The Relational Judaism Handbook: a book review by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen

May 12, 2019 by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen
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A couple of years ago Ron Wolfson, a professor at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles published Relational Judaism (Jewish Lights, 2013).

Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen

That book could be viewed as one that looked at “the Why” while this book is more of “the How” and in fact part of its subtitle is “How to Create a Relational Engagement Campaign…”

This book offers so many ways to turn the theory of the first volume into something where various parts of the community can be included rather than be spectators. As it notes early on that people come “for programs, but will stay for relationships.” And it goes on to say (p xxi):

“It’s not about programs.

It’s not about marketing.

It’s not about branding, labels, logos, clever titles, website or smartphone apps.

It’s not even about institutions.

It’s about relationships.”

This may border on heresy for so many of our communal organizations including synagogues but from my own experiences and observations it is far too true.

How often have I stood at Kiddish following services and no one has come up and asked “are you a visitor” or at a synagogue where I have been a number of times but know only a few people are known to me that I have felt like a fly on the wall rather than included. I remember one rabbi who week in and week out would speak about hospitality but the only people, or as it was perceived by many in the community, would only invite those whom he perceived as possible donors to his table.

Lately I have heard when synagogues were seeking a new rabbi that the primary criteria was how they would bring in the young people, and in so asking ended up disenfranchising the ‘not-so-young’ members of the community.

The danger of following a book such as this is that in following the suggestions it may be done perfunctorily. One community I know about the clergy call each member for their birthday, and when appropriate their wedding anniversary. Another rabbi called every member before Rosh Hashanah.

Lately I have observed some communities which might note that a person is about to mark their Bar/Bat Mitzvah but no mention is made of their family (as if they exist in a vacuum). Another will not even mention that in the following week there will be yahrzeits, as if it is unimportant to those members and just as important is who is observing the yahrzeit. One suggestion in the book is during the week when someone attending has yahrzeit they are asked to speak for a minute or so about the person for whom they are saying Kaddish.

Just as important, at least for these authors, two of whom work in synagogues, is how those who are significant donors are dealt differently from the rest of the community. I have a friend who used to be a significant donor to part of the community. He had a period when he lost everything and the only thing he remembers how quickly he was dumped by those organizations and when things improved his reaction was “why should I give to you for when I was on hard times you were nowhere to be seen!”

This book should be required reading. As stated in the introduction that the book “is designed for Jewish institutional leadership- both professional and lay…” Throughout the book there are places to encourage readers to articulate what steps they are going to take to make their organisation engage in relational work. My suspicion is that it will be ignored which will be at each organisation’s peril.

The Relational Judaism Handbook

Authors Ron Wolfson, Nicole Auerbach and Lydia Medwin

Published by Kripke Institute 2018

Authors Ron Wolfson, Nicole Auerbach and Lydia Medwin

Published by Kripke Institute 2018

Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen is Associate Professor in the School of Medicine (Sydney Campus) at University of Notre Dame, Australia. He spent 5 years as CEO of the Sydney Jewish Museum


One Response to “The Relational Judaism Handbook: a book review by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen”
  1. Ron Wolfson says:

    Thanks for this excellent review, Rabbi Cohen!

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