Build Something Beautiful

This following post reflecting my current thinking as a Jewish leader was written as an assignment for the Leading Through Innovation class offered by CLAL and Glean Network, taught by Rabbi Elan Babchuck, Rabbi Julia Appel, and others. Facts, figures, and ideas contained within are in many cases from class materials and discussion.

“Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”


It sometimes seems like religion and change are any oxymoron. Faithfully following God’s eternal Word leaves little room for innovation, so it would seem. If there’s anything new in the sphere of religion, it’s a story of decline. Population studies from Pew and others show this decline, in particular “the rise of the nones,” an increase in people responding in surveys that they have no religion. Does religion have a future in today’s engineering and technology-driven world?

For sure, the world is changing, and religion is changing along with it. It’s true that sometimes, religious institutions don’t change as quickly as some of us might want. But the reality is that institutions in all areas of life come and go. Some change and some don’t. In this changing religious landscape, what I’ve come to believe is that hitching myself to an existing organization or form of religious leadership might not be the path I want to put myself on. Like Thoreau said, I’m going to step—or as a cantor, sing—to the beat I hear, the beat of a different drummer.

First of all, something needs to said about innovation and constraints. Innovation is obviously about new ways of doing things. But, innovation thrives within constraints. Consider smart phones. Smart phones have constraints to make things smaller and more efficient. There are constraints about the technology of networks, physics of radio waves, and what fits in our pockets. Within these constraints, we’ve created amazing devices. Of course, there needs to be an openness to something new, but that’s not the same thing as saying there’s no constraints. Similarly, within the realm of religion, great art, music, and literature has been composed. The great cathedrals of Europe stretch up to the open sky, but they were constructed within the law and dogma of the medieval church. The Talmud was written within the constraints of Jewish law and exile, not to mention daily life in the early Middle Ages, and is arguably the greatest written work of its time.

It’s also important to note that religion is quite a big industry in the United States. Estimates vary, but as an industry religion is between a $1 and $5 trillion dollar industry, putting it head of the top 10 technology companies combined. While 4-10 thousand houses of worship close each year, that’s out of 344,000 congregations; with a 1-2% failure rate, are houses of worship doing worse than any other type of business? Certainly, you can point to declining attendance at certain traditionally-well-attended congregations, but it’s a mistake to assume that informally collected examples are a true sample of the bigger picture. Similarly, even if budgets in some places are declining, it’s not valid to extrapolate that a large industry is quickly headed toward zero (even if the truth makes a less compelling narrative for op-ed pieces).

That doesn’t mean that specific institutions aren’t in trouble. What it does mean is that what used to look like a good career path of linking your fate to a specific institution might not be the only viable, or even best, option. For example, the Conservative movement has seen a reduction in membership. But remember, getting small doesn’t mean quickly and inevitably going to zero; many clergy will still have long careers in Conservative synagogues. Nevertheless, expecting that career success is a simple matter of making the typical seminary, practice, union, and congregational job choices of that movement because it’s the largest, is not the case as it may have been 20 or 30 years ago. Personally, I identify with the Conservative movement if I must pick one of the larger movements to identify with, but this is exactly the sort of area where I know I need to march to my own beat.

Trends can be good, bad, or unimportant depending on how we frame them. In this, and in other areas, we’re fighting the decline of “always.” Yes, the way things have “always” been done might be declining; but the fact is that most things that seem like “always” were new and innovative, maybe not even that long ago in the whole timeline of Jewish history. The decline of membership in Conservative synagogues doesn’t mean the inevitable decline of the center of American Jewish life. Instead, it means it gets to be organized differently. Conservative synagogues, for example, have long been led by some of the most knowledgeable clergy and volunteers. These are exactly the people who can build compelling independent communities outside of a movement, and we’ve seen exactly this sort of “leaderful organization” have a positive impact on American Jewish life, for example at Hadar and its related institutions. Intermarriage, usually seen as a disaster, is really only disastrous to the old way of doing things. Intermarried families bring new people and ideas into the community; and those who assimilate and leave the community, might, to be truly honest, leave behind a strong community than we would have had if we could count them as members but they weren’t really interested in being here.

Some of the statistics that might point to a declining Jewish community are what we can call “vanity metrics.” This means things that are easy to measure, but don’t really tell us if we’re meeting any underlying criteria of success. What’s success for a religious institution, anyway? Some measure of financial solvency is always a prerequisite, but numbers of money and members are not what a faith community is about. It’s easier to be a for-profit business, in the sense that money is both a necessity and a goal. That’s not true for a religious group. Religious groups have lot of goals, but let’s say the goal is, generally, to build a community and help the members of that community be better people. If we consider that the maximum network size of a community is about 300 people, being as big as possible is not the way to build a true community of people who can support each other through life’s ups and downs. A worthwhile strategy is to “upgrade the person, not the product”—consider what your community members truly need, and how you can help, when you’re thinking about what will bring them to a religious community. It’s probably not “services” or “Shabbat dinner.” It might be a connection to God, a moral compass, socializing, support through a difficult time, or a way to connect with family.

As a fellow student told me, “don’t fight the dinosaur,” instead build something “beautiful.” Many of the major Jewish organizations still around today (or that have closed or merged in the last 20-30 years) were created at the turn of the previous century. For most of my career, I’ve working on making change from within: taking jobs in existing organizations and using my skills to make incremental improvements. If I’ve ever thought about doing something completely new, it was always still with the assumption I’d be building something that looked a lot in form like existing organizations. If I saw a need in the community, my usual thought was, there needs to be a new organization with all its trappings like a board, staff, an office suite and tax-exempt certificate. I think the challenge for me, and the way I can create what Elan Babchuck calls a “bright spot,” is going to be to build something without knowing what organizational structure is going to hold it. That might mean taking on a bit more risk. (Potentially, even personal financial risk, which I’d hope would lessen once I finished my cantorial studies.) In finance and elsewhere, more risk is related to more reward. I’m coming to think that it might be for lack of risk I haven’t always found rewards. For individuals, as well as for institutions, doing things they way they’ve “always” been done is not a reliable path to greatness.

In particular, I’m looking for ways to use my skills from years of life before I went to cantorial school. Some of these are very specific, such as software development skills, which including designing user experiences, a skill which has value in looking for how to design what people experience in Jewish activities, both online and in real life. Others are related to the Jewish community. I have a well-developed personal network in the Boston Jewish community and beyond. I understand the needs to different communities from different parts of the religious spectrum, and have found ways to speak and lead, including prayer leading, that can address all of them. I also have transferable skills. I have soft skills of working with people, and I have business skills understand how systems and organizations work, from years of having jobs in different types of companies, living through different parts of the life cycle, or even owning a house. It’s hard to make all these experiences and skills line up with the typical synagogue professional job description. For that reason, I might not be the right fit for a typical job as “the Cantor,” where the one and only thing they do better than anyone else is the singing. A way I need to change myself is to reframe this way I’ve been looking at things and do better seeing and using what’s unique about me as an asset.

The other thing I have is great passion for and confidence in the value of combining Jewish tradition and innovation to bring great things into the world and people’s lives. I look forward to doing more of that in the next chapter of my story and in the story of the Jewish people.

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