Despite being unsure about God, Lawrence Hoffman embarked on his journey as a student in a New York rabbinical school nonetheless. The now-longtime rabbi has since authored more than 40 books and has been teaching at the Hebrew Union College in New York since 1973.
HUC is a seminary for Reform rabbis and cantors. Hoffman teaches courses in liturgy, worship, ritual, spirituality and theology – and, increasingly, synagogue transformation.
The synagogue transformation endeavor has Hoffman traveling constantly, both addressing congregations throughout North America and as a consultant aiding in transformation issues.
In 1995, Hoffman began to suspect that synagogues were not keeping up with the changes in North Americans’ views of religion and that, as a result, they were in for some hard times.
“This was already evident the generation prior, the generation after the baby boomers,” said the rabbi. “I became convinced that synagogues needed to become what I came to call ‘spiritual and moral centres for the 21st century.’
“I co-founded something called Synagogue 2000 … investigating how synagogues might transform themselves into this kind of synagogue. It would involve a new kind of spiritual affirmation and a focus on what a spiritual mission might be for the synagogue … what synagogue life might become for the new century.”
After experimenting with these concepts via Synagogue 2000, Hoffman began traveling from place to place to help synagogues undergo the process. This has become his main passion.
As the rabbi teaches at a Reform seminary, most of his current work is with Reform congregations, but he has worked across the spectrum. “After all,” he said, “the impact of the environment and the new age is felt equally across the ranks of all synagogues.”
A recent visit to Winnipeg’s Temple Shalom was part of Hoffman’s initiative to spread the word and help communities that would otherwise not be able to afford his normal rates as a scholar-in-residence.
Hoffman – who is originally from Kitchener, Ont. – included the stop in Winnipeg on his way to a Western Canadian vacation with his wife.
“All my life, I wanted to see Western Canada and never had, and I decided it was time,” he said. “I realized I hadn’t seen Winnipeg after having arranged the vacation out West. I knew there was a small synagogue [Temple Shalom].… I phoned them, offering to come to Winnipeg and give them a lecture and meet the community…. In return, they were willing to show me around and host me.”
The rabbi spoke briefly at the synagogue during the erev Shabbat service on May 27. His topic was Authentic Jewish Spirituality. He returned the following evening to speak again.
“The idea was to investigate what might be a kind of Jewish spirituality that would go deep into Jewish text and practice,” said Hoffman. “A lot of people think that spirituality is equivalent to meditation, silence retreats, yoga … all of which is fine … and there are Jewish versions of that, which I applaud, but I think there are forms of Jewish spirituality that are connected more deeply with things that are consistently found often quite uniquely in Judaism, as a series of sects, practices, Jewish traditions, a deep way of looking at Jewish spirituality.”
Hoffman believes we are living in the third revolution, with the first having brought rabbinic Judaism and the second having been the development of modern denominations. This current revolution, according to Hoffman, is courtesy of technology, the baby boomers and other general changes with respect to religion in North America.
“I explored the new revolution we are living through, the excitement of it, and the opportunities and positive nature of what might result,” said Hoffman of his talks in Winnipeg. “We ended up with well over 100 people, which was quite amazing to me. In fact, I was able to see, through them and through the people who were kind enough to host my wife and myself, the vitality of the Jewish community in Winnipeg in a way that I never would have anticipated.
“The Temple Shalom Jewish community, at the moment, doesn’t have a full-time rabbi, so services were actually led by lay people, but they did a spectacular job. I was very impressed.”
Hoffman spoke about what he means when he says transformation – that, until recent years, most Jews would not have moved into a town without joining a synagogue, referring to this as “a Jewish civic duty.” But, today, Hoffman said, “What’s happening in the new world is that people like that don’t necessarily belong to a synagogue anymore. They associate the synagogue with what they call ‘religion,’ saying they are not religious. Instead, they say, they’re spiritual. Spirituality is rising and the claim that people are not religious is rising, as well.
“Synagogues need to transform themselves into places of serious Jewish identity through identification, this search for meaning … [in] so far as people can find meaning in synagogue and they don’t just join for their kids, because they think it’s the Jewish thing to do, then synagogues will do well.”
The actual transformation, Hoffman conceded, is a serious, difficult task that does not occur overnight.
“People were very interested in what I had to say, finding it exciting to be living in a moment of opportunity,” said Hoffman. “Not all of them saw it as a moment of opportunity. Many felt it was a difficult moment. For example, intermarriage is rising – some people see that as almost a death to Judaism. In my perspective, it’s just the opposite. I think it’s an enormous opportunity for us to reach so many new people. If people actually are intermarrying and then coming to synagogue with their spouse, it’s a wonderful opportunity. I think people were intrigued by the possibility and by my optimism.”
According to Hoffman, many synagogues are growing rapidly via Jews by choice.
Another issue that was discussed was how young people are not coming to synagogue, but how this is changeable. It’s just that, at the moment, they do not see a reason to attend, said Hoffman.
“The problem that people have when they say, ‘I’m not religious’ – and I’m talking largely about people who aren’t in the Orthodox camp – is that they assume that religious means keeping all of Jewish law,” he said. “They know they don’t do that, so they assume they’re not religious, but they may be religious in other ways. They may do this, but not that. They may show up on Yom Kippur. They have their own way of keeping Judaism, so it would be wrong to say they are not religious.
“Secondly, a lot of people think that to be religious means to belong to the institution. I talk about a deeply understood sense of being religious, in a spiritual sense … a sense in which Judaism, as a religion, provides meaning for people’s lives.
“One has to reevaluate what we mean by religion and help people find a way to associate with Judaism’s depths to give their life meaning and direction,” said Hoffman.
Ruth Naomi Livingston, a member of Temple Shalom’s board of trustees and a past president, was one of the Hoffmans’ hosts.
“I was raised in a secular Jewish home, but had a very religious grandfather who lived with us,” said Livingston. “I identified as Jewish by culture, rather than by religion. The topic [discussed by Hoffman] that resonated most with me was when he explained the basic differences between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They are Hellenistic religions and are faith-based. To be a good Christian, one must believe in Jesus as a God; not to do so makes one a bad Christian or not one at all.”
Livingston came out of the experience feeling energized and empowered to follow the teachings handed down from her grandfather about the need for action in fixing the world to be a good Jew.
Of Hoffman specifically, Livingston added, “He was the most passionate and dynamic speaker I have ever seen. He had the crowd of about 90 people in the palm of his hand. There were people from a variety of synagogues present as well as several non-Jews.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.