Revolution of Jewish Spirit: Synagogue Transformation

Rabbi HaLevi challenges virtually every assumption about the twentieth century model of synagogue in his search to create the synagogue of the future.
— Dr. Ron Wolfson, Fingerhut Professor of Education, American Jewish University

In 2005, after a ten year merger process, two Conservative synagogues, Temple Beth El and Temple Israel, both of Swampscott, MA, formally united and formed, Congregation Shirat Hayam. The goal of this merger was not simply to become one dying synagogue together. Rather, it was to change the downward direction of Judaism in general, and Conservative Judaism in particular. The hope was that in forming this new congregation they would breathe new life into a stagnating Jewish community and inspire Jews to return to, reconnect with and recommit to their synagogue, their Jewish community and their Judaism. In 2006 CSH recruited Rabbi B to lead this charge. For the next decade, together with amazing cantors, Jewish professionals, lay leaders and congregants, Rabbi B & CSH literally created a Revolution of Jewish Spirit.

CSH soon became a regional, even national, phenomenon with visiting rabbis, cantors, lay leaders and ritual committees attending CSH on a regular basis, to witness the CSH Synaplex, interview CSH leadership and meet with Rabbi B to learn more about how they had done what so few other synagogues and Jewish communities have been able to do:

  • Successfully merge two Jewish instutions
  • Defy downward demographic trends
  • Radically increase membership
  • Dramatically increase philanthropic giving
  • Attract, once alienated, business people and professionals to leadership positions
  • Utilize technology to create 21st century Judaism
  • Re-engage young families and next generation leadership
  • And fill the synagogue, week in and week out, with hundreds upon hundreds of enthusiastic, engaged and passionate participants from across the Jewish spectrum as well as the secular and Christian world.

WHAT FOLLOWS ARE SOME OF THE KEY INGREDIENTS & HIGHLIGHTS DURING RABBI B's TENURE AT CSH.


The Lev Initiative Fundraising – One of the biggest challenges today for any Jewish non-profit is stagnating funding and antiquated, uninspired fundraising models. Although many rabbi shy away from these issues, or playing a part in this role, Rabbi B was integral to fundraising efforts. The Lev Initiative was Rabbi B’s response to the uninspired, High Holy Day presidential appeal. Instead of generically asking the congregation to essentially fund the deficit, the Lev Initiative was an annual replacement campaign to connect specific donors with an area that they utilized, felt connected to or spoke to their heart. Directed giving, plus a personalized, inspired solicitation from the rabbi, not only substantially increased donations, but changed a negative “writing a check” experience from a negative into an opportunity for connection, participation and joy. 

Zuzzim, Inc (Alternative Fundraising) - One of Rabbi B’s passions has always been to continuously challenge assumptions in the Jewish, non-profit world regarding funds and funding. Within the synagogue, dues and high holiday tickets are a failed model, for many reasons. Zuzzim was a non-profit Rabbi B initiated to help create a new revenue stream for CSH and other non-profits. The goal was, and still is, to someday make Judaism and synagogue membership free. Zuzzim was simply an online business to business, business to consumer networking platform, where a percentage of the transactions profits would flow to a charity of the buyer and consumer’s choice. It failed due to under-funding, but opened the door to new ways of thinking about this eternal problem and ultimately led to Rabbi B’s next social entrepreneurial venture, Green Partners Cannabis Investments.

Synaplex -  For the past twenty years there have been numerous attempts to revitalize Shabbat and re-engage unaffiliated or disengaged Jews, and nothing has been more successful than Synaplex (multiple Shabbat venues and experiences happening simultaneously under one roof). However, according to STAR (the originator of Synaplex), CSH was the first, and only synagogue in the world, to manage to offer it every single week.  Traditional and alternative services, Torah study, social gatherings, children, young families, seniors and people from all backgrounds, gathering together in the hundreds to celebrate Shabbat was a transformation of a community that once barely made a minyan.

 Ruakh Sermons – Rabbi B’s signature motivational sermons, on Shabbat and Holidays, coordinated with The Ruakh Rally Band, iShir kids choir, the cantor and various guest musicians culminating in a musical selection to evoke emotion, invite participation and open hearts, not just minds, to the power of Torah and possibilities of Jewish community. Ruakh Sermons were broadcast on the internet and available as podcasts with the strategic aim of creating a virtual community. Tens of thousands of Rabbi B’s Ruakh Sermons were watched or listened to, live and recorded. This provided a significant pathway to membership, building the CSH brand and spreading the light of Torah and Zionism out into the world. 

The Ruakh Rally -  Every Shabbat, holiday and special event at CSH, culminated with The Ruakh Rally -  hundreds of people, on their feet, dancing to the Ruakh Rally rock band, arms around one another, singing HaTikvah and songs of peace. Judaism will only thrive within the twenty-first century if we can speak to the hearts, not just the minds, of Jews, the larger community and spiritual seekers. The Ruakh Rally literally brought grown men and women to tears of joy and was a shining example of what made CSH such a source of inspiration for all.

Shulcasting – CSH was the first synagogue in the country to broadcast services on the internet on multiple channels, every Shabbat and holidays. In this way CSH reached thousands upon thousands of followers, spreading the light of Torah, and literally attracting viewers around the world, many of whom would travel specifically to Boston to visit CSH and Rabbi B.

Sagecasting – CSH broadcasts prayer services into regional Jewish nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Through fundraising, we secured the ability to not only provide these services, but to purchase the equipment and pay for the manpower in setting up the hardware within these facilities. In this way, entire communities were connected both to CSH and Judaism, which otherwise might have gone without either.

Synaguides – To translate Radical Hospitality into real time, CSH created Synaguides, lay leaders on assignment during Shabbat, to meet guests at the entrance, welcome them into the congregation, guide them through the myriad of Synaplex offerings, share with them CSH history and philosophy, and excited them as to our core values and mission. Synaguides have now been replicated around the country.

The Yoga Minyan – Every Shabbat, 30-50 people would gather for an alternative yoga service. This not only provided a way for those seeking to experience the Divine within their body, not just their head, but incorporated Jewish themes, values, the Torah portion and other Judaic content. The Yoga Minyan helped attract back to the synagogue hundreds of people who otherwise would have drifted away, if not leaving Judaism altogether. It became so popular that special evening and community programming developed around it.

The Kid’s Synaplex – One of the fundamental transformations at CSH was doing away with the failed Sunday school model and shifting our youth education to Shabbat. The era where Sunday school once worked no longer made sense. Children and families were in the building on Sunday, learning about the Sabbath, without ever participating on Shabbat. Over the course of a year Rabbi B communicated this vision, met with people individually, held parlor meetings and defused what was the single most contentious issue during his tenure (not due to Halachic or Jewish issues, rather, youth sports on Saturday). Through this process CSH transformed Jewish education, engaging children, parents and grandparents, not simply in the study of Judaism, but the Shabbat experience. Eventually children were often heard saying to their parents, "I don't want to go to baseball today. I want to go to Shirat and Shabbat." 

Shabbat Café – One of the essential aspects of any event is socializing. Above all else, Jews today are craving community and CSH positioned itself as a Jewish community center (Beit Keneset) as much as a synagogue (Beit Tefilah). To that end, food is an essential aspect of socializing and community. In addition to the early morning breakfast, the Boker Tov Café, every week CSH provided a fully funded, sit down, community wide lunch (feeding hundreds of people week in and week out) This expensive proposition was a program that Rabbi B personally solicited donor funding, guaranteeing this ongoing centerpiece of CSH, Shabbat and Judaism.

Virtual Yizkor – CSH was the first synagogue in the country to design, create and implement Virtual Yizkor. In lieu of Yizkor memorial plaques, Rabbi B solicited a donor to build a state-of-the-art memorial alcove, which houses a virtual yizkor system. This system allows the display of yizkor dates on a plasma TV, as well as archive the histories of loved ones, pictures and memories. Families are alerted to an upcoming yartzeits and bring their families to the synagogue to sit together and truly experience the beauty and blessings of remembering a loved one – the way this ritual was meant to be observed.

Chagenu – Jewish communities tend to be territorial and adversarial. One of Rabbi B’s hallmarks at CSH was his commitment to reaching out to fellow rabbis and cantors, neighboring synagogues and Jewish institutions, finding ways to collaborate, consolidate and merge wherever possible. Chagenu was one such example. Synagogues tend to go under-utilized during the holidays (save the High Holy Days) and Chagenu brought together local synagogues for a joint, communal Synaplex. Whereas every synagogue going it alone tends to barely attract a minyan, Chagenu attracted hundreds of people, bringing to the holidays a true sense of vibrancy, joy and celebration.

The Hope: Zionist Rallies - Rabbi B was known throughout CSH, the community and the region of one of the most outspoken, passionate and unwaveringly pro-Israel rabbis. On a regular basis, and every High Holy Days, in front of thousands in attendance, and thousands upon thousands more, on the internet, Rabbi B would give rousing calls to action to rise up and return to Zionism, visit Israel and support Israel during Her hours of need and in between. CSH became the default community rallying point whenever there was a crisis within Israel, where thousands would gather to hear the truth about Israel, show solidarity for Israel and raise awareness and funds to support Israel. 

 

If we are to create the kind of inspiring Jewish communities necessary to sustain and grow the Jewish people, if we are to fashion what I have called a “Relational Judaism” for the twenty-first century, we will be well-served to ask the right questions and then be bold enough to experiment in our search for good answers. Revolution of the Spirit is an excellent step in that direction.
— Dr. Ron Wolfson