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Congregations Need To Change And Become Spiritual Communities

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
May-June 2000

If American synagogues are to be meaningful in the coming century, they must transform themselves into "spiritual communities," writes Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman in Reform Judaism (Summer 2000).  

Rabbi Hoffman, professor of Liturgy at the Hebrew Union College in New York, notes that, "The needs of the Jewish community have fundamentally changed since the beginning of the 20th century. One hundred years ago, the synagogue was like a general store in a tiny farming community, where people would gather to get the news, exchange gossip, leave messages, and, maybe hold a meeting in the back room to plan the reconstruction of a friend's fire-damaged barn...The Jewish community was what sociologists call a `civic' community, meaning the all-embracing address where you met friends and did your Jewish duty."  

As times changed, so did the nature of the synagogue. By the 1950s, Hoffman writes, "the American synagogue began to resemble a local Chamber of Commerce organized by entrepreneurial merchants. In this `market' community congregants attended to obtain benefits from the organization...Dues were exchanged for programs and services like bar/bat mitzvah training and High Holiday seats...The synagogue became the congregational equivalent of a `limited liability community,' one which occupied a little corner of the members' larger lives."  

It is now clear, Hoffman argues, that this "market" community no longer offers a genuine sense of human connection. What the 21st century requires, in his view, is "synagogue transformation: the creation of truly spiritual communities...Market communities isolate us from one another, adding to the spiritual vacuum and feeling of fragmentation that is endemic to our time. If synagogues fail to respond to this crisis of alienation, an increasing number of Jews will seek inner tranquility elsewhere."  

Rabbi Hoffman concludes, "Imagine our synagogues as places where eternal values such as caring for the stranger and believing in the power of human beings to change the world are represented in every temple board decision...the synagogue as sacred community with spirituality at its core can connect us to people, truths, and to God through prayer, good deeds, learning and healing...We are engaged in a web of relationships that approach the transcendent. All of creation is connected and we are part of this universal `all'...a transformed synagogue reveals the profound mystery of the universe of which we are an integral part, connected to each other, to the cosmos, to eternity, and to God."

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