Byline: Submitted by Julian Schreiber
Rabbi Stephen Hart, senior rabbi at Temple Chai, a Reform Jewish Congregation in Long Grove, is celebrating his 20th anniversary as rabbi at the temple.
Hart believes that Reform Judaism is in a state of transition and must become "relational and pluralistic if it is to remain relevant to 21st century Jews." An increasing number of young Jewish families with competing secular interests are asking themselves why they should join or remain members of a temple congregation, said Hart. The task of Reform Judaism is to answer these questions.
Hart believes that Reform temples must first discover the needs and desires of those families and then redesign their programs to relate to or match those needs, whether by lifelong learning classes for adults and young people, social action events or ceremonial worship.
Hand in hand with relational Judaism, said Hart, is pluralistic Judaism.
"I mean offering a wide umbrella of thoughts, philosophy, and religious ceremonies through which each individual can find his or her own religious meaning," he said.
There must be an equality of opportunity for expression among all congregants, regardless of sex or sexual orientation, he said.
"In my experience," Hart added, "there are two classes of temple members, owners and renters. The owners feel that the temple is vital in their lives, while the renters merely use the temple for personal needs such as life cycle events and then go their way."
The challenge for Reform Judaism and its rabbis, said Hart, is to turn the renters into owners and to continue to attract additional owners by practicing relational and pluralistic Judaism and by removing barriers such as membership restrictions and arbitrary dues structures.
At Temple Chai, Hart and fellow clergy, Associate Rabbi Barry Cohen and Cantor Scott Simon, are answering this challenge. In the 1990s, when the temple was smaller, most members felt a deep owner's attachment to it. Today, with more than 900 families and 600 religious school students, there appears to be a growing number of renters who will leave after their children have their bar and bat mitzvahs.
The temple clergy, staff, and lay leaders have learned that to practice relational Judaism and to create an owner's mentality in temple members, they must learn the personal needs of a congregant as soon as he or she becomes a temple member.
Hart said that it is not enough to just welcome a congregant at a Shabbat service. Rather, at Temple Chai, clergy, …