On Friday night I had the honor of speaking at B’nai Israel Synagogue in Council Bluffs, IA. The synagogue is beautiful, and I am incredibly thankful for the invitation from their leadership to teach. B’nai Israel is the only remaining synagogue in Council Bluffs; you can learn more about B’nai Israel at Facebook Events or Wikipedia Article
The topic for the evening was “Judaism – Open Space vs. Brick and Mortar.” For quick definitions, I understand “open space” as programming or experiences that take place outside the synagogue and/or are open to the greater community. At Beth El, we have offered Adult Education classes at Whole Foods, High Holy Day & Hanukkah Maker Workshop at a local mall and an upcoming Friday night service before an outdoor performance of Hamlet to name a few examples. Compared to a more Brick and Mortar approach where services, adult and youth education, and programming take place inside the building.
Here are a few articles on the concept of “Open Space Judaism” or “Public Space Judaism”
I was excited about the talk, and at the same time a bit nervous. In my heart I am a traditionalist, the idea of needing to “sell” Judaism, to bring it to the masses, to take it outside the walls of the synagogue because the barriers to entry are too high goes against my nature. In the same breath, I know of observant Jews who came to know and love their Judaism because they either met or were reintroduced to Judaism outside the walls of a synagogue and felt a connection that brought them inside. The reality is “Open Space vs. Brick & Mortar” is a false choice; Judaism needs both an open space and brick & mortar approach to thrive.
On the one hand, the synagogue is the heart and soul of Judaism; whether it be for services, education, programming, etc., it is the place that brings more Jews together to do Jewish than any other institution. Synagogues are not just buildings; they have hearts and souls; they become almost like family. I remember as a kid every hiding place at Shaare Tefila in Silver Spring, and it was not only the experiences, of which there are dozens from funerals to family gatherings, I remember the smell of the sanctuary, to the box outside Cantor Levins’ office where we left our index cards to prove we attended services. Synagogues radiate Judaism; they are a key ingredient to Judaism’s existence. That said, not every Jew had these same experiences, perhaps they never came in contact with a synagogue or worse, the experiences they had turned them away from Judaism. And so if we believe Judaism to be a source of goodness, to be a source of strength and comfort in times of sorrow, and a lens to make sense of the craziness in the world, why would we not take Judaism into the public square.
Open Space or Public Space Judaism is all about accessibility. In many ways, the idea is no different than a yoga studio that publicizes a free class taking place in a public park. The owners of the studio know that some people want to learn more about yoga but for a host of reasons are not ready to walk in the door. The owners decide to take their practice outside the storefront studio, to the people, no strings attached. Of course, there will be literature about the yoga studio at the event, they will have schedules and a sign-up sheet asking for emails, but at the end of the day if you simply want to show up for a one-off experience, see what it’s like and leave, you can!
Some will argue that Judaism does not work this way, you can’t simply offer one-off experiences, I would agree on many levels. At the same time, if you poll the average Conservative or Reform synagogue on a Shabbat morning and ask why the person is attending, I doubt obligation and commandedness make the top 5. In the Conservative Movement, this may have been different 30-40 years ago, and there are still pockets where this is true, but for many obligation and commandedness play second fiddle to meaningfulness and community. People engage with Judaism for a host of reasons, from a shared history to being in community and shared religious practice and everything in between. The role of Open Space Judaism is to empower more folks to do Jewish. By the way, how is this any different than Chabad doing a Hanukkah candle lighting at the State Capitol or handing out hamentashen on Purim all across a college campus? Maybe Chabad can pull this off because they are seen as being more authentic, regardless, the goal is the same, to bring Judaism to more Jews and most Jews are not in synagogues.
Judaism needs synagogues, but perhaps even more than it needs synagogues, it needs Jews. Today, perhaps more so than ever before, Jews do not realize the power Judaism has to speak to the issues of our time, and of our lives, so we need to remind them. In the end, we need Open Space AND Brick & Mortar for Judaism to thrive today and into the future.