Two Views: Religious institutions search for relevance in a changing world

“Will churches survive in the land of vegans, nature lovers” asks the headline of a recent Portland Tribune article (Peter Korn, Aug. 1).

My answer, from the perspective of the Jewish community, is a resounding “Yes!”

Jews in Portland have a rich array of options. We have large synagogues and small gatherings. Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Humanist, Renewal and many who defy labels are all represented here. In their own ways, they offer outstanding possibilities for prayer, celebration, study, community and social action. Jewish institutions such as the Mittleman Jewish Community Center, Jewish Family and Child Services and Cedar Sinai Park help take care of the community’s health, well-being and support for the aging. Many of these agencies are supported by the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, which raises fund and helps define and respond to the community’s needs.

But things also have to change.

The old definitions of what it means to “belong” to a synagogue or to a Jewish institution are becoming less clear. It is much more common for people to self define — to determine for themselves what it means to “belong.” Recent studies show that many more people report “belonging” to a synagogue than pay dues.

(Modern synagogues, unlike churches, do not tithe their members or take up collections, but are supported to a large extent by assessing member “dues.”)

Young adults in particular are approaching their Jewish identity in ways that are different than before. It is up to our institutions and synagogues to understand these changes and provide more opportunities for engagement.

Congregation Beth Israel, where I am senior rabbi, has dedicated huge resources to this changing landscape. For several years, we have hosted a group we call “Jews Next Dor” (“Dor” being the Hebrew word for “generation.”)

Once a month, 30 to 40 young adults gather in our chapel for an informal service which includes prayer and study. Social time is a very important component, and the group has expanded to create projects of good works in the community as well.

Participants are not necessarily “members” of the congregation in any conventional way. The synagogue devotes resources including clergy time to support this program and does not ask anything back. But these adults do understand that synagogues care about who they are and their spiritual needs. Already many are choosing to be members and supporters, in whatever way is possible. This program has been replicated by other congregations in the community, and young adults have more options than ever before.

Engagement is key in all respects. More significant than offering programs to bring in young people, we have to extend ourselves to where people are. Our new assistant rabbi, Rachel Joseph, is devoting part of her time to engaging young Jewish adults, to have meaningful conversations and build relationship outside the walls of the synagogue. We are redefining our financial relationship with members from a traditional “transactional” model (a kind of “fee for service”) to a “relational” model — one that helps every individual know that they are needed and important in keeping the community they love going.

If you are engaged, if you know the community cares about you, you will care for the community.

Portland is a unique and vibrant laboratory for this new model of engagement. Our strong youth culture, our dedication to new ways of thinking, our passion for civic involvement and our desire to make the world better, provide a significant opportunity to rethink religious involvement. Because religion should be about making our world and ourselves better. The Jewish people have a history thousands of years old that is dedicated to education, personal values and “tikkun olam,” the continued perfection of the world — which begins with fixing what is broken.

In every generation, we have faced challenges in the way we teach and enact these values. And in every generation, we have responded and created new forms, while keeping to the core of what is eternal and true.

While we live in a new and rapidly changing world, we also have to recognize that some things do not change. Human beings strive to find meaning in our lives — it is part of what makes us unique. Values do not change, although the ways these values get expressed in a complex world do.

Religious institutions: churches, mosques and synagogues, are homes for deeply rooted values which are not subject to fashion and whim. They are sanctuaries; places of holiness.

Young and old continue to find their spiritual homes and find their lives deeply enriched and celebrated.

Will these institutions survive? If they are meaningful, if they are open, if they stress engagement and offer what cannot be found anywhere else, they will survive — and they will thrive.

Michael Z. Cahana is senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Northwest Portland.

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