While the bulk of synagogue reform initiatives have originated in Conservative and Reform circles, renewal efforts have also emerged recently in the Orthodox community.
Last week, the Orthodox Union — which represents some 1,000 congregations — announced a first-time grant competition to reward synagogues for displaying innovative programming that strengthens congregational or community life. Starting next winter, five grants of up to $20,000, funded from the union’s general budget, will be awarded to congregations for programs. And late last year, more than 400 Orthodox congregations participated in the National Tefilla Initiative, a prayer-revitalization program sponsored by the ultra-Orthodox organization Agudath Israel of America.
The programs demonstrate that innovation in the areas of congregational development and spirituality are not confined merely to the more liberal movements. But where renewal efforts within the Reform and Conservative communities tend to prioritize bringing new people into synagogues, the Orthodox organizers of the Tefilla Initiative said that the effort was meant as a wake-up call for the already faithful.
“People did feel very much that they needed a shot in the arm,” explained Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesperson for Agudath Israel of America. “When a person does something day in and day out three times a day, it runs the risk of becoming rote.” An advertisement promised the program was “designed to change the way we daven.”
This past December, organizers provided participating rabbis with a curriculum and discussion guide to use during four consecutive Saturdays. The materials addressed both the meaning and significance of various prayers — including the introductory psalms, Sh’ma and the Amidah — and larger questions, such as “Why does it take so long?” and “Why should God listen to me?” Organizer Rabbi Moshe Toiv said all rabbis devoted their sermons to such topics during the program and that many also held special classes and discussions.
While Shafran said the initiative would not necessarily become an annual occurrence, he believes that it represents a positive trend toward addressing spirituality that cuts across denominations.
“There is no question that there is definitely, across the board in the Jewish community — and not just in the Orthodox world — a willingness and desire to get closer to God,” Shafran said. “That’s the most basic translation of the word ‘spirituality,’ and that’s a wonderful and vital thing.”