Dr. Ron Wolfson is an author and Professor of Education for AJU's Fingerhut School of Education. He is the co-founder and current President of Synagogue 3000, an institute whose mission is to catalyze excellence in synagogue life.
Q. Ron, you have been an educator at AJU for more than 35 years, you are a pioneer in the field of Jewish family education, and your series on the Art of Jewish Living has sold over 100,000 copies. In this interview I would like to ask you specifically about your latest three books.
A. The Spirituality of Welcoming, God's To-Do List, and The Seven Questions You're Asked in Heaven all published by Jewish Lights.
Q. Let's take one book at a time and start with The Spirituality of Welcoming, How to Transform your Congregation into a Sacred Community.
A. I have spent a good part of my life studying synagogues from the inside out. In 1995, I met Larry Hoffman, a rabbi and leading voice for the transformation of worship in the Reform movement, and soon discovered that we both shared the same love for and critique of congregation life. We also shared a passion to do something about it and committed to become partners in planning a project to transform synagogues. Together, through AJU's Whizin Institute for Jewish Family Life, we founded Synagogue 2000 and embarked on ten years of experimentation and research of 100 congregations, to design a "synagogue transformation process" for the congregation of the twenty-first century.
Q. What was the conclusion and what should such a transformation look like?
A. We found that to be successful, the synagogue needs to view itself as a kehillah kedoshah, a sacred community of welcome, engaging worship, learning, social justice, and healing. My own work revolved around creating a "welcoming ambience" in three major areas: the building itself and the community, the worship service, and membership.
Q. How do you make a building welcoming?
A. Some suggestions would be an easy to navigate parking lot, excellent signage, greeters at the door, and a lobby featuring photos of real people enjoying the benefits of the community. Some synagogues create a welcoming "Starbucks-like" experience on a Sunday morning, featuring excellent coffee, free Wi-Fi, Jewish books, and periodicals - a place to schmooze and build relationships.
Q. And the service?
A. There has been real progress with this, especially in Los Angeles. Some synagogues have created "seeker sensitive services" that are geared for those who do not have much experience in a synagogue. Many of these services use niggunim, which are wordless melodies where everyone can join in, including those who do not know Hebrew.
Q. And membership?
A. This is an area that still needs a lot of work. We need to move from a synagogue of programs to a synagogue of relationships.
Q. I know that this book has become standard reading in synagogue leadership circles and that your work has made a great impact on many synagogues and Jewish institutions. Moving to God's To-Do List, what was your motivation to write this book?
A. The purpose was to offer a Jewish answer to the question, "What on earth am I here for?"
Q. Well, what on earth are we here for?
A. I believe that God needs us to be God's ears and eyes, hands and feet, heart and soul…and to do our part in the ongoing creation of the world - to repair the brokenness in the world. And, if you live your life as God's partner, your life will have greater purpose, meaning, and blessings.
Q. God's partner?
A. Yes. We can be God's partner because, as we learn in the first chapter of the Torah, every human being is made in God's image.
Q. What does it mean to be made in his image?
A. It means that the spark of divinity is in each of us, and God wants us to be holy.
Q. How can one be holy?
A. We are taught to emulate God's middot, God's characteristics. Just as God is creative, so you can be creative. Just as God blesses, you can bless. There are ten of these characteristics presented in the book and I suggest 103 ways to do God's work on earth.
Q. This is a good segue to your other book, The Seven Questions You're Asked in Heaven.
A. This book begins with five questions posed in a famous Talmudic quote from Rava who, like many rabbis over the centuries, imagined that when you get to heaven, you'll be asked questions about how you lived your life on earth. What do you think is the number one questions you'll be asked in heaven?
Q. Was I the best person that I could be?
A. Good question, but not Rava's number one. Rava teaches that the first question will be: "Were you honest in your business dealings?"
B. Business dealings?
A. How you behave in business is a microcosm of how you behave in all of your relationships. In this, as with the other questions, I dig down underneath the question to discover a deeper meaning, my understanding of what the question is really trying to teach. For example, another question is: "Did you have children?" But, many cannot conceive children, so I think the question is really: "Did you leave a legacy?"
Q. I'm intrigued. What is the common thread in all of your books?
A. I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, in a great Jewish community. I love Jewish life. I love the synagogue. I believe that the future of our deep and powerful traditions relies on three pillars: family, community, and synagogue. Here at AJU, I work alongside my wonderful colleagues to prepare a new generation of leaders who are committed to strengthening all three. My books give me the opportunity to share my teachings with a broad audience throughout the Jewish world.