October 17, 2019

Q&A with Ron Wolfson

Ron Wolfson, the Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University, has long been at the forefront of reinventing and sustaining synagogue life. His emphasis on what he calls “Relational Judaism,” stressing personal connections over programing, has influenced congregations throughout the United States. He talks here about what he believes is working and what gives him hope for the future of synagogue congregations.

Jewish Journal: Now that we’re 15 years into the millennium, what practices from Synagogue 2000/3000 — your continuing project to work with a variety of communities to revitalize synagogue life — seem to have the most resonance?

Ron Wolfson: Three things: First, our call to transform the ambience of welcome — you cannot find a synagogue that does not say it is “warm and welcoming.” Second, there is much more variety in the kinds of worship experiences offered; and third, we are beginning to see the paradigm shift from synagogues of programs to synagogues embracing what I called in my book “Relational Judaism,” meaning putting relationships first. 

We also raised the question, “Why doesn’t everyone love synagogues?” I share some honest and humorous answers in my new book, “The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses” (Jewish Lights, 2015).

JJ: In the past, you’ve emphasized the need for community interaction that’s not just virtual, and yet our world seems to be becoming even more Internet-Twitter-Instagram dependent. Do you have any hope of changing that in the next generation?

RW: There is no doubting the impact of the Internet and social media. I can easily get all the Jewish information I want with a click of the mouse. I can get my kid bar mitzvah prep online. I can even watch any number of streaming synagogue services. So, the value offer of a synagogue has to be much deeper than the usual transaction — I pay you dues, you give me a religious school for the kids, High Holy Days seats and a rabbi. 

Yes, I can find a kind of community on Facebook, but I still believe many crave a face-to-face sacred community of relationships with people who care about you and will be there for you — in person — in good times and bad. A relational congregation offers something else: a place for spiritual discovery. Where I can find meaning: what’s it all about?  Purpose: what am I to do with my skills and talents? Belonging: where everyone knows my story. And blessing: where I celebrate the life-cycle moments of my life. 

JJ: As you travel, speaking to synagogues across the country, what do you think is the biggest challenge to traditional synagogue membership?

RW: Financial sustainability. Some smaller and midsize synagogues have moved to voluntary contributions, sensing that money is a significant obstacle to membership, especially among some Gen-Xers and millennials. The congregations that have succeeded with this are not simply saying, “Pay what you want.” They have had healthy and transparent conversations about the culture of money.

A second challenge is the need to be upfront and unapologetic about the mission of a synagogue — to bring people into a relationship with Judaism and with God, to enhance what my rabbi, Harold M. Schulweis, his memory and teaching is a constant blessing, called the godliness in each of us. Synagogues should be unafraid to say, “We can change your life.” 

JJ: Do you think that in the next decade there will be radical changes in the landscape of synagogues? In the next 50 years?

RW: Since my book “Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community” (Jewish Lights) was published in 2013, many synagogue boards and leadership groups have begun to embrace the 12 principles of engagement I identified from six case studies of organizations that understand it’s all about relationships, including Chabad. 

Major congregations have changed the way new members are embraced and current members are engaged in the life of the community. Rabbis and cantors are redoubling their efforts to meet their people, often outside the walls of the synagogue. 

Twenty years ago, synagogues created program director positions; today, some are hiring relationship directors. If this trend continues, we will see synagogues where there are more focused strategies for building relationships between the congregational staff and members; between members and other members in a variety of affinity groups; and between members and Judaism itself. The goal is to enable everyone to find their place in the congregational community, some point of connection that is so rewarding that they wouldn’t think of dropping out after their youngest child’s bar or bat mitzvah. 

In 50 years? Well, synagogues have been a bedrock institution of the Jewish community for a long time, and I certainly hope they will continue to be.

JJ: What gives you hope for the future of the Jewish community?

RW: “Hope” — “Hatikvah” — is the anthem of our people. But, there is a thin line between hope and fear. We have plenty of angst right now, for good reasons. And yet, as the new year dawns, I think it’s important to remember the extraordinary progress of the American-Jewish community in the past 100 years. My Russian immigrant grandfather came to Omaha, Neb., in the early 20th century with nothing but hopes and dreams. He cherished the opportunity he found there to build a family, a business and a community in his adopted country. He called me — and called me to be — the “best boy” I could be in his beloved United States of America. I, along with other Jewish baby boomers, was born into a generation “between” — between the dark shadows of the Holocaust and the bright brilliance of the heroic founding of the Jewish homeland in Israel.  We have been fully shaped by America. 

While some of our ancestors taught us, “Schwer zu sein ein Yid” — “It’s hard to be a Jew” — as it certainly was in the Russia of my grandparents and the Europe of my in-laws — it is not in the United States of America. Here in this blessed country, here in this land of freedom and choice, we have sought to craft a unique American Judaism, reinventing old traditions in new ways, a joyous Judaism of inspiration and spiritual uplift. My hope for the future rests on my ability to say to my children and grandchildren not, “It’s easy to be a Jew”; rather I want to say to them: “It’s wonderful to be a Jew,” for Judaism can lead you to a life of meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing. If they believe and embrace that for themselves and their children and grandchildren, the future of the Jewish community in the United States of America will be very bright, indeed.

Ron Wolfson’s new book is “The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses” (Jewish Lights). He will be telling his stories at AJU at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 27. Excerpts at