Cruise Ship Synagogues for Orthodoxy

A half-year ago, I posted about suburban religion and its turning of the house of worship into a cruise ship. Well now the OU has officially designed a entertaining Orthodoxy with all social events on board.

It has turned the church from an “ocean-liner” designed to move people from point A to point B (connecting people with God), to a “cruise ship” that is, in itself, the destination. One need never disembark because it contains everything

It is a continuation of Disney-ization of Faith:magic moments, theme park, kitsch, and entertainment.

If you google “Synagogue Transformation” you see that it was the buzz word for the last decade in liberal congregations. The successful STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal) brought in a variety of parallel programs called The Synaplex Initiative. Similar efforts were done by Synagogue 3000 and the United Synagogue. But they claimed to be doing something new. Here we have the OU claiming that turning the Orthodox synagogue is not a new act or transformation “rather to inspire a shul to become what it always was supposed to be.”

The director states “If there’s a book out there that relates to synagogue growth in any way, I’ll read it,” This means, and the language of this announcement shows, that he read all the books by the liberal movements and the Mega Church Evangelicals.
Shavuot night moves from an evening of Torah study to a midnight BBQ, one creates a Menorah Building Contest, a Latke Cook-Off; and a great debate on the Maccabees.

Or one creates a Rock and Roll Shabbaton as the director of Wings does. (flier)
Who Roger Daltrey of THE WHO
Joshua Nelson Rock Gospel Chazan
David Fishof – Producer of VH1 Rock N’ Roll Fantasy Camp
Elan Atias – Lead Singer of Bob Marley and The Wailers
Ellen Foley – “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” Co Singer
There will also be a Comedy Shabbaton in the upcoming weeks.

I guess this is what an Orthodox Synagogue was “Always supposed to be.” This will be the new model of Centrist synagogue, more like the entertainment mega-Church.


Just as synagogues provide the spiritual means for their congregations to soar, the Orthodox Union, in one of its newest and most ambitious initiatives, has established the WINGS program to guide the synagogues themselves to rise to new heights. WINGS… is an acronym for “We Inspire New Growth Synagogues,” with “new growth” referring to shuls of any age or size, as long as they have the outlook and attitude to be inspired – and to soar.

“The title ‘we inspire’ is meant to reflect just that,” declared Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn, the rabbi of Manhattan’s West Side Institutional Synagogue, who is Project Director of Wings. “We’re not claiming we can transform a shul, but rather to inspire a shul to become what it always was supposed to be.”

In the five years since he arrived at the West Side Institutional Synagogue, Shabbat morning attendance has increased from 12 to over 300. “It’s been going amazing there,” Rabbi Einhorn says. He came with the background to build a congregation. “I’ve been watching rabbis and shuls since I was a kid, observing what shuls do wrong and what shuls do right,” he explained.

Rabbi Einhorn has supplemented his first-hand knowledge with intensive study. “If there’s a book out there that relates to synagogue growth in any way, I’ll read it,” he says, adding that he’s already read more than 1,000 books on the subject. “The content of what I give comes from taking a lot of time listening to a lot of shuls, hearing their struggles and their challenges, how they face them and how they respond to these challenges.”

For example, for each holiday WINGS compiles a listing of best practices. For Chanukah, suggestions included a Family Friday Night, a Carnival, a Creative Menorah Building Contest, a Latke Cook-Off; and a great debate on the Maccabees.

This is all connected to the book HOLY IGNORANCE By Olivier Roy, which was reviewed by Alan Wolfe in today’s NYT book review. (subscription required). Roy claims that today’s Evangelical and Orthodox religions are themselves secularized into the consumer market. No one is going back to the Bible rather into ever newer consumer cultural forms. Much of Centrist Orthodoxy is moving forward by ever greater identification with consumer religion. True frumkeit will be determined by whether one takes part in these cruise ship entertainments.

Every winter Fox News, seeking to stir up anger through the land, uncovers evidence of a war on Christmas. Secular humanists ignorant of religion and hostile to its traditions, someone in the studio will declare, want us to say “Happy Holiday” or give Kwanzaa equal standing. But Christmas, as its name suggests, is about Christ. These enemies of Christianity will stop at nothing to get their way. Not even Santa Claus is sacred to them.

Actually, as the brilliant French social scientist Olivier Roy points out in “Holy Ignorance,” it is those defending Christmas who are not being true to their traditions and teachings. There are no Christmas dinners in the Bible, which is why America’s Puritans, strict adherents of what that venerated text offers, never sat down by the raging fire awaiting St. Nick; indeed, they briefly banned Christmas in Massachusetts.

Yule as we celebrate it today owes more to Charles Dickens than to Thomas Aquinas. Our major solstice holiday is what Roy calls a “cultural construct” rather than a sectarian ceremony, which explains why Muslims buy halal turkeys and Jews transformed Hanukkah into a gift-giving occasion. Mistakenly believing that Christmas is sacred, those who defend it find themselves propping up the profane. The Christ they want in Christmas is a product not of Nazareth but of Madison Avenue.

Over the past few years, a number of theories have been offered about the rise of fundamentalism. Roy proposes the most original — and the most persuasive. Fundamentalism, in his view, is a symptom of, rather than a reaction against, the increasing secularization of society.

11 responses to “Cruise Ship Synagogues for Orthodoxy

  1. Fundamentalism, in his view, is a symptom of, rather than a reaction against, the increasing secularization of society.

    This reminds me of a quote, without irony, from an American rightwing rabbi (I think Pinchos Lipschitz) saying that if Moshe Rabbenu were plopped down in Meah Shearim today, he would feel “essentially” at home.

  2. I’m also struck by the move to centralize this transformation of synagogue from ocean liner to cruise ship. It goes a little to my last post, about The Economics of Superstars, applied to Jewish communal life.

    Whether or not these transformations are innovations or restorations, the programs, ideas, and so on are going to be in the hands of fewer and fewer people.

  3. This makes me angry because at some point Torah has to mean something
    Rabbi Akiva had his flesh raked off so that richard joel. & steve weil could entertain
    The Netziv would learn 20 hours a day-and this is his legacy?!
    I cannot see what any of this has to do with the Vilna Gaon, Reb Chayim Rav Kook, or the Chasam Sofer. I cannot believe figures like Hillel Zeitlin HYD died in tallis and tefillin with a Zohar in his hand for this to be the future.

    These type of developments really clarify the recent YU-Ethan Tucker fiasco. At this point in time mainstream Modern Orthodoxy is profoundly anti-intellectual, and by extension, anti-Torah.
    Whether through the Maccabeats (in the video for “One Day” the boys shlep one of their friends out of the Beis Medrash as part of his initiation into the group), or having a woman whose claim to fame is moaning during a song about losing one’s virginity as the featured Shabbos guest, MO is most definitely not interested in promoting Torah to the world at large.
    Ethan Tucker, on the other hand, is kulo Torah; the most significant issues of our lives must be seen through the prism of Ri Migash and Hatam Sofer. I can see why he, and his institution, must be seen as “beyond the pale of Centrist Orthodoxy.”

  4. An interesting trope I noticed surrounding representations of Christmas in popular culture is that it always needs to be “saved.” In every other Christmas movie or book Christmas is in peril, be it from grinches, corporations, family crises, Santa quitting, etc.

    So Christmas as imperiled by secularists is just one more reflection of some deep sense that something is not right about Christmas. Perhaps unease about the patent absurdity of consumer religion.

    In Orthodoxy it is not one particular holiday; instead everything is spoken about as if it is in peril of imminent demise. Change brings angst, and ironically the response is to turn more toward popular culture. After all, in Orthodoxy the thinking apparently goes that you really can only tinker at the margins so anything that is not considered part of core ritual (and this somehow includes the nusach for kedusha) is subject to crass appropriation of consumer culture.

    Is the only other option Ben Skydell’s vehement elitism? I don’t know.

  5. In Orthodoxy it is not one particular holiday; instead everything is spoken about as if it is in peril of imminent demise.

    Is this an understandable post-Holocaust response?

    On another note: one of the “proofs” often cited for Torah truth is the unlikely survival of the Jewish people. We’re always in peril of imminent demise, apparently, yet our survival is guaranteed; if not, we’d have vanished long ago (according to that reasoning).

  6. No, it’s not about the Holocaust. It is the unease that people feel when they speak of tradition with the implicit thought that whatever form their Judaism takes must have an essential core that would be clearly recognizable to a group of rabbis living in Roman occupied Palestine, if not their nomadic forbears. Well, that’s just not going the case – no matter how conservative an approach one takes to ritual or theology modernity has remade the world in too many different ways. Just because we can recognize some of ourselves in our past heroes, does not mean that they would be able to recognize us.

    It is the denial of this inescapable truth that makes it seem that Judaism is close to its demise because one is forever looking in vain for that essential core and checking it to assure oneself of its continued authenticity. But just as soon as one focuses one’s gaze carefully that which looked authentic begins to look a bit wrong, a bit different, a bit non-traditional, a bit phony. Hence the omnipresent angst that we are always on the verge of losing something that was already lost a long time ago.

    • AS on tesyaa-
      That was the point of my follow-up post on rescripting. People understand the past in terms of the present popular presentation. Visits to Israel and conflations of the state of Israel and the Roman era practice help close the gap. Since this is the accepted practice, then my question is where do people have complete ease in their construction of the tradition and where doe this unease arise for the average person. I am not speaking of the flash points like the role of women, but where are the cracks in daily prayer or Shabbat that allows the changes are seen?

  7. I’m losing the thrust of these religion and popular culture posts and I would like to catch up. The idea of a synagogue as a public place where members interact in many different ways, a sort of shul based polis, is not at all new. The idea is to create a larger shul society where you know everyone, even if you are really friendly only with some of the members . Maybe the original thought was that if davening doesn’t pull them in, the bowling team might do the trick. How are the current pop culture activities centering around the holidays and shabatons so very different? The shul activities and entertainments, no different than shows on a cruise are nothing special. Hardly anyone is disappointed since expectations are so low. Why label them as kitsch?

    You run these observations about shul as entertainment together with two other themes, the supposed emulation by Centrist Orthodoxy of evangelical culture, and the rise of spirituality and New Age practices within Orthodox life.
    Why are you doing this? How are the three related other than all three themes indicate different degrees of Americanization?

  8. Not in any particular order right now popular culture is increasingly the way religion is expressed in the US, Centrist Orthodox Jews are embedded in that culture and now seem to be starting to actually define themselves that way (not just outreach or pulling people in). For you they are nothing special, but for some they are the essence of their Judaism and synagogue culture. For example, the role of the shabbaton and Jewish music serves many of the same functions as Christian rock. The mix of popular culture and suburban life changes what is preached and how it is preached.

    As part of the Americanization, the Centrist community has much in common with the Evangelicals (and less so with Catholics.) Some of the use of popular culture has much in common with the Evangelical usage. Some of the similarity is just part of the American scene, some direct influence, and some convergence. Popular culture is generative – not to be confused with mass culture like bowling which does not turn around and change the elites. For some of the ironies of this change see Albert Hsu, The Suburban Christian.
    My goal is to prove it or at least get the point across in a presentation to those who are the keepers of the text culture.
    So what questions do I need to answer to convince someone? Where you are not convinced?

  9. I’m finding it very hard to get beyond the WTF factor to actually analyze this. What does it mean to have a rock and roll shabbaton on a Shabbos afternoon? Will Roger Daltrey be performing? Leading a discussion on the parsha? And the singer from Paradise by the Dashboard Lights? Wasn’t that the most menuval song on the radio back when I was in high school?

    I understand rock concerts. I understand Shabbatonim. I might be able to understand a Shlock Rock shabbaton, but I just don’t understand what I would be getting for my $100.

    That said, Einhorn’s would seem to be the third deliberate revival of an Upper West Side synagogue. In the 70s was Riskin’s Lincoln Square. In the 90s was Marshal Meyer’s Bnai Jeshurun. And now comes Einhorn’s West Side Institutional. (When I lived on the UWS in the 90s, I would go to WSI for Drisha’s yamim noraim services and Carleback’s Purim service.)

    What was Riskin offering that was so appealing? Was it Torah? Was it youth? Was it the teachings of Rav Soloveitchik? It certainly wasn’t the Who. (Of course, the Who and Meat Loaf in ’11 are the equivalent of Perry Como and company in ’71).

    Who is Einhorn’s audience? Is he seeking to grab Orthodox Jews from Lincoln Square? “Unaffiliated”? Or is he just seeking to make his balabatim happy by building the shul? To that extant, I’m not sure this is centrism any more. Lamm’s Centrism put the Roshei Yeshiva front and center. This is institution building, and asking the question, “how can we make our synagogue successful.” That’s a very different question than “what is the mesorah” or “how can we feel smug about walking the golden middle”.

  10. This reminds me of an idea from Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America… that religious inspirations and awakenings of the first generation become institutionalized in the second generation and lose their spark. The ship — the church, the synagogue — ceases to become a means but in the second generation becomes the end in itself. For the Churching of America, that’s how Puritan enthusiasm became dowdy Congregationalists, how Methodism shifted from 19th century radicals to 20th century mainline. And Centrists become institutions.

    In the context of modern/centrist Orthodoxy, we can locate the enthusiasm in the 60s and 70s, with the intellectual revival of Soloveitchik and (newly translated) Hirsch creating the vibrant Orthodoxy of which Riskin was emblematic. It was an Orthodoxy which believed its truths could change the world. Now, it is the children’s generation, and the goal is to hold on to the younger generation. The excitement of the revival has petered out. So now it is the institutional question of: how to make our synagogues exciting?

    We have forgotten the prayer, we have forgotten the forest, we have even forgotten how to light the fire….

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