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‘This is not just another shul!’

A new year vision from Willesden Minyan’s co-chairs

‘The challenge today is to be animated by both gratitude and unrest, by humility and audacity, and to feel the exodus from Egypt — our people’s journey from slavery to freedom, from degradation to dignity — in our guts. Our Jewish story calls us to become agents of social change whose fiercest weapons are love, faith and holy chutzpah.’ –Rabbi Sharon Brous, IKAR

There are lots of excellent shuls in London, many of which run fascinating programs and have really good services.

So our goal in creating a new community through the shidduch (bringing together) of Shir Hayim and the Willesden Minyan is not merely to create another synagogue with great music and learning. Since we joined together in February this year to start experimenting with the Minyan Residency at Shir Hayim, we wanted to build something different.

We have an opportunity to build a community where our members identify with what the shul is, not just what it does, and where participation helps to transform our members, our congregation and our local area.

We have much to learn from the talented rabbis and community leaders who have walked before us in the UK and around the world. A revealing study of 6 key synagogues in the US has been written up in a fascinating book called ‘Sacred Strategies: Transforming Synagogues from Functional to Visionary’ by Isa Aron et al. The book draws a contrast

between a ‘functional’ synagogue, and a ‘visionary’ one.

Aron et al outline six key features of a ‘functional synagogue’:

  1. Consumerism: fee-for-service arrangements provide consumers with services (eg – religion school costs £X and barmitzvahs cost £Y)

  2. Segmentation: programmes stand on their own, with little integration of workshop, learning, caring, social action or community building.

  3. Passivity: professionals control congregational functioning and worshippers sit passively; parents drop kids off for religion school but do not participate or learn themselves.

  4. Meaninglessness: scripted/rote performances in services without a feeling of transcendent connection with Judaism, justice or the Jewish world.

  5. Resistance to change: routine is supreme, no risks are taken.

  6. Non-reflective leadership: there is a focus on program over people (there is more excitement over the numbers of people who come to an event instead of who was developed through it), and there is a focus on institutional arrangements than on the building of a collective purpose and vision.

In contrast, Aron’s team studied what they described as ‘visionary synagogues’, which were characterised by having a:

  1. Sacred purpose: there is an intentional, pervasive, shared vision that infuses all aspects of shul life.

  2. Holistic ethos: different parts of shul life relate to one another, and the shul’s purpose, whether it is learning, ritual, caring, social justice. Lay and professional staff work together to promote the core purpose through all actions that the shul takes.

  3. Participatory culture on all levels: congregants, students, professionals and parents engage in the work of collectively building and contributing to the sacred community.

  4. Meaningful engagement: this is achieved through repeated inspirational experiences that add genuine meaning to people’s lives, which, in turn, is based on people spending the time on getting to know and understand one another, and ultimately being moved by each other.

  5. Desire to innovate: this is marked by a search for a diversity of identities and views within the shul; an agreement that sometimes we will fail because we will try new ideas that sometimes won’t work; a willingness to address and overcome resistance to change; and an openness to reinventing or going back to the drawing board if things aren’t working.

  6. Reflective leadership: a constant process of reflection and learning that the leadership is engaged in, thinking through whether or not each action that the shul is engaged in is really taking the congregation closer to its agreed sacred purpose; an agreement to examine alternatives, rather than taking a well-trodden but uninspiring path; a collective commitment to building relationships; and a planned and thoughtful process of building change.

Does this sound too good to be true? The good news is, these shuls really do exist, and as we build the Willesden Minyan and our connection with Shir Hayim, we’re getting inspired by examples of communities that are deep in these intentional discussions.

Some of the communities studied include Temple Israel Boston (tagline ‘living Judaism together’) and Temple Micah Washington DC. But if the study were written today, we believe Aron would now include the 7 key shuls of the Jewish Emergent Network, and Rabbi Sharon Brous’ shul, Ikar, an Emerge Network community in Los Angeles, that aspires to be:

  • a diverse place where all are welcome;

  • a holy community working to awaken the spirit of love and justice in the world;

  • a catalyst to create a justice-driven Judaism in LA and a challenge and

  • [a place where] where no-one should get too comfortable because the world is not yet as it ought to be and therefore it calls on its members to be both humble and audacious in thinking and action.

So no, there is no point in putting in huge amounts of energy if all we want to do is build another functional shul. But if we can work together to build a visionary community, a holistic intergenerational local community with strong relationships between its members, one which fosters meaning and creativity in its Jewish practice, and in which people are willing to give of their talents and learn from the experience - that, to us, is something worth building.

We’ve been asking ourselves - what will it take to build this community? After half a year of experimentation, running services and events, and having one to one conversations with over 40 people in the community, we have some ideas.

Firstly, we know that to be guided by a shared vision, we need to create it together with those members who have a shared stake in the community’s future. We look forward to doing some big bold thinking and practical whittling down together in the coming year. Secondly, we’ve learned that the cost of trying things out is messing up. We’ve made mistakes, and if we’re doing it right, we will make many more - the key will be our ability to learn from them and grow wiser and more skilful. This will also test our ability to take responsibility, apologise, forgive each other and move forward when we don’t get it right, enabling us to move towards more compassionate relationship with each other. And most of all, it will take people stepping up and offering their talents and skills to co-create the community they want to see. If we do it right, volunteering with the community might be intense at times, but it should always ultimately be out of a sense of enrichment and enjoyment, rather than being a burden. And with that, we want to say ‘Yashar Koach’, a warm well done, to everyone who has built the community in ways large and small this year, from leading services to leyning, from providing food to speaking wisdom, from working behind the scenes, to showing up and helping out. You are what true communities are built on!

So as we approach Rosh Hashanah, and reflect on the year that has passed and the year to come, consider this your invitation to join us on this journey. We look forward to working together with you to build an intergenerational, diverse, visionary congregation - one which will hold us, nurture us and challenge us, infuse us with kindness, help to build our relationships with one another, and enable us to make a contribution to the world beyond our four walls.

Wishing you a shana tova u’metukah!

Debbie Danon and Daniel Mackintosh, Co-chairs of the Willesden Minyan

Martin Dives and Anne Kinderlerer, Chair and vice-chair of Shir Hayim

Rabbi Daniel Lichman, Rabbi to the Willesden Minyan Residency at Shir Hayim

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