CHICAGO — Three of American Jewry's wealthiest donors recently brought a handpicked group of 150 Jewish leaders to a summit in Chicago and announced plans to invest $18 million during the next five years to "help achieve systemic change of the synagogue."
Founded in December, the Synagogue Transformation and Renewal (STAR) triumvirate of businessmen-turned-philanthropists — Edgar Bronfman, Charles Schusterman and Michael Steinhardt — has held smaller regional conferences and conducted research, but its precise direction had been under wraps until the Sept. 6-7 event.
Participants — mostly rabbis or professionals known for their involvement in promoting synagogue change — included Bay Area rabbis Burt Jacobson and Lavey Derby along with Koret Foundation interim director Mel Mogulof.
After a busy 25 hours of programming, which uncharacteristically included 10-minute backrubs, STAR made the investment announcement, saying funding would be concentrated on the following:
*Awarding $500,000 per year in challenge grants for "innovative approaches" to synagogue issues such as membership, leadership, staffing, education and worship services.
*Creating a program to train synagogue consultants.
*Convening meetings for congregational leaders from all denominations.
*Promoting public awareness of synagogues and advocating that Jewish federations and other philanthropies increase funding for synagogues.
*Using new technology such as videoconferencing and the Internet to offer professional development courses for rabbis.
While representatives of the four major streams of Judaism and a handful of federation folks were present, participants also included Jews used to being relegated to the fringes: gay and lesbian rabbis, Jewish Renewal leaders, proponents of Jewish meditation, people from organizations reaching out to interfaith couples and the president of an alternative seminary, the Academy for Jewish Religion.
Among the more off-beat participants:
*Shmuley Boteach, a young Orthodox rabbi known for cavorting with celebrities and writing provocatively titled books that attempt to bring Jewish values to mainstream culture.
*Niles Goldstein, a young Reform rabbi who recently authored "God at the Edge," a book about finding spirituality while embarking on adventures like dogsledding in the Arctic Circle.
*Gary Schoenberg and Laurie Rutenberg, married rabbis from Portland, Ore., who regularly invite 40 "disconnected" Jews at a time to their home for Shabbat and holiday celebrations.
Despite the diversity, there were a few glaring absences: cantors and grassroots synagogue lay leaders. Similarly, men outnumbered women by a ratio of roughly 2 to 1 and no women were main speakers.
"For the philanthropists to represent the leaders of synagogue transformation as being men shows a lack of knowledge about the roles women play in the synagogue," said Jacobson, founding rabbi of Kehilla Community Synagogue, a Jewish Renewal congregation in Berkeley. "I would argue that at least one of the speakers should have been a woman."
While many there were advocates for synagogue transformation efforts such as Synagogue 2000, others complained that such efforts focus too much on things like fiddling with liturgy or getting people singing rather than addressing people's Jewish knowledge or relationship to God and spirit.
Rabbi Michael Balinsky, director of professional development at the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School — a two-year program of adult Jewish learning — said the conference focused more on the "liturgical experience of the synagogue — the music, the singing" than on the "transformation emerging from education or how synagogues can be transformed through the education experience."
Jacobson added that there is a need to revive the spiritual consciousness of Jews, and not just improve synagogue programming.
"If the planet sinks, the Jews are going to sink with it," he said. "We're not just here to survive. We're here to practice tikkun olam [healing the world]. We're here to serve God."
In a group discussion, Rabbi Zachary Heller of the Wilstein Institute of Jewish Policy Studies said he was "not personally a fan of the 'happy-clappy' stuff."
"You can change culture by the melodic and aesthetic aspects, but you won't ultimately change people's lives," he said.
By the end of the first night, many were angered and frustrated by the funders' blunt — and, according to some, ignorant — criticisms of synagogue life.
"This is some very well-meaning people tripping over every buzzword in the Jewish world without providing any focus or direction," said Rami Shapiro, a Miami rabbi who runs a Jewish Web site called simplyjewish.com.
Shapiro was on his way out of a session in which Steinhardt had called the Reform and Conservative movements "accidents of history." Bronfman — after stating that "rabbis don't own synagogues" — had said that he finds it more spiritually meaningful to perform the Havdallah ceremony on Sunday nights, when he returns from his country home, than at the actual conclusion of Shabbat.
Derby, rabbi of Conservative Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, agreed that despite the funders' "extraordinary accomplishment [in] putting their money where their mouths are" and "finally picking up the ball that rabbis have been calling for all along," the focus of their plan is too fuzzy.
"This is a replay of Lyndon Johnson's 'Great Society,' throw the money at a problem and hope it will do some good," said Derby. "Some of it will do good, but a dialogue — a real one — that goes beyond 'Synagogue is boring' could provide some more positive results.
"They did the right thing, but I'm not sure they asked the right questions or got the right answers."
At the end of the first night, many griped privately about the philanthropists — with several calling the speeches "amorphous" — but they hesitated to give their names for publication for fear of jeopardizing their chances of getting funding down the road.
"Part of what we witnessed last night was the inherent danger of having funders set the agenda," said one Reform rabbi at breakfast the next day. "There was a lot of sophistication in the room, but it wasn't on the stage."
Later that morning, Steinhardt offered his version of an olive branch, saying, "I gather that last night we ruffled some feathers," and then added, "I'm sorry we didn't have a chance to argue and share thoughts. I hope there will be such opportunities, not for the sake of argument but for heaven."
And at the summit's conclusion, Richard Joel — the president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life — urged participants not to be cynical or put off by the donors' confrontational styles.
"They want to learn and often say outrageous things to engage people in conversation," he said of the donors, all of whom are Hillel supporters.
One East Coast rabbi who did not want her name used remained cynical as she left the summit.
"A lot of people feel used," she said, calling the event a "24-hour press conference" in which the leaders — all of whom were busy with the High Holy Days approaching — were "props."
Derby said he didn't feel used, but he thought the leaders were "there to provide a media background for a huge, magnanimous, generous gift."
"I'm glad I had a front-row seat but now the play is over," said Derby. "Let's see what comes out of it."
But he, Jacobson and others were cautiously optimistic, saying they were glad to see critical issues talked about and the promise of funding.
"Many of us have toiled in the vineyards of [low funding] for a long time," said Jacobson. "And they are making a quantity of resources available…Investing in the Jewish future is of extreme importance."
Mogulof, on the other hand, argued that $18 million, while "a great idea," is not as much money as it seems. In the past six years the Koret Foundation alone has donated $35 million and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation raises more than $18 million each year, he said.
"Eighteen million bucks for a five-year demonstration program to try and change the way the synagogue works is not a hell of a lot of money," he said. "But it is a start. And what was it that Confucius said? 'A journey of 1,000 miles has to begin with a single step.'"
Funding, however, isn't all that is needed, warned Rutenberg, the rabbi from Portland.
"Money itself isn't going to bring us to the Jewish future we want," she said. "It's going to come from the best of our teachers inspiring as many people as they can, then people living Jewishly and inspiring others by sharing it in warm, joyous ways."