Judaism Unbound Episode 112: The Flourishing Synagogue - Aaron Bisno, Harlan Stone


As we continue to dig into various approaches to "spiritual innovation," Dan and Lex are joined by Aaron Bisno and Harlan Stone, rabbi and president, respectively, of Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, [1] a synagogue that is over 150 years old and doing very well by conventional synagogue measures, which is nevertheless intensely interested in innovation and experimentation. Our conversation digs into the how a contemporary American synagogue is working to re-imagine itself around the goal of increasing human flourishing.

 Image Credit: Southwest PA Says No More

Image Credit: Southwest PA Says No More

 Image Credit: DmcLaw.com

Image Credit: DmcLaw.com

(0:01 - 15:02): To begin the episode, Aaron Bisno, senior rabbi of the Rodef Shalom Congregation, and Harlan Stone, the synagogue's president, look back on their initial connection to Clal, an organization that has had a major impact on their vision for the synagogue's future. [2] They also explore how and why they have committed to broad changes to their congregation, in mindset and programming, despite the fact that it had been a quite successful legacy institution by almost every traditional metric. [3] In examining all of these questions, they cite the frame of "human flourishing," which comes from the wold of positive psychology and which they are working to embed into all aspects of Rodef Shalom's work.

(15:03 - 32:43): Bisno expands on the idea of human flourishing, looking at how it can help answer the ongoing question of "why be Jewish?" [4] He and Stone discuss why congregational metrics of success need to move beyond the size of membership rolls and the quantity of people attending services. They cite their "Weeks of Jewish Flourishing" initiative, between Passover and Shavuot, which will expose members of the synagogue and the wider community to channels of accessing Jewish wisdom beyond typical synagogue services. 

(32:44 - 46:35): Bisno and Stone explore the dynamics of their work as it relates to their context in a mid-sized Jewish community. They explore how, in a congregation of any size and with any amount of resources, ideological and cultural shifts could still be possible. They explore their decision to merge their (Reform) religious school with that of a nearby Conservative congregation, emphasizing how that change has already made a substantial positive difference. To close the episode, the two guests explore the urgency implied by the name "Rodef Shalom" (To pursue/chase after peace), and the pressing need to show Judaism's enduring value to those who do not connect to its current manifestatons. 

[1] For Aaron Bisno's bio, click here. For Harlan Stone's, click here

[2] Rodef Shalom is hosting an event on April 10th, entitled "How Can Jewish Wisdom & Practice Deepen Human Flourishing?" It will feature Dan Libenson of Judaism Unbound, Irwin Kula of Clal, and a variety of other guests. Learn more about it by clicking here.

[3] Bisno alludes to the need for "courageous conversations" early in the episode. For a piece where he expands on that thought, click here.

[4] Tools for Elul is one initiative mentioned by Stone and Bisno. For an example of what it looks like in practice, click here.

[5] For more on the spirit of collaboration that Rodef Shalom seeks to foster in Pittsburgh and beyond, see this article in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.