Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 4

The Synagogue as the Third Space

A Model for 21st Century Growth


Rabbi Michael Gilboa

The Third Space is a defining social space that is neither home (the First Space) nor work

(the Second Space.) A Third Space can be a house of worship, a bar, a sports league, a

public park, or any other space where people gather and socialize when they are not at

work or at home. A successful Third Space must be nearby and accessible, being either

free or very cheap to enter. It must have a stable gathering of regulars but also be open to

newcomers. It must be comfortable and welcoming. Most successful Third Spaces offer

some sort of food or drink.

The Third Space model makes clear that a synagogue is not only competing with nearby

Jewish institutions or even with other religions; instead a synagogue is competing with

all the other Third Spaces in town: the country club, the campaign headquarters, and even

the gym. If a synagogue is to be successful, it must appeal to its constituents’ deeper needs

better than these other spaces can.

A Third Space is a human social need. Human beings are hungry for significance. We

derive that significance by being part of a larger group and by connecting with that

group’s world-defining assumptions. By choosing a Third Space, we define our own

sense of values about what is significant to us. The Third Space is often the only place

where we feel free to define ourselves, since work and home are often constrained by

formal roles and involuntary associations. An ideal Third Space experience gives us a

sense of significance by placing us at an intersection between belonging and meaning.

The human need to be a part of something larger becomes coupled with an overarching

sense of shared values and priorities.


This fusion of relationship with relevance has the power to create transformational

experiences in the Third Space that we can take back to the First and Second Spaces. In

Jewish terms, this is Torah as a spiritual technology designed and crafted to improve

human lives. Judaism is already well-positioned for this approach, since so much of

Jewish insight is the lived wisdom of daily experience. What is too-often missing is

simply the application of Torah wisdom to our lives in the First and Second Spaces.

Simply put, the experience of Shabbat morning ought to (among other things) make us

better family members on Sunday and better co-workers on Monday.

Not every Third Space is successful, and an ailing Third Space often turns to membership

growth as a cure-all for its problems. In an absence of meaning and belonging, however,

a Third Space can only increase its membership through Dependent Welcoming: the

attitude that we must bring in new members primarily for the benefit of the institution.

Dependent Welcoming tends to emphasize overcoming budget shortfalls or shoring up

a failing legacy. In synagogues this approach inspires membership appeals to help make

the minyan or to fill up the classrooms.

Dependent Welcoming can sometimes produce short-term success. In the long-term,

though, it is extremely difficult to convince people to join or stay at an organization just

so that they can take care of someone else's needs. In contrast, a Third Space occupying

the intersection of meaning and belonging will naturally practice Experiential

Welcoming. This is a desire to share moments and attitudes of significance. We do not

practice Experiential Welcoming for our benefit but for the benefit of those hungry souls

whom we can feed.

Experiential Welcoming tends to speak about newcomers' psycho-spiritual needs. It

prioritizes the transformation of outsiders into insiders, lifting people into the experience

of the Third Space and allowing them to lift others in turn. Experiential Welcoming is
more successful and it usually produces a snowball effect as newer members bring in yet

more newcomers. The enormous challenge of Experiential Welcoming is that it is

virtually impossible to fake. If a Third Space is not producing transformational

experiences for its existing members, it cannot pretend to offer the same to newcomers.

In a synagogue setting, Dependent Welcoming tends to promote Dimensions of Growth

two-dimensional growth along the X-axis of generational growth

(people who grew up at the synagogue) and the Y-axis of geographic

growth (people who have moved and need a new synagogue.) These

people need a Third Space experience as much as anyone else, and X-Axis: Generational Growth
Y-Axis: Geographic Growth
Z-Axis: Outreach Growth
no synagogue should ignore these axes of growth. For too many,

though, this type of growth has become inadequate to meet our membership needs. More

to the point, focusing our welcoming efforts on these “insider Jews” leaves a huge

untapped pool of the spiritually hungry.

2D Growth relies on factors beyond our control, such as the experiences of the

synagogue's previous generation of children or a family's involvement at their old

synagogue. It can be corrosive to developing a true culture of welcoming, since it depends

less on spiritual transformation and more on reordering of the status quo. While some

synagogues will benefit from this growth, from the larger perspective of the Jewish

people focusing on the X-Axis and Y-Axis is simply rearranging the deck chairs.

By offering transformative, value-driven experiences of Torah wisdom to our existing

members we can create a culture of Experiential Welcoming that will pop us into the third

dimension: the Z-Axis of Outreach Growth: welcoming news members whose previous

connection to a synagogue is minor or non-existent. Every community has these people.

They are human beings with a Torah-shaped hole in their hearts. Some of them are

already Jewish and many of them are not yet Jewish because they either don’t know that
it is possible to join or they don’t believe that they would be welcomed. We can lift them

up and they will lift us up in turn, but only if we can offer them the welcome they deserve.

This 3D Growth is the only model that can compete with the countless other Third Spaces

and create the growth necessary for our future. More than growth, however, this model

ensures that our Third Space is fulfilling its divinely-mandated purpose by providing

people with the significance that their souls demand. Our tradition offers us the resources

to provide this sort of welcoming and draw in this sort of growth, both numerical and

spiritual. It is simply up to us to act.