The challenge of synagogue relevancy has been much discussed in Jewish communities around America – and the Twin Cities are no different.
“It became clear to me and the board that the traditional view that associates synagogue with prayer doesn’t resonate with a lot of people,” said Beth El Synagogue president Dan Mosow.
That realization led Beth El to create Community Learning @ The Well, the St. Louis Park synagogue’s new education initiative which was launched during the High Holidays. Rabbi Alexander Davis, who oversees The Well with the help of an active advisory committee, said that the idea for the program is an ancient one.
“We’re the People of the Book, so we have to know what is in the book. Learning is central to Jewish identity,” he said. “We don’t want the synagogue to be only associated with prayer or lifecycle events because if you are not a regular ‘shul-goer’, once you’re done raising kids through the preschool and B’nai mitzvah, what’s your anchor tying you to the synagogue? Our hope is through The Well, people are tied to a tradition that speaks to them personally.”
The Well has been organized around four streams of learning: Cultural Arts and Travel, Contemporary Issues, Jewish and Israel Studies, and Mind, Body, Spirit. They are hoping to add streams titled Family Life and Professional Affinities in the coming year.
So far, the feedback they’ve been getting has been positive.
“We were hoping we’d attract people who hadn’t attended many programs or set foot in a synagogue for a long time,” said Barbara Krupp, who co-chaired the launch committee. “People heard about what we were doing and who we are, and indeed, newer faces appeared.
Krupp said that traditional, Conservative Judaism didn’t offer her what she felt like she needed. She has been involved as the synagogue explored how to create more connection around the congregants and the Jewish community and Beth El at-large.
“We’re concerned about what’s happening with American Judaism,” Krupp said. “We started seeing trends nationwide and looked at the communities that do things well and create excitement. Those are communities that make engagement and learning central to the community.”
Mosow understands that the Conservative movement is facing headwinds. For its part, Beth El is trying to eliminate the barriers to entry. “We are looking to get people engaged,” Mosow said. “It doesn’t just have to mean 500 people in services; 70 people in an artists’ group with Rabbi Davis works too.
Some of the announced sessions have not shied away from topics of potential controversy – gun violence and racial justice. Davis said for the gun class, he has co-chairs on both sides of the issue that will help create a respectful learning opportunity.
“If we can’t have the difficult conversations with people we know in a sacred space we cherish, how can we have them in the public square?” Davis said. “If we can’t, we’re in a lot of trouble.”
Davis looked at learning centers in New York and Washington, D.C. to try and find a synagogue comparable in size to Beth El, as well as Jewish learning centers that weren’t connected to synagogues in places like San Francisco and Chicago.
“I didn’t find any that had this kind of structure that for me, is compelling and inviting,” said Davis.
He also is excited about the opportunity to partner with other local organizations, including Hineini.
“We’re too small of a community to not to take advantage of cross-collaboration opportunities,” Davis said. “And learning that builds across the community strengthens all of us.”
Audrey Goldfarb, who co-chaired the committee with Krupp, said the early feedback has have been positive.
“People have loved it,” she said. “We haven’t measured in an objective way, but we’re gathering stories of the impact. What found is that people who normally hadn’t been engaged are coming. They are excited about learning. Do I know where we end up? No, but it’s really exciting.”