish religion, and continuous with the Jewish experience with history – an experience that speaks profoundly to the human . 

By Jewish principles, I mean the obvious ones, like justice and compassion, but also the Jewish love of learning, our trust in truth, our faith not just in God but in science, the Talmudic insistence on dialogue to arrive at insight, our balanced view of human nature, Jewish optimism (not for nothing is Israel’s national anthem Hatikvah — “The Hope” ). I like also our belief that there is nothing wrong with making money (ethically), as long as you give lots of it away. There is also Jewish Peoplehood: at its best, a global endeavor to perfect a broken world; but anyone can join it, and we respect other religious traditions as having their own unique and precious covenants with God. 

By Jewish texts, I mean the whole gamut, from Bible and talmudic literature (and even pilpul, which I think of as Jewish poetry); to Yehudah Amichai, Philip Roth, Marcia Falk, and Anzia Yezierska (if you haven’t read her Bread Givers, you should).

By Jewish religion, I include the best of what we have, but shorn of the worst. No religious tradition can claim honestly to include the entirety of the past — nor should it. I mean evolving religion: worship that touches the soul; healthy home ceremonial to strengthen loving families and friends. And don’t forget a religious calendar that rehearses the values that make us human: High Holiday moral consciousness; Sukkot thanksgiving; a weekly day off from work and worry; Yom Hashoah lament but the Joy of Simchat Torah.  

By Jewish culture, I mean the richness of Jewish music, but also Jewish scholarship; Hasidic insights into human nature; classical Reform’s reminder of the prophetic heritage; the best of Israeli creativity; our welcoming of heretical wonder (we get to question and even argue with God); our insistence on living life to its fullness (L’chaim); and even Jewish humor, the way we laugh at ourselves. 

Finally, there is the Jewish experience with history. We know (better than most) the pain of suffering, but also the promise of being the eternally rejuvenated Phoenix who sees things through to a better time. We are a people outfitted with a memory that gives us veritable centuries of perspective, and virtual eons of hope. 

But we’ve never managed to think big. We are like the poor but righteous protagonist in Y.L. Peretz’s classic tale, Bontsche Schweig, whom God rewards with anything his heart desires. He could have brought the messiah, but the best he can imagine having is a warm roll.

Brian was asking me to think big; and I didn’t. 

            Our world today is increasingly filled with laypeople who think bigger than religious leaders do. We have mistakenly concentrated on our “Jewish message” for Jews alone, rather than a “Jewish way” that speaks to spiritual seekers of all kinds.  We should reconceptualize Judaism as a conversation through time, touching upon everything that is precious to the human mind and heart. I spoke recently to Rabbi Karyn Kedar, who does think big, and who wondered, “Why do we settle for the same 100 people at services, or 50 people at a class?” Double it, triple it, quadruple it, if you like. It’s still a pittance, if you are a successful large synagogue with maybe 1000 family units. And most synagogues I know would be thrilled to have 100 people every Friday night, not to mention 50 in a class. 

So I wonder, “Why didn’t I jump on the chance to start a megasynagogue that would reach out to everyone, not just Jews, with the message of a Jewish Way?” Why did I assume that my megasynagogue “market” was just the Jews?

            I have no desire to convert people, no yearning to capture anyone who finds meaning in traditions other than my own. But every single day sees more and more people leaving religion entirely because they find no meaning there. 

            I don’t have Brian’s million dollars, but I do have a million-dollar idea: megasynagogues which may not even have to be big, but that do synagogue differently. They will open their doors and feature the Jewish conversation – Jewish principles, text, religion, culture and historical consciousness, all of them fully Jewish but fully human as well, an invitation to all who wish to find their way to human meaning by exploring the Jewish Way of being in the world. 

Kol dikhfin yeitei vyeikhul, we say at seder time, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Let us open wide our doors, so that all who want their humanity to have meaning, all who want purpose, hope, progress, love, and joy can see what the Jewish Way has to offer.   

6 responses to “My Big Mistake!

  1. Amen, Rabbi!

  2. I love this message so much! I think liberal Judaism does have messages for everyone. Besides, if we focus only on the relatively small number of people who make up our current core, that core will shrink over time.

  3. Use the model of megachurches, not based on their vast size, but on their eliminating barriers, opening the doors, and boldly teaching and celebrating the values and practices of their religion to all, with no embarrassment, no hedging, no “your thinking is just as good as ours.” We ought to talk more about OURS.
    Is that right?
    I think (Reform) Judaism has sometimes seemed hesitant to be explicit about Judaism. Often, our efforts to be welcoming and non-judgmental dilute our Jewish message, and can appear vague and non-compelling.
    At least that’s my takeaway now. I am not sure if that’s what you intended.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I am not, however, making any comparisons between what Judaism has to say and (for example) Christianity offers. I apply the Talmud’s understanding that God makes covenants with many peoples, all of which, however, must obey basic moral principles. A sect in any religion (including our own) that murders or robs fails the moral test and must be opposed. But assuming such basic morality, I have no intention of making insidious comparisons. My business is Judaism. My point, then, is (as you say) NOT to compare and say “We are all the same”; but equally, not to compare and imply “We are better.” I argue only that we have done a poor job of openly discussing what Judaism has to say; and that we must do that in a wider public than just already committed Jews. Let those who find deep meaning in their own faiths continue to do so. Their faiths (I know) are incredibly deep with much to offer. But those who find no such meaning should know that we too are incredibly deep with much to offer. Synagogues still operate as closed shops. “Visitors” feel unwanted; no one invites them in with any seriousness; they cannot follow the Hebrew and sing the songs; The frequently report feeling outright rejected.

      • I am honored by your reply. I am not clear on who you have in mind as the already-committed Jews. I see congregations of progressive Jews who are educated and articulate. They dazzle with their expertise in literature, science, medicine, the arts, politics, and business. I have often wondered why literacy and engagement in Judaism is not always equally explicit.
        I see that visitors can feel unwelcomed, and the liturgy, language, and songs may be off-putting. What I am personally not sure about, is how to welcome and include, while also celebrating and expanding the the gifts, the arts, and the foundations of Judaism. Do we devalue it if we make everything easier? I’m sincerely asking, not arguing. I’ve long been unclear how synagogues will balance tradition with progress, complexity with accessibility.

  4. You always inspire me…thank you! Michael

    On Sun, Feb 14, 2021 at 12:42 PM Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Ph.D. wrote:

    > lawrenceahoffman posted: ” “Tell you what, Rabbi,” he said, “I’ll give you > a million dollars to start a mega-synagogue!” The “he,” in this case, was > an evangelical church-going Christian, who, however, was the manager of a > Jewish philanthropic fund. I will call him Brian (not his ” >

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