On Saturday night (11/7), the Festival of Books and Culture hosted Benyamin Cohen, author of My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith. About 40 people were in attendance for the program, which began with Cohen telling the story of his year-long project. Raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, he was the only son who “didn’t go into the family business” (some readers may already know his father, Rabbi Herbert Cohen formerly of Denver Academy of Torah (DAT), and his brother, Rabbi Daniel Cohen formerly of BMH-BJ). He relayed his experiences in Jewish dating, including long-distance blind dates set up by friends, but eventually married a woman who had converted to Judaism. “Some of her spirituality rubbed off, but it wasn’t enough. . . I wanted to go see what was going on in church,” he said. Thus began his year of searching and exploring, recounted in the book. Cohen relayed several of the highlights of the year, and then took questions from the audience (for more of the fun stories – read excerpts here and then get the book!).
Cohen did not intend the year of exploring to learn about Christianity, it was to learn what “they” were doing that was working – bringing people to services, getting them excited about spirituality, and yes, raising money – learn what was going on across the street, to see if it would reconnect him with his own spirituality.
One of the more interesting questions of the evening was “What did he learn?” Cohen had quick answers for that.
First, the churches do a much better job of “Welcoming the Newcomer.” Examples included a church with a dedicated parking space for “First Time Visitors,” and signage inside the building so people know where to go. He has been working with the Synagogue 3000 project, and discussed the people who have been advising the project – people like Pastor Rick Warren and Bernie Marcus, talking with Synagogue 3000 about becoming more welcoming and understanding customer service (search YouTube™ for “synagogue 3000 rick warren” to see some of the videos).
Second, the churches take a different approach to money: no memberships, easier payment methods (including an ATM – “Automatic Tithing Machine” in the lobby), better online giving. Cohen questioned why his synagogue is still sending paper invoices, through regular mail – why can ‘t he go online and handle it that way? He shared the story of a synagogue that went to an “all donations” model – no membership fee – as a pilot project of Synagogue 3000, which agreed to make up any shortfall. The synagogue raised three times more money that year than they had raised previously, a comment which led to an audible gasp from the audience.
Third, many of the churches use music in a different way. Cohen said that “Jewish people can learn from Christians to let themselves go and embrace the experience.” He said “I’ve heard Adon Olam all my life, and associated it with looking at my watch, but when I heard Josh Nelson sing Adon Olam I got goosebumps.” Baptists and Evangelicals “enjoy going to services. . .there’s a real lack of cynicism in the service. People are able to embrace it.” And that in turn leads people to a more spiritual place.
What do you think? Could these lessons have an impact in our local community?