Babies, bellies, and getting Jews in the pews

*A Radical Repost (Because the first time around just wasn’t good enough! )

Derek Leman kicked off a discussion “on the human need (or lack thereof) for congregation.” It got me thinking, once again, about the purpose of Jewish community, and whether we’re any closer to meeting the very human need for kehilla within the four walls of our synagogues.

As a movement, we’re routinely criticized by fellow Jews for lacking in authenticity, credibility, or a sense of theological maturity. Many of these accusations are (sadly) apt, but none need stand in perpetuity. The only real stumbling block that our Jewish friends and relatives should encounter when stepping into our synagogues is our claim that Yeshua is Mashiach. Not tacky banners, not random shofar blowings, not Powerpoint siddurim, and certainly not “rabbis” who can barely read Hebrew.

I’ll submit that if the latter are operative norms in your congregation, and you’re scratching your head wondering why more Jews aren’t sitting in your pews, that you’ve just landed on the answer. There’s just too much nonsense coming between the average Jewish visitor and the claim that Yeshua is Mashiach.

I also want to submit that the path to “getting Jews in the pews” is not necessarily to look, feel, and smell more like a standard-issue Conservative synagogue. Go to one of those suburban synagogues on a non-Holiday weekend, and count the Jews in the pews. If it isn’t Orthodox, and you find more than a smattering of retirees, a confirmation class, and the family whose kid is having a b’nai mitzvah that weekend, I’ll personally wire you $50.*

Instead, I want to encourage you to visit some of the experimental communities that are rapidly changing the face of 21st century Judaism and engaging Jews across the spectrum – young and old, committed and unaffiliated. Derek Leman has expressed some hesitation about the long-term impact of these experiments (do they really satisfy the human need for community or are they as ineffective as they are fashionable?). But we’ve seen genuine value in emerging kehillot that have enjoyed a few years to work out the kinks.

Take a look see. Seriously, take notes! You’ll be surprised to find babies and bellies – the most universal indicator of a church or synagogue’s potential for long-term growth – all over the place. There’s something incredibly compelling about these kehillot, and there’s a deep spiritual hunger within our fellow Jews that these communities are satisfying. The really critical distinction between these emerging groups and the traditional suburban shuls dealing with declining membership is the vertical/horizontal divide that we’ve harped on before.

While traditional shuls (including the average suburban Messianic synagogue) are organized vertically (top down), emerging kehillot are generally a cozy home for the under-40 set, which feels that post-modernism, post-denominationalism, and post-partisanism are comfortable (rather than threatening) paradigms. The “horizontal” generation values collaboration, and seeks a spiritual home where our ideas, talents, and perspectives are valued, put to work, and allowed to transform the community … not just put on display.

The take home message is that if a congregation wants Jews in the pews (along with their babies and their bellies), it needs to go through a somewhat painful process of self-evaluation. First, a congregation must ask itself

Why, exactly, are we here? What are we trying to build together and who do we need as partners to build it?

I would hope a synagogue would come to the conclusion that it exists to provide a spiritual home for Jews who follow Yeshua, and that it needs a sizeable contingent of young professionals, couples, and families to carry its vision into the next generation. The second question is this:

Just what is it about our community that’s alienating to these elusive Jewish ‘babies and bellies?

After landing on the beginnings of an answer, it’s time to grasp the idea that when you welcome young people into your community, you welcome their input as well (not just their warm bodies). This is the defining feature of a horizontal community, after all. It’s a place where people are more than benchwarmers and less than the owners of carefully guarded turf.

The real challenge comes when a congregation tries to satisfy the spiritual hunger of the young, while simultaneously accommodating the preference for “the way it’s always been” among the old. We’ve seen a few established shuls do this successfully in LA, often by creating a lively monthly Kabbalat Shabbat service led and attended by the young’uns. Of course the necessary changes go deeper than simply propping up an extra service, but Friday night is a nice place to begin.

Maybe I’m incredibly naive, but I really do hold out hope that Messianic synagogues can become vibrant spiritual homes for Jews who follow Yeshua. And I’m still convinced that the way to do that is to embrace and satisfy the spiritual hunger of young Jews … with babies and bellies galore.

Because really, it’s time to stop writing off the next generation as flaky and noncommittal, and time to realize that they’re the only next generation we have.

*Void where prohibited at blogger’s sole discretion. 😉

About Monique

Chocoholic, jazz head ... prone to rants, and a professional pitbull. I married a terrific guy who happens to be a rabbi, so I guess that makes me a rebbetzin. Who saw that one coming? My grandparents survived the Shoah and spent their lives in the service of others. On my best days, I walk in their footsteps.
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16 Responses to Babies, bellies, and getting Jews in the pews

  1. Anonymous says:

    Good post! Great points. Thank you. What do you mean by post-modernism? My impression of post-modernism, is that it is the view that there is no ultimate truth, and no universal values? (Except, perhaps, being opposed to "dogmatic, evil Evangelical Christianity" and in favor of abortion and gay marriage). It is the syncretic religion of the liberal left, mankind is their god, conservative Christianity is the devil, while abortion and gay marriage are sacraments. I know for sure that's not what you have in mind for Messianic Jewish kehilot. But I just got confused when you mentioned not being threatened by post-modernism. The post-modernism I know, is definently not a good role model. But speaking to them on their own level, to elevate them to that of Hashem's? I'm all for that.I hope we can find ways to be Jewish and Torah observant, warm and vibrant, modern and outgoing, and entirely faithful to those conservative moral values that never will change. I think we can learn both from these experimental synagogues and communities, AND from groups like the Chabadniks. They are "zealots" for G-d, the Torah and their rebbe. I'm sure we can be equally on fire for G-d, the Torah and our Rebbe. I admire the chabadnik combination of chassidic compassion in worship, and traditional Torah study.

  2. Monique says:

    Post-modernism, as I see it, is not a rejection of the idea of ultimate truth … it's a rejection of the idea that a single community has the patent on truth, or that there is only one correct way to follow G-d. Under the paradigm of modernity, all of life can be understood through reason and logic, and since there is only one right answer, there is only one right way to arrive at that right answer. Accordingly, there is only one right way to live, one right way to think, one right way to conduct ourselves and our societies.Modernity failed, and brought us the bloodiest century in world history (the 20th, in case you were wondering).Post-modernism is a rejection of the arrogance of modernity … of its obsession with domination, assimilation, and submission of the powerless "Other" to the powerful majority.Post-modernism is ultimately a rejection of religious arrogance ("I have arrived, and you must look, smell, and act just like me if you want to arrive, too") and the embrace of religious humility ("I'm on a lifelong journey towards G-d's truth, will you join with me as a fellow sojourner?").

  3. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Dear Anonymous-Your assumption that Postmodernism is "the view that there is no ultimate truth, and no universal values?" is a little misguided. You may want to read a little about Postmodernism ( It is primarily what Monique mentioned above, a distrust of the idea of having everything figured out. Of questioning everything. Even Paul praised the Bereans for their questioning everything and using sound discerment in deciding matters (Acts 17).I would actually argue that many of us (esp. "Gen Y/Digitial Gen") are even beyond "Postmodernism." That there is actually now another paradigm shift.These paradigm shifts just simply are. In and of themselves they are not "good" or "bad." In fact Postmodernism has had some very positive implications on areas such as theology.

  4. J.K. McKee says:

    I appreciate the many observations you have made here. Random shofar blowing is something that I dislike for in the extreme, having attended a variety of fellowships where not only is the shofar blown every Shabbat, but people are encouraged to have their own and blow them "at the leading of the Spirit."Unfortunately, an entire cottage industry has been created around the shofar–and for some the sound has gotten so common you might as well blow an airhorn.

  5. Monique says:

    It's like so many things that have become obnoxious features of Messianic Jewish worship: Take a Jewish object, idea, or practice … the proper use of which illuminates deeper and more meaningful things than the object or practice itself, and reduce it to a piece of meaningless window dressing.There's this funky "Fiddler on the Roof" mentality in parts of our movement, under which we only engage in Hebrew-flavored things that are glitzy, showy, or easily reduced to unintelligibility.

  6. Ben says:

    There is so much great stuff here Monique. I wanted to particularly thank you for the comment regarding communities with young families. I'm excited to say that the average age of our MJ Synagogue is about 15 because most of our membership has very young children! Furthermore, much of the growth of our Jewish community has been as a result of the significance of family life. Family life is the place where authentic Jewishness happens. Judaism doesn't belong only to the shul. It comes forth from the home. If we can build that, I guarantee we will see less and less fiddler on the roof medleys for Pesukei D'Zimra!

  7. Gene Shlomovich says:

    Personally I cannot relate to this drive to liberalize Judaism ("messianic" or not). It has been done, and it has failed over and over to retain Jewish interest. It just doesn't appeal to me or my young family. I don't think it appeals to many young Jews today who are serious about being observant than any generation before us. Many young Jews today would like to reconnect with their past, with countless generations of Jews who preceded them. Liberal Judaism just doesn't feel "authentic." Reform/Liberal Judaism has tried to appeal to the secular Jewry and to their young with various "cool" innovations (many times by imitating liberal churches, as they've done from their founding). They appeal to seculars who tend to stay secular. Now, however, many of these same Reform congregations have realized that the modern Jewry is longing to reconnect with their rich Jewish heritage – they see the error of their ways and are moving more and more towards traditionalism, or simply dying out. At the same time, the Chabad shuls and events I attend weekly are bustling with young people, kids running all over the place, young couples with "bellies", and with excited, newly observant Jews. Welcoming, vibrant, non-judgmental, not-ghettoized, yet TRADITIONAL and not compromising on halacha.

  8. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Gene-I am not quite sure you get what Monique's point is. It is not advocating "liberal Judaism," i.e. Reform, Reconstructionist, etc. It is raising awareness of the move that is ALREADY HAPPENING in the Jewish world today. The most vibrant form of Judaism attracting young professionals in their 20's and 30's is the idependent minyan movement. What is unique is that it is observant (traditional), and POST-DENOMINATIONAL. You are right – young people are not flocking to Reform, Reconstructionist, etc. (see my recent paper from the Borough Park Symposium). BUT – they are not exactly flocking to Chabad (and other forms of Orthodoxy). Young people will attend their functions and events, but they are not necessarily becoming Orthodox in large numbers. What seems to be working at the moment is this idea of an "Empowered Judaism," and independent minyanim.

  9. Gene Shlomovich says:

    "What seems to be working at the moment is this idea of an "Empowered Judaism," and independent minyanim."Josh, I think the problem is that it seems to working "at the moment" – giving the whole thing the "flash in the pan", a latest alternative Judaism for the freshfaced. What about the seasoned traditional non-liberal Jews from whom we are to learn about Yiddeshkeit – will they be interested?I mean, I wish you well – I know your heart is to reach out to our people. We'll see what G-d will do.

  10. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Gene-With all do respect, what you are advocating is not working. And you somehow have a romaticised view of Judaism – that somehow it has never changed an evolved over the last 3,000 years. What I am talking about is not a fad, but rather the direction Judaism is going into the future. This is an issue many Jewish scholars are discussing.Judaism will not survive unless it continues to evolve.

  11. Gene Shlomovich says:

    "the direction Judaism is going into the future"Respectfully disagree. It's a movement of American-only political and religious liberals, being fed primary by the exodus from the Reform movement. This is why, according to the research study conducted in 2007, one could see some of them being stringent on kashrut, while at the same time describing themselves as "queer friendly." Same old thing with veneer of some tradition."A survey conducted for the report found that 82.6 percent of participants identified politically as Democrats, 15.3 percent as independents, and 2.1 percent as Republicans, Kaunfer told me. Even in the liberal-leaning U.S. Jewish community, that's a particularly liberal profile. "To some it up, this is another movement of liberal American Jews (sort of like Reform and Reconstructionist are or used to be), which means that it's certainly not the future of Judaism for Jews everywhere.

  12. Ovadia says:

    Joshua:Great post. I follow the havurah / independent minyan phenomenon pretty heavily and am glad to see someone else interested in creating the kind of communities that work.Gene:Given that Reform Judaism has recently surpassed Conservative Judaism as the largest Jewish denomination, I can't see what "exodus from Reform" you're talking about. Also, if you look at lot of these communities–Kehilat Hadar, DC Minyan, Kehilat Orech Eliezer, Minyan Tehilah, etc.–you'll find communities with a stronger halachic emphasis than the typical Conservative synagogue. Whether or not these synagogues are fully egalitarian or not, they argue for the extent to which they include women in halachic terms and from halachic sources. Other communities are differently oriented, but to paint all indie minyanim with the wide brush of "LIBERAL" without qualification is inaccurate.

  13. Gene Shlomovich says:

    "Given that Reform Judaism has recently surpassed Conservative Judaism as the largest Jewish denomination, I can't see what "exodus from Reform" you're talking about."Ovadia, my words are not my own – my findings can be verified through the research others, including insiders, have done on the Independent Minyamin."Other communities are differently oriented, but to paint all indie minyanim with the wide brush of "LIBERAL" without qualification is inaccurate."I am sure there are exceptions, but the overall thrust of the movement is liberal through and through.

  14. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Gene-It is fine if you wantr to cast Independent Minyanim into the label "liberal." But it is incorrect to keep identifying it together with Reform Judaism, as though they are one and the same. Even if there is some shared social and political views, they are two very different movements. Not to mention one is a denomination where the other could possibly be labeled "post-denominational."Independent minyanim are hardly Reform. *For more on Independent Minyanim, I highly reccomend (for a number of reasons) the new book "Empowered Judaism" by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer.

  15. Gene Shlomovich says:

    "Independent minyanim are hardly Reform."Josh, I didn't say that the "independent minyamin" are same as Reform, but rather that the Reform movement has been the biggest loser in this and the main source of flesh "independent" blood:From:"That refusal to affiliate has led movement leaders to criticize the independent minyans as a destructive force in Jewish denominational life. Most of that criticism has come from Conservative and Orthodoxleaders, when the STUDY REVEALS THAT THE REFORM MOVEMENT IS THE BIGGEST “LOSER” IN SHEER NUMBERS.MANY MINYAN PARTICIPANTS RAISED ORTHODOX OR CONSERVATIVE STILL IDENTIFY AS SUCH, even if the minyan itself is not institutionally affiliated. But virtually all of those who were raised REFORM NO LONGER IDENTIFY WITH THAT RELIGIOUS STREAM: Less than 3% of those involved with independent minyanim consider themselves Reform Jews."

  16. rik says:

    First off Moique I think your above quote of the day, is very interconnected not just relivent to this disscusion. Also is the disscused from 17th day of amuz topic of the indwelling of the Ruach HaKodesh. There dose seem to be within the body of Messiah a deeply Spiritual minyan movement. To say it is non orchestrated may be an oversight. It is however clearly not oginized by any particular oginization. There are examples of growing congregations world wide with no denominational affiliation who are haveing great positve effect in their communities and beyond. Within the minyanim are moderatly liberal and conservatives. Gene this is aside from and beyond political movements or affiliation. We know in every individual is a deep longing for connectivity to the Creator; no matter how hard some may try to oppose it. For those whow chose to seek that connectivity a resorce seems to occur for those leaders who are for becoming sensitive to it. that is partly why Monique's choice for quote of the day is relivent. As much the example that Rabbi is as her quote. The Jewish community is full of young Jews longing for that spiritual connectivity. They may find it in a currently senseitve minyanim. This is more far reashing than political influences. Gene What is happening here has the potential to reach those who only have political influence as a source of hope. Something you know very true for much of the secular Jewish community. How much more dose a Ruach HaKodesh filled community with its direct connect in Mashiach have to offer. (thats a baby maker) Thats what should be filling the need, instead of trying to be Jewish by seeking all things Yiddishka. And a result, maybe the true Pesukei D'Zimra. Happy babies and happy bellies filled with Life.

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