Before the current economic crash, we were in the middle of a tremendous generational transfer of wealth. The majority of that wealth circumvented the synagogue community. Why was that the case? One of the reasons was that major funders considered synagogues to be too parochial and uninspiring for their tastes.
Imagine the challenges which synagogues now face. Synagogue list serves have been abuzz with stories about staff cuts, salary freezes, and impending synagogue closings. Rabbis are really going to have to work harder to articulate inspirational dreams even to maintain the support of their current community, let alone funders with greater financial means, who could offer budget relief.
I have no hard data on this, but it often feels that rabbis don’t dream expansively enough. Perhaps our training doesn’t sufficiently encourage us to create compelling narratives about Jewish life, or maybe it’s that synagogues tend to be risk adverse and push back against big dreams, or maybe it’s just the times in which we live — but where are the spiritual visionaries of today who will cultivate the most noble aspirations that we have as a people?
Let me cite a couple of examples of what I mean by big dreams:
The synagogue will become a microcosm of a just and perfected world. All people who walk through its door, regardless of status and ability, will be treated with the dignity to which they’re entitled because they’re created in the image of God. All synagogue staff members will respect one another and the members of the community they serve. Instead of looking for people’s flaws, members of this community seek to shine the light on the unique contributions that each individual has the potential to offer.
The synagogue will become a model of a diverse, multi-generational community. While few places in society today enable individuals from different generations to meaningfully and regularly interact, all aspects of synagogue life will truly embody the phrase, “from one generation to another,” l’dor va-dor. By doing so, the community will be an evolving repository of Jewish wisdom and help all people enrich the passages of life.
Clearly, each congregation must envision its ideal picture of its community’s future. A significant part of the rabbi’s work is to lay out the possibilities of a big dream and then empower the congregation and staff to work together on achieving it. While I’m fully supportive of getting every member of the congregation to light Shabbat candles and study Torah daily, those are not big dreams—they are discrete Jewish practices that don’t point to larger meaning and purpose in life.
As a people, we have a history of knowing how to dream with great imagination. Reclaiming that capacity is going to be one of the most important roles for contemporary rabbis if we want vital institutions. So rabbis—please share your big dreams for the Jewish community or your congregation (or other institution) here. And others—let me know what you wish your rabbi would dream!
Rabbi Hayim Herring