RA Spotlight: Michael Friedland on the Challenges and Joys of Small Synagogue Life

Posted on: Wednesday May 22, 2019

As part of our ongoing efforts to highlight the wonderful diversity of the Conservative/Masorti rabbinate, we spoke with our colleague Michael Friedland, who has been working at a small synagogue for over two decades. Below, he shared how he’s bringing innovative practices to his congregation, his tips for rabbis planning to make a career at a small synagogue, and some of the challenges he’s faced in his work.

You’ve been working as a rabbi at Sinai Synagogue since 1996. How has the community changed and evolved in your time there?

The community has changed in the way many of our communities have. The older generation who grew up in nominally Orthodox synagogues have passed away and most of our community today is less knowledgeable of Jewish practice, or of Hebrew. Only a small minority of our members were even raised in Conservative synagogues. A significant change is the number of our members who are converts, and not for the purpose of marriage, but have come independently to Judaism. While they are among our most involved members and have great passion for Judaism, they come with no family background or instinctive Jewish sensibilities which can prove challenging to integration. In general, our community is much younger than it was when I came in 1996 and a more cohesive group identity  (ironically because the relationships within the community today do not have the life long histories or family ties, in which tensions arose, as the congregation did a generation ago).

How can rabbis bring innovative practices to small synagogues?

One of the benefits of serving small congregations, in my experience of serving two, is that small communities are very grateful to have rabbis serving full time. The congregations I have served have also been in small cities with small Jewish communities. So, the synagogues’ self-perception begins with anxiety over finding a rabbi in the first place. When a rabbi presents him or herself as one willing to invest in the community, the community is quite open to the rabbi’s lead on change. Of course, it goes without saying that in making any kind of change, the rabbi must take the temperature of the community as well as clarify how the innovations will benefit the community. Radical change is difficult in the best of circumstances.  But often small communities are aware that change is necessary because they themselves see how the community is struggling to keep people engaged. 

When I began working in South Bend, Indiana, the Sunday school program was very poor, and we only had 16 kids, most who went to the right-wing Orthodox day school during the week. I knew this was not sustainable if we wanted to grow the congregation. 25 people came on Shabbat morning, about 15-20 kids and teachers came on Sunday morning. I wanted to scrap the Sunday school and create a Shabbat education program. That way you have the two groups coming at the same time, you have synergy among the older and younger members who are in the building together ON SHABBAT. We had a series of meetings with parents and discussed various options. The parents had the worst things to say about their own Sunday school experiences, so I strongly encouraged creating the Shabbat program. They were ready for this radical change because through the conversations it was apparent to all that Sunday school was not a better choice and the notion of communal unity was powerful.

But innovation is not always what is needed. Sometimes upholding older traditions and investing them with new meaning is required. When I came to South Bend, the community, which had 150-member units, mostly elderly, had a daily minyan on the schedule. But they never had more than 5 or 6 people come to minyan. With the help of a member who was very enthusiastic about minyan, I devoted the first two years in the congregation to promoting the value of minyan and daily prayer. I wrote about it in the bulletin, I spoke about it in Shabbat sermons, I corralled individuals to choose one day a week, I offered classes in tefillin and daily prayer, and I went to minyan every day, morning and evening. It became a priority for the congregation and our twice daily minyan is now a source of pride. 

What advice do you have for rabbis planning to make a career at a small synagogue?

I would say that it is a wonderful opportunity for any rabbi who enjoys being a jack-of-all trades. Some rabbis are good managers and know how to delegate responsibility, others like to be involved in everything. Larger congregations need competent managers. Small congregations need rabbis who are willing to be involved in all aspects of congregational life and in the lives of the congregants. I don’t only know all my congregants, I know their extended family and histories, I know who is entering the building by the car that pulls up to the parking lot. Teaching people the ritual skills in order to lead worship is a definite goal but until they learn you may be the regular Hazzan, Torah and Haftarah reader. You may be the b’nai mitzvah tutor, or pre-k teacher as well as teaching adult education classes. You will be the pastoral presence in their lives and the representative of the Jewish community to the outside world (if you are in a small Jewish community). You will be the igniter of program ideas. You may be responsible for the building and grounds – I have weeded our meditation garden and (because of my hobby of coffee roasting) am in charge of preparing coffee two days a week after minyan.  

What are some of the challenges you face in your work and how have you overcome them?

I think the biggest challenge, serving the small communities I have served, is that as rabbi you are on an island. It’s the only job in which your social circle is composed of your employers. And like many rabbis in Conservative synagogues, the difference between the rabbi’s lifestyle and congregants’ is great. It is especially tough on one’s kids. What do you do on Shabbat? What can the kids eat at friends’ homes?  For all of our children it was a challenge and a burden. As they have become adults, one followed our path, the others rebelled to some extent. Nevertheless, if you were to ask my kids about their growing up experiences, they are all grateful to have grown up in our home and our community. Also, in a small Jewish community there are no colleagues to engage outside of the congregation. In South Bend there is a Reform synagogue and an ultra Orthodox community. Finding havruta is not easy. Fortunately, the University of Notre Dame has a chair in Jewish studies and they have always had outstanding scholars hold that chair. The current professor is modern Orthodox. It is not easy for him in our particular Orthodox community either. We are an outlet for each other.

In what ways has the Rabbinical Assembly helped you in your career?

If you had asked me this question 15 years ago I would have had a cynical response. But the RA has helped in two significant ways. The first is that, with David Krishef and Ben Kramer, we developed a conference for rabbis who serve small Conservative congregations. To be honest, we did it to spite the RA since conventions were basically worthless to us. A group of about 6 of us within two hours of driving would meet twice a year in each other’s synagogues for hevraschaft, and to complain. About ten years ago we started this conference. We called on the RA for help and, despite our cynical attitude, Elliot Schoenberg and the RA were very supportive. What we recognized and appreciated immediately was that the RA was willing to assist us while we developed the program. They understood that we knew what we wanted the conference to be and let us organize. They did not tell us how to run it. And I think that is the secret to its success – the RA appreciated that we had expertise in serving small congregations and Elliot offered guidance but let us take responsibility. 

The other way the RA helped my career was giving me the opportunity to serve on the Executive Council during the period when the Bold Statements were being created. The opportunity allowed me to share my views of the rabbinate and RA from a different perspective than most others on the committee and gave me an outlet beyond the confines of my small Midwestern congregation to engage with colleagues.  Working on that committee led to the request that I chair the Chicago convention which was another wonderful experience in working with colleagues.

Anything else you’d like to share with us?

My most recent experience with the RA shows me that the RA is trying to become more responsive to the needs of its members. It is obviously not an easy time for the rabbinate in America, whatever one’s movement. There is so much change, instability, and fickleness in congregational life. Rabbis must be much more flexible, there is no certain career path. That makes the RA’s job of responding to member needs so much harder. But it seems to me that the leadership is trying. I would encourage members who see programmatic opportunities to develop them and come to the RA as the final piece in making the program operational. My experience is that the leadership will offer support and assistance.

The RA is looking to highlight the diversity of the rabbinate by featuring RA members across a variety of rabbinic roles in congregations, schools, organizations, and communities. To nominate a colleague, email Diana Denza, our Marketing and Communications Specialist, at ddenza@rabbinicalassembly.org. Please provide your colleague's full name along with a paragraph about why you're nominating them in the body of your email.