September 30, 2012

Kol Nidre 5773 (2012)

Before I begin my message on this sacred Night of Kol Nidre, I’m afraid that there’s just a small business matter that I first have to address.

You see, given the difficult circumstances of our nation’s economic climate, the rising costs of energy, health care, and supplies, while still maintaining our Temple’s longstanding policy of including everyone who desires to be part of our congregation, regardless of financial means or circumstances – suffice it to say that our Treasurer, Board of Trustees, and Finance Committee were forced to explore ever more creative solutions to the challenge of balancing the Temple budget this year.  I am pleased to report that they have been successful in their efforts, with only certain, modest obligations on our part.

[Unfurl “Nike Swoosh” Banners at both podiums on the bima.  Wait for laughter/response to die down.]

Of course, it’s true, as people like to say, that even though we are a Temple, we are also a business.  But what’s wrong with this picture says a lot about what’s wrong with how many now view the institution of the synagogue. The synagogue in America today has bought into a paradigm of marketing, and a corporate model.  In exchange for dues contributions, we provide programs and services, while potential congregants go “shul shopping” for the best bargains.  Embracing the business mentality, we use membership numbers like a customer base, measuring success by our market share.  And the division of labor is so extensive that committees work in isolation from one another, often communicating across official channels only in order to compete with one another to secure physical space, support staff, and advertising needed to succeed. [1]

At the same time, people looking for Jewish “product” tend to relate to the synagogue as consumers.  What do I get for my membership?  If I only use the Temple on occasion, why should I pay as much as those who take fuller advantage of the programs?  How splashy is your Temple’s ad in the Journal or the Reporter?

There was a time, a generation ago, that the Temple was still the center of many of our members’ social, as well as spiritual lives.  You became part of the Temple without asking “What will I get FROM my membership.”  Instead, you knew: I belong to the Temple because the Temple is the most essential institution of Jewish community, continuity, and survival.  I belong to the Temple because I believe in the essential messages of a vibrant, Reform Judaism. I belong to the Temple to assure that my parents, my children and I will always have a Jewish place to call “home.”  I belong to the Temple so that I, and my fellow Jews, will be cared for in times of joy and times of need.  I belong to the Temple to assure that Israel, and other especially Jewish concerns, will always have an advocate in the greater community.  I belong to the Temple because it’s important to be part of a community that shares my values.

To our longstanding members – think back to the times and moments when the Temple has meant the most to you.  Perhaps it was a life-cycle occasion, such the baby naming, Bar Mitzvahs, weddings and funerals – here in this sacred space and with some of these same people who are worshipping around you.   By being here, you knew that you were a part of something bigger than yourselves.   You came to the Temple in order to create, not consume. You were not customers, or bargain shoppers, trying to see how much you might acquire for the lowest possible cost.  You were producers, and you knew that you owned the institutions which you were helping to build.

And most of all over the years, you learned that the Temple was always about relationships;  the friends you looked forward to seeing here, and the people with whom you shared the highs and lows of your personal lives, our communal life, and the unfolding of the story of our Jewish people.

On this eve of Yom Kippur, each of us is called to examine our own lives, and to discern ways in which we might draw nearer, in the year to come, to our highest values, to our best potential.  So what better time than this to engage that same process of introspection as a community of faith, a kehilah kedosha, a sacred community?

The future of the synagogue in America has become, over the past several years, a matter of significant study and conversation. For example, major projects such as Synagogue 2000 (which then became Synagogue 3000), brought together rabbis, educators, sociologists, communal leaders and organizational consultants to examine the landscape of synagogue life across the movements, and to recognize and develop strategies for future excellence.  Having read and studied a number of works on the challenge of re-thinking how synagogues might work better amidst the changing social realities of the 21st Century, I have also met with experts in the field.  Last year, our entire Temple Board, studied and discussed the ideas contained in a volume called Sacred Strategies – Transforming Synagogues from Functional to Visionary.   At the same time, a hard-working committee was engaged with many of you in long range planning and future needs.

Tonight, on this sacred evening, I want to describe a vision for how we might continue our evolving towards the future.  The ideas I bring forward are all thoughts that I have shared with Brad, with our Temple Officers and Trustees, and thankfully, we are in harmony as we move forward.  It is our shared goal and aspiration that we might begin to re-define the very language and mindset of what it means to be part of this congregation, of our Temple.  There are three concepts I want us to consider, beginning tonight, and then continuing in our conversations in the weeks and months ahead.  First, instead of “membership”, we should speak the language of “belonging”.[2]  Rather than being “consumers” of a Jewish product, let us be the “creators” of Jewish life.  And instead of the Temple being primarily about “programming”, however excellent it may be, we should always — first and foremost – be about relationships.

So how do we get from here to there?  Fortunately, it’s not a particularly long journey, largely because we are in the position of strength and stability as we move towards a vision for the future. We don’t need to recover from a state of dysfunction, or even worry about short-term survival.  We remain one of the largest Reform synagogues in New England.  And thanks to the diligence of our staff and lay-leadership, as well as the generosity of our donors, we are coming through this time of economic downturn financially secure for both the time being and the foreseeable future.  In fact, we really don’t have to rely on the sponsorship of a major, athletic shoe company for balancing the budget again this year.

[Remove the Nike banners.]

But for the long-term well-being of the Temple, and of Jewish life as a whole in this community, we do need to be reflective, creative, and open to the risks of innovation in order to become the sort of visionary congregation towards which we aspire. Now don’t get me wrong:  such creative energy has always been part of the Temple’s unique history and personality here on the North Shore.  Only a few years ago, when the so-called “Sloan Report”[3] examining the status of Jewish life here in our community was released, the report began with recalling the innovations Temple Emanu-El introduced two decades ago to our worship, education, outreach and to the vibrancy of our overall programming, much of which has since been both embraced and emulated by other local synagogues, both Conservative and Reform.

And the process of self-reflection and transformation continues, such as in the areas of worship and music, the shape of our professional staff, and the content of our religious education.  Happily, Shabbat service attendance has nearly doubled in the past year or so. Both young and long-standing leaders are sitting side by side on our Board and Committees.  And new efforts, such as our recent Hineini Initiative, and the cooking and delivering of meals to fellow congregants by our Brotherhood and Sisterhood, have been among the activities adding depth and substance to the fabric of our Temple.

In many ways, we’re on the right track.  That is why this moment holds a pristine opportunity to be especially intentional about shaping and animating our vision for the future.  For me that means changing the culture: from a model of membership to an experience of belonging; from being consumers of a product to becoming its creators; from a center of programs to a hub of meaningful relationships.

You see, membership is by definition temporary.  It is a status that exists only under certain, limited and defined circumstances.  It’s a simple formula in most places, such as many clubs and organizations: You pay your dues, so you are a member. But belonging – that’s about identity, and by nature, it is more difficult to quantify, but it is also more essential and enduring.  Belonging to the Temple begins only when you have an experience of being known, valued, welcomed and needed, and then you become part of a bigger story, a sacred narrative.

Two days after my son, Jeremy, first arrived at the University of Iowa last month to begin his undergraduate studies, he joined with the rest of the freshman class on the field of Kinnick Stadium – where the Iowa Hawkeyes play their home games.  They were instructed in the various cheers, songs, chants and traditions of Iowa football and other sports, and they heard the stories of the great legends who had played on that very field.  At the end of the day, in keeping with longstanding tradition, the entire class formed a gigantic letter “I” at midfield, and as their picture was taken from above, they were no longer visitors – they became Hawkeyes for life.

In order to belong to a community, you have to know its stories, and make them your own.  In ancient days, a powerful ritual that is remembered in our Passover Haggadah, was the offering of the first fruits brought by the Israelite farmers to the Temple in Jerusalem.  The language was that of belonging to a people, being part of a sacred narrative.  So when an Israelite arrived with his offering, he identified himself to the High Priest by telling his story, a story which he shared with the people to whom he belonged:

Arami Oved Avi – My father was a wandering Aramean.  He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So, I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.”[4]

Notice how the language of the ritual reflects that it was “I” – it was not my ancestor of long ago who experienced slavery in Egypt and who came to the Promised Land.  The story became personal, sacred history.  So, too, the history of our Temple should become part of a sacred narrative of every person who belongs here, so they can say:  “We” were the first Reform congregation established on the North Shore.

For more than fifty years, we have been the leading Jewish voice in the interfaith work of bridging and connecting the various faiths here in Marblehead.

In the decade of the 80’s, when the gates of emigration at long last opened for Jews of the Soviet Union, we took a most prominent role in this community in the effort to  welcome, absorb and acculturate these newcomers here on the North Shore.

In 1989, following the desecration of this building and the JCC of our synagogue walls, we hosted the response as a galvanizing event for this entire community, and which solidified a new spirit of communal and interfaith responsibility which endures to this day.

We share unique covenant and partnership with the Old North Church, with whom we worshipped on Thanksgiving Eve for more than 40 years.

And perhaps our sacred history would include a note recalling how, in 1999, when Marblehead’s Coffin Elementary School needed to be suddenly shut down for asbestos abatement, we opened our doors to those children, and school was held here at the Temple for the rest of the year.

Taking a cue from those Hawkeyes, as a practical suggestion, I am proposing an ongoing class especially for our new members, in which we carry them into the narrative of our Temple’s history, and also help them to understand the meaning of being a Reform Jew in this generation.

The second part of the vision I share here tonight is to transform our community from a mindset of being consumers to one of being creators of Jewish life.  Again, it lies in direct opposition to the question: “What do I get from my membership?”   I want our members to ask “What can I bring to this Temple and community?” because building Jewish life through the Temple is an on-going process.

The story is told that in a European village many centuries ago, there was a nobleman who wondered what legacy he might be able to leave for his townspeople.  At last he decided to build a synagogue.  No one saw the plans for the building until it was finished.  When the people came for the first time they marveled at its beauty, until someone asked, “Where are the lamps?  How will it be lit?”  The nobleman pointed to brackets which were all through the synagogue on the walls.  Then he gave each family a lamp which they were to bring with them every time they came to the synagogue.  “Each time you are not here,” he said, “that part of the synagogue will be dark.  But when you bring your lamp, God’s House will shine brightly from your corner, and join with the light in every other corner to illuminate the entire building.”

Finally, I want to address what I believe to be the most important aspect of our visionary effort, which is to nurture the relationships that our members have with one another through the Temple.  It is true that programming is the vehicle by which we deliver Jewish content and Jewish experiences to our congregation, but programming, however successful or innovative, can never replace the building of relationships, and the making of friends who share in a common spiritual journey.

In the Book of Genesis, God declares: Lo tov heyot adam l’vado.  It is not good that man should be alone.”[5]  Even though sociological, theological and cultural developments may cause shifts in patterns of affiliation, what has not changed is the human need to form deep, mutual and enduring attachments within the context of belonging to a community.  In early Judaism, one of the most serious punishments that a court could impose was to be karet —to be cut off from the tribe, to be outside the camp.  In our age, despite the network of connections we establish by means of Facebook, Twitter, texting and Instagram, men and women still need personal connection to people and groups that come together for companionship, for meaning, for comfort, for celebration.

Frankly, I do not expect that we will ever return to such a time when the Temple will again be the social center for most of our members’ lives.  Today, private clubs, sports leagues, and business and professional circles are entirely open to our belonging and contributing, and this is generally a good thing.  But research has shown, and I think many of us have felt this personally, that there is a unique benefit to friendships forged and maintained in an atmosphere of shared spiritual search and tradition.  Religious friendships do take time to develop, but have also been shown to have an overwhelming impact as a determiner of happiness.[6]  When we become close with our religious peers, we share not only common interests and circumstances, but common values and purpose.  In religious friendships, we can support one another in reaching our highest personal and spiritual goals.

Of course, we do need to provide engaging programming, stimulating teaching and inspirational worship to bring people through our doors.  But once in the door, those people must find ways to connect with one another if they are to keep coming back.  And now the job of our leadership is to pursue strategies which promote those connections.  And I’m delighted to share with you, after many months of study and deliberation, that we are taking an exciting and pioneering approach to begin realizing our vision.

The strategy we are pursuing has been undertaken in only a small handful of synagogues nationwide, but with outstanding success.   Essentially, we will be utilizing the techniques of community organizing in order to hear, respond, and then connect our members in ways previously unimagined.  To oversee and guide our effort, we have hired Rabbi Margie Klein to work with us this year. Rabbi Klein is extremely accomplished and highly regarded nationally as one of the leading experts in the movement of community organizing and innovation.   She is part of the Synagogue 3000 leadership network I spoke of earlier, and her work has been featured in Newsweek, CNN, and the Boston Globe. In upcoming weeks and months, she will be initiating a series of broad community conversations, and training some of our members in the process of asking the essential questions and responding to the input we receive.  Through the information we gather, we will establish new connections across our various population groups, to engage our members with one another, and imagine together how to build a community that is personally meaningful and expresses our most enduring, communal values.  Then, Rabbi Klein will work with us to help guide our programming as we move towards that vision.

One of the exciting aspects of community organizing is that the results are often surprising!  I am thrilled to anticipate sharing this journey with you as we become ever more a congregation where Jews belong, create, and engage meaningfully with one another.

The beloved Chasidic master, Rabbi Chaim of Tsanz once told the following parable:

Once it happened that a man became lost in a dark forest for many days. At long last, he saw another man approaching him. “Please, he called out to him, “show me the way out of the forest!” “My friend,” replied the other, “I too am lost. But I can tell you this: The way I have come from leads nowhere.  Let us join hands and search for a new way together.”

To which I would only add:  As we join together on our shared path, be sure to bring your lamp.



[1] See Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, Re-Thinking Synagogues.  A New Vocabulary for Congregational Life, p. 35.

[2] Thanks to Edythe Held Mencher, “Beyond Membership to True Belonging:  Jewish Responses to an Unchanging Need for Deep Attachment and Meaning in an Ever-Changing World.”  CCAR Journal, Summer, 2012.

[3] Report of the Jewish Community Task Force, 2009.

[4] Deuteronomy 26:5-10.

[5] Genesis 2:18.

[6] See Robert D. Putnam & David E. Campbell, American Grace.  How Religion Divides and Unites Us, pp. 478-479.

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