Laya Pelzner of Skokie has served as Associate Director of Synagogue Services of the Orthodox Union. A graduate of the Ida Crown Academy and Stern College, Ms.Pelzner’s piece on her visit to her South African grandmother and her assessment of the Jewish community in that country appeared previously in the Chicago Jewish News. She will be making aliyah this summer.
From Chicago to Memphis, Atlanta to Teaneck, Omaha to Los Angeles, and Boca Raton to New York, our Jewish communities all share many of the same challenges, concerns and, of course, values. Having spoken to hundreds of rabbis and community leaders from across North America and visited many of their synagogues, it is startling yet incredibly inspiring to get a finger on the pulse of Orthodox Judaism in the 21st century. Across the board, the challenges of paying for our children’s education, inspiring our communities and growing our religious institutions are the areas that keep our rabbis up at night. Nevertheless, despite the challenges, our communities are networked stronger than ever before, involved in more outreach and forward thinking.
As part of my role as the Orthodox Union’s Associate Director of Synagogue Services, I spend time each month on the road in order to learn about our synagogues and communities, facilitate the sharing of best practices, and provide consulting services to synagogues across North America. This year I traveled 8,500 miles and spent hundreds of hours on the road. I gained inspiration from each of the rabbis that I met with and became an ambassador from the OU to many of our communities.
Although I have the pleasure of traveling to Florida and Los Angeles in the winter, the trip closest to my heart was the visit to my hometown, Chicago. In March, the OU sent a delegation of nine speakers to 11 synagogues as part of an OU/NCSY Chicago Community Weekend. This is a program we replicate in several key communities each year, and we had our key leadership come in for the weekend, including Rabbi Steven Weil, Executive Vice President; Stephen J. Savitsky, Chairman of the Board; Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, Executive Vice President, Emeritus; Rabbi Steven Burg, International Director, NCSY and others.
My office at the OU has two identifying features that people comment on. One is a large map of North America that has 78 pins representing the number of communities we work with that have OU synagogues. These communities comprise nearly eight hundred shuls. The second is a collection of souvenirs from the places that I have visited recently — 17 items representing 17 different states where I have traveled to meet with community leaders. The reflections and theories in this article come from first-hand experiences on these journeys. What is on the mind of our rabbinic and lay leadership across the country? What are their constituencies grappling with?
The rabbinic and lay leadership of our communities consists of an incredibly talented group of people all dedicated to strengthen Klal Yisrael. Each year, the OU’s Karasick Department of Synagogue Services convenes key rabbis to identify and discuss what they see as community priorities, and these same concerns come up over and over. Having visited many of our communities, for example, I have had the opportunity to walk through the halls of struggling schools and dialogue with synagogue and day school board members about their problems.
What should communities do when their one struggling day school does not meet the needs – educationally or religiously – of the students? Do they open another school that would further splinter the students and put greater financial stress on both institutions, or run the risk of families moving to communities with vaster educational opportunities? One day school has taken the unique approach of creating a religious track in its small community, and found that many parents from non-observant backgrounds placed their children in that track because they wanted them to gain stronger textual skills. Yet, they face the backlash of a school administration with a more secular outlook, and only time will tell if this model is sustainable.
When it comes to passion and inspiration, there are literally hundreds of lunch and learns, Torah classes and chesed events in these shuls each week, with unique initiatives being launched annually. Rabbi Weil started an explanatory service at Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck, NJ for people who want to better understand their prayers. What is innovative about this minyan is that is specifically geared towards people from religious backgrounds who are trying to grow their relationship with God. When this service was launched last Rosh Hashana there were more people interested than seats in the room, and attendance is still growing.
Another innovative idea that is literally transforming South Florida was started at Boca Raton Synagogue, which became the first shul to hire an outreach rabbi dedicated to creating relationships with unaffiliated Jews in the area and motivating the congregation to strengthen its ties with nonobservant relatives and friends. Utilizing the latest in social media with a very creative series of YouTube videos and laying the foundation for a warm and welcoming atmosphere, Boca Raton had 200 families host 1,000 people in its first Share One Shabbos initiative. Observing this need for reaching out to the wider Jewish community is perhaps the greatest area of pride that I have in all my travels.
These are all broad communal areas; what are the behind the scenes trends of our synagogues? First, there is a growing movement to become more professional and as such the Orthodox Union has seen an influx of synagogues that want help in creating strategic plans for their institutions. Historically, synagogues were mainly houses of prayer. Now, they are becoming the center for Jewish life in the community, as seen by the number of social and educational programs they have, with Torah as their guiding mission. In order to optimize people’s religious experiences, synagogues are taking a step back to analyze their core values and focus on ways to connect people to Judaism. Orthodoxy is the strongest and fastest growing segment of the Jewish community, but that has not stopped us from learning to do new things to strengthen people’s spirituality and sense of community.
It is noteworthy that when the OU’s Community Services Department stages its Tefilla (prayer) programs across the country, emphasizing getting the most out of one’s davening; the attendance is always very large, composed almost exclusively of people who have been synagogue attendees all their lives.
Second, and perhaps most important, is the growing emphasis synagogues are placing on their youth departments. There is only one area in shul life where we say “If you build it they will come,” and that is youth programming. First and foremost, parents want their children to be happy, and they will often choose their synagogue based on its youth department. To help synagogues improve their youth programming, the OU is launching YouthCon, the largest Jewish Informal Educators conference, taking place on August 21 in Stamford, CT. In addition to a full day of seminars on topics including Tot-Shabbat, empowering teens, tikkun olam, and tefilla, we anticipate the participants will gain most from networking and sharing ideas with hundreds of other youth professionals from around the country.
This idea – of creating a network of communities across North America – is what we gain by traveling to our different synagogues and communities. Modern technology provides the forum to share ideas, get advice and learn best practices from others out there so we can better our institutions and avoid each having to start from scratch.
While our community faces challenges, it also hosts the talent to address these needs, inspire our congregations and lead strong Jewish lives. It is with this confidence in our institutions that I travel 5,660 more miles this summer as I make aliyah. Having been blessed with the opportunity to visit so many North American communities and be involved with their growth, I hope to take the lessons and best practices we at the OU have been working on with me to the next stage in my life.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.