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Future shuls: Rabbis, lay leaders are exploring new ways to reinvent the synagogue

Avery Markel, a newcomer to Louisville, was involved in an effort in Detroit to engage millennial Jews. (photos provided by Avery Markel)

Avery Markel knows something about building Jewish communities; she did it for three years.
Even better, she attracted young adults – the Holy Grail for synagogues everywhere.
Until recently, Markel was the deputy to Rabbi Dan Horwitz, founder of The Well – a Detroit-based education, spirituality and community-building initiative for young Jews. She just moved to Louisville with her husband, Dr. Jacob Markel, who is starting an orthopedic residency at UofL.
“We [were] striving to connect with young adult Jews [in Detroit] who aren’t currently affiliated with any institutions,” Markel said of The Well. “Maybe [they] haven’t had the best experience affiliating with institutions in the past.”
The Well plugs like-minded couples together for coffee, highlights “awesome” individuals who have moved to Motown, and takes weekend getaways, like a recent Shabbat experience at Michigan’s Pictured Rock National Lakeshore.
And yes, there is worship.
The Well holds quarterly-to-monthly Friday night Shabbat services in Detroit, at converted churches, tech startups, event venues, even yoga studios. The services range from meditative, to kabbalistic to Carlebach to “wordless Shabbats.”
“We try to make services an hour – hour and 20 minutes tops,” Markel said.
To be clear, The Well, is not looking to expand to Louisville, but it is an example of the many efforts nationwide, led by rabbis and lay leaders, to reimagine the synagogue or worship experience.
Here are some others:
• In New York, Lab/Shul, a self-described “experimental Jewish community,” is offering an “everybody-friendly, artist-driven God-optional” experience, exploring new approaches to contemplation, life cycle rituals, the arts, lifelong learning and social justice.
• In Washington, D.C., Temple Micah, a congregation of 600, has begun the Storefront Project, holding programs at storefronts and homes in so-called “Jewish deserts” across the District, where young adults are moving in.
• In Northern Virginia, Temple Rodef Shalom of Falls Church is working on a subscription-based commons space with other Jewish entities and individuals where they can network and have Jewish experience they might otherwise miss out on.
Some architects of these experiments eagerly describe them as synagogues.
“One hundred percent,” said Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie of Lab/Shul. He said his entity fits the basic definition for synagogue, or beit knesset in Hebrew – that of a gathering home, a place where people can come together.
Others distance themselves from the term.
“We’re much more like a JCC without walls,” said The Well’s Horwitz, describing a project “that brings an intense commitment to innovation, network weaving and grassroots community building.”
All these experiments are aimed at engage young adults, who are rejecting the traditional dues-supported congregations.
The Falls Church project, called “Project Kibbutz,” will bring together six partner organizations, to create a nontraditional collaborative working space by day and a “launchpad” for innovative next-gen Jewish engagement and Ted Talk-esque events
“If you are Jewish in your 20s and 30s in northern Virginia, Kibbutz will be the place to hang out,” said Cantor Rachel Rhodes of Temple Rodef Shalom.
“We wanted to create a working space with a Jewish vibe,” Rhodes said. “The idea is forming a Jewish community outside the traditional synagogue or institutional walls.”
The problem facing synagogues, and other places of worship, is global in scope.
According to the Pew Research Center, adults under the age of 40 worldwide are less likely to be religiously affiliated.
Pew surveyed 106 countries in 2018 and found that young adults were significantly less likely to be affiliated in 41 of them, more likely to be affiliated in just two (both in Africa) with no significant difference in 63.
“Looked at another way, young adults are more likely to be religiously unaffiliated,” according to the Pew Report. “This is especially true in North America, where in both the U.S. and Canada younger people are less likely to claim a religious identity.”
Why they’re not affiliating is complicated. Michael Hout, professor of sociology at New York University, who has studied generational and religious trends, told the Pew in a 2016 interview that millennials are products of their upbringings.
“Many Millennials have parents who are Baby Boomers and Boomers expressed to their children that it’s important to think for themselves – that they find their own moral compass,” Hout said.
In the Jewish world, at least, synagogues and other institutions must contend with Jews who are looking for a new paradigm through which to engage their Judaism.

A meditation service for millennial Jews in Detroit

“Religious settings have to contend with Jews who wish to connect only episodically and only on their own terms,” said Jack Wertheimer, professor of religion at Princeton University and author of the book, The New American Judaism, in a recent interview with the Princeton University Press. “This has led both to religious participation as a ‘sometime thing’ for many Jews, and simultaneously has spurred a great deal of experimentation to create enticing religious environments in the hope of drawing more participants.”
So a new generation of Jews is looking for a new worship experience, but that doesn’t mean the synagogue is obsolete.
While Lau-Lavie said Lab/Shul “isn’t necessarily religious,” it does contain other components of the synagogue experience.
“It is cultural, social,” said Lau-Lavie, who was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative), but is influenced by the teachings of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, (Reconstructionist). “It’s a place for humans to gather with others and for people to form tribes and communities – small groups – which is essential for our survival on every level you want.”
Lab/Shul is trying to address the problem of financial sustainability in a new synagogue model. “We are in the process of a strategic plan to offer a new form of ‘partnerhood,’” Lau-Lavie said, “to engage the community, provide income and keep it on voluntary sliding scale basis, including a co-op time donation model.”
He warned that synagogues must be more than places of rote prayer. “A lot of synagogues are empty now, or are emptying, because they were only focusing on the religious, which, in some cases is outdated or on autopilot.”
He said theological practices must be repackaged “in an engaging way,” meaning synagogues must respond to the greater community around them – showing up for the environment, for refugees, for LGBTQ and other minority groups.
“We have to show up for each other; we need to move from me to we,” Lau-Lavie said.
Despite affiliation trends, he is optimistic that synagogues can survive.
“In an age where 70 percent of Jews are marrying someone who’s not Jewish,” he said, “many are still coming.”

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