We live in a time of tremendous societal upheaval. While history is often cyclical, showing both change and continuity, there are times when change is so systemic and deep that we enter a fundamentally new era. These changes are of such profound magnitude that they are redefining how life is lived in many areas we assumed were unyielding givens. In broad terms, we might think about boundary shifting, permeability, and cross-religious and cultural appropriation as the motifs that characterize this age. Culture, economics, history, biology, technology—all areas of life are up for reassessment or revision because of these forces. Whether we in the Jewish community view our current era as essentially more of the same or fundamentally different is not a moot issue. Rather, it influences whether we apply current models of thinking about all aspects of our world or if we need different ones.

For shorthand, I refer to our contemporary era as the Age of Four A’s: anything, anyone, anytime, anywhere. It is in this crucible that Jewish life is being recast today. This shorthand description of our times captures well-described attributes of daily life, if not precisely for boomers, then increasingly so for Gen Xers and Millennials:

Anything (almost)—products or services—can be modified, or if nonexistent, can be created with relative ease.

Anyone, regardless of credentials or pedigree, can be his or her own expert in many fields that were typically reserved for specialists (for example, we can be our own stock brokers, financial planners, publishing houses, filmmakers, business consultants, and educators).

Anytime, we increasingly demand that goods and services be available to us at our convenience.

Anywhere, in real time or virtually, at home or abroad, we can experience different cultures on a global scale.

The good news is that the age of anything, anyone, anytime, anywhere raises profound issues of meaning, making existential questions about life more insistent:

  • If I live in an age when I can get whatever I want, how do I decide what is ultimately most important?
  • If I have unlimited control over my life, how do I exercise it wisely?
  • If I can choose to be a part of any community, which one is most desirable for me to join?
  • If I live in a world that is always “on,” how can I ensure that I find ways to disconnect so that I do not lose my soul?
  • If I live in an age of unlimited power, how do I remain humble, not exploit others, and work to ensure that all people are treated with basic human dignity?
  • If I live in a world where I can keep taking, do I have a responsibility to give something back?


These big questions—which most people eventually have to face—are exciting for those who believe that the religious core of Judaism provides an invaluable resource for grappling with them. While individuals have maximized their ability to choose, they often have doubts about their ability to choose wisely. They are therefore open to seeking guidance from religious traditions of all kinds, provided that they do not lose control over how they live their lives. In this environment, religion loses its ability to coerce (a good thing) but gains an opportunity to influence (also a good thing)—if it is relevant.
By unshackling synagogues from leftover views about how they do their work, by creating stronger points of connection between Jewish values and the real life concerns of individuals, and by reimagining the synagogue as a venue where people are empowered to find and create community on their terms, synagogues may become places of greater vision, inspiration, and relevance.

Urban sociology literature has a concept called the “third place,” as distinct from the first place (home) and the second place (work). According to sociologist Ray Oldenberg, third places “host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.” Oldenburg suggests that main streets, coffeehouses, and other third places are the heart of a community’s social vitality and the foundation of a functioning democracy. They promote social equality by leveling the status of guests, creating habits of public association, and offering psychological support to individuals and communities.

More simply conceived, the third place is the informal public space between home and work that connects people to each other, allows them to recharge, pause, and then reengage the world. They are places in which participants feel strong, positive emotional ties because they are creating rewarding, meaningful social experiences and a warm community environment. That is why successful third places do not have to engage in gimmicks to stimulate participation; they are places that individuals voluntarily choose to visit.

Starbucks is an example of a highly successful corporation that recognized the vacuum of third places in American culture. They modeled their coffeehouses after the traditional European coffee shop as a third place between home and office, one that leveled class and economic differences. Though Starbucks has lost some of its luster, initially consumers perceived the third place nature of Starbucks, viewing it as a place for individuals to relax bet
ween a hectic work schedule and a frenzied home life and to connect with people who sought these same goals. Starbucks did not invent coffee, but reinvented the experience of drinking coffee by providing relaxation, wisdom in a cup, and culture.

They also joined the effort to provide fair trade coffee (making a values statement about the environment), and they invested heavily in training and benefits for their employees (making a values statement that they care most about the people who create the experience for customers). Whoever thought a venue that sells a stimulant at a price few could not long ago imagine as sustainable could come to symbolize relaxation?* As the Starbucks experience shows, even a for-profit corporation can leverage a social vacuum and become relevant by selling not just products and services, but also values and meaning.

The synagogue has a history that is more than two thousand years old—a rather impressive track record for an institution! However, its origins are also sources of its current weakness. As a venue, it derives some of its functions and inspiration from the Second Temple period. On a local level, the synagogue was supposed to replicate some of those functions (a centralized location with prayer and study as replacements for sacrifice; a place to which people were supposed to show lifetime allegiance through ongoing financial contributions and visits, supporting a greater religious and national cause, sustained by a class of professionals that attended to its ongoing business). The values of this venue, which still express themselves in today’s synagogues, are in conflict with the notion of third places in that third places are spaces where individuals can find community on their terms and receive individual benefits for their participation. A new mental map of the synagogue as a third place would be much more in tune with the age of anything, anyone, anytime, anywhere in which individuals focus on personal meaning, autonomy, and a search for community on personal terms.

If synagogues can reconceptualize their venue as a third place, they can feel more like a welcoming home in all aspects of their operations. This shift in thinking could cause profound changes in how synagogues relate to people on an individual level, how they approach the diversity of today’s Jewish community, and how they seek to relate to their broader environment.

By understanding what people seek today that can help them navigate work and home; by developing leaders who use the language of Jewish values to speak in ways that inspire and engage them; by changing the organizational thinking of synagogues so that they can develop into a third place—we can turn more synagogues into venues of relevance, inspiration, and Jewish character formation.

*Observations made at a presentation by former Starbucks chief marketing officer, Scott Bedbury, Nov. 14, 2006, in Chicago, sponsored by BMO Capital Markets.

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Adapted from Synagogues in a Time of Change: Fragmentation and Diversity in Jewish Religious Movements, edited by Zachary I. Heller, copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. 



AL389_SM Synagogues in a Time of Change:
Fragmentation and Diversity in Jewish Religious Movements

Zachary I. Heller, editor

Jewish religious communities today share a number of challenges, from the increase in secular or unaffiliated Jews to emerging Jewish spiritual communities forming outside the synagogue. Brought together by Zachary I. Heller, associate director of the National Center for Jewish Policy Studies, twenty of the leading Jewish thinkers have contributed to this comprehensive collection of essays. Each writer brings unique expertise and perspective in describing the development of contemporary religious movements in American Judaism, their interrelationships and tensions, and their prospects for the future. Their combined voices create a timely discussion of the many urgent issues bearing down on American synagogues.

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This one-volume guide to a healthy congregation combines the wisdom of a rabbi with the expertise of an organizational development consultant to demonstrate the power of positive relationships and show how to avoid some of the common traps that can lead to serious conflict. Using the life of the synagogue as its central illustration, this book gives vital lessons for congregations of any faith on how to be a healthy community of believers.

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As a counselor, educator, and long-time leader and participant in small groups, Brooke Collison knows their power to create meaningful bonds of friendship and support. And as small groups nourish personal relationships and connectedness, they also nourish churches. When members form close bonds with each other, the congregation as a whole becomes stronger and better able to carry out the mission God has called it to in the world.

AL368_SMReaching Out in a Networked World:
Expressing Your Congregation’s Heart and Soul

by Lynn M. Baab

A congregation communicates its heart and soul through words, photos, actions, programs, architecture, decor, the arts, and countless other aspects of congregational life. In Reaching Out in a Networked World, communications expert and pastor Lynne Baab examines technologies such as websites, blogs, online communities, and desktop publishing. She demonstrates how a congregation can evaluate these tools and appropriately use them to communicate its heart and soul, to convey its identity and values both within and outside the congregation.

AL337_SMTribal Church:
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Carol Howard Merritt, a pastor in her mid-thirties, suggests a different way for churches to approach young adults on their own terms. Outlining the financial, social, and familial situations that affect many young adults today, she describes how churches can provide a safe, supportive place for young adults to nurture relationships and foster spiritual growth.


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