Hey, Beth Tikvah: What Are You Hoping For?

A highlight of my trips to Kiev has been visiting the Progressive synagogue, Congregation Hatikvah. It was hardly necessary for Rabbi Alex Duchovny to explain their hope (Hatikvah): upgrade their small, shabby facilities, to help make Progressive Judaism attractive as a religious force in Ukraine, where Orthodox institutions, even if not Orthodox lifestyles, are dominant. Well, the good news is that today a new, modern, Progressive synagogue in Kiev is in process, thanks to the hopes and dreams of Rabbi Alex and his congregation and the generosity of the Beutel, Klau, and Molloy-Posner families. As Oscar Hammerstein taught, “You gotta have a dream. If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?”

As I contemplate the 25 member congregations of the Union for Reform Judaism whose names include the word tikvah, hope, I ponder what their hopes and dreams are. With two exceptions, which chose Tikvah because they hoped people would come and join, they have not articulated – at least on their websites – what they were hoping for when they started out, nor what they are hoping and working to achieve today.

One Congregation Beth Tikvah explained its naming decision not to be Temple Beth Tikvah to emphasize community rather than building. Did similar thinking apply in the nine other Beth Tikvah Congregations, and what was the deciding factor at the 10 that opted to be Temples? (Size and style undoubtedly determined the choice for the one that identifies as a Chavurah.) Similarly, we might speculate why three chose to prefix their Tikvah with B’nai, and 11 chose Beth or Bet. (One chose Or Tikvah, Light of Hope.) Can we assume that the three Kol Tikvahs and the three Shir Tikvahs (“voice of hope” and “song of hope,” respectively) are committed singing congregations? I wouldn’t bet on it. Nor do I suspect any particular push toward singing Hatikva, Israel’s anthem, as an expression of the value they place on Israel and Zionism. (I’d be delighted to have someone respond to this blog post and tell me how wrong I am.)

My ongoing interest in congregational names and how they came to be emerges from three of the things that interest me most about synagogues – the extent to which they are process-driven, values-driven, and market-driven.

Process: Who decides, and how?

A typical process, as reported repeatedly in the Tikvah network, is a couple of families in a relatively isolated area coming together for Shabbat dinner, and talking about organizing a synagogue. Often they were smart enough to check out the available resources, especially the then-Regional Directors of the Union. One nascent Beth Tikvah had planned to call itself Beth Israel, until the R.D. reminded them there already was a Beth Israel in the greater community and urged them to be distinctive. So name selection involved a process of dialogue and consensus, as well as market-consciousness.

Because all the Tikvah congregations were start-ups, not break-aways, name selection probably preceded rabbi selection, and thus was a lay function, perhaps with guidance from the URJ. (My hypothesis is that in breakaway congregations, the rabbi is the decisive influence in name selection, and as I have discussed before, breakaways often include shalom in their names, to mask the rancor of the split.)

Marketing: Are you hoping or strategizing?

Three congregations stand on their Tikvah-compound names alone, without identifying that they’re in the shul business by adding Congregation or Temple. Are they thus limiting the ability of hopeful searchers to find them? It won’t matter if someone uses the URJ’s Find a Congregation feature, but Google might or might not pull up just plain Shir Tikvah as part of a synagogue search. I would be more direct.

Most of the Tikvah congregations are relatively young, so by the time they were founded, there likely already was a nearby Emanuel, Sholom, and Beth Israel to limit their choices. So what did the founders talk about? Did they think about the impact their name choice for the congregation would have on attracting members? Did they argue Hebrew name vs. English, values vs. geography, god-centered vs. people-centered What led them to settle on Hope, rather than peoplehood, unity, justice, or location? (Sixty years ago, geographic temple names, in English, were in vogue; today many such congregations have adopted or reverted to Hebrew names.)

Values: What do you stand for?

As someone who favors synagogue names reflective of synagogue values, hope seems to me to be a somewhat vague and inchoate value, unless the congregation spells out what they are hoping for – with an agenda for moving that hope towards reality. This then becomes a marketing technique as well – positioning the congregation as action-centered, rather than just school or worship centered.

People joining congregations today are looking for an active rather than a passive experience. Praying hopefully for a better world is all well and good, but successful congregations are actively involving their members in making it happen. Where will you ultimately derive more spiritual satisfaction? From attending Friday night services, or from hoping for and building a better world through bridges of understanding with the neighboring Muslim and Christian communities? I do not see our 25 hopeful congregations talking about their hopes and dreams, and they shortchange themselves by their failure to do so.

Since I began blogging about congregational names five years ago, my personal focus as well as that of the URJ has changed. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the distinction between a temple and a synagogue was critical, and I was concerned with breaking down the distinction. Congregations were rooted in their schools, affiliation had not become problematical, and reaching out to the “uninspired” wasn’t even on the radar screen. I upset a few people then by crassly talking about synagogue branding and marketing; today I see it as more important than ever.

While most people ask why join a synagogue, your challenge as a synagogue leader is to explain why someone should join your synagogue, rather than the shul down the street. (In the past, the differentiator tended to be the rabbi’s personality; now, it had better be the congregation’s personality.) It took 2000 years to attain the hope expressed in the Israeli anthem. Your congregation – whether Tikvah is in its name or not – can’t wait that long. Now is the time to spell out what you are hoping for and what you are doing to achieve your hope.

Like this post? See these previous entries in my series on temple names:

Image from Yosef’s Dreams