Erev Rosh Hashanah 5774: “10 Things I have Learned Serving as a Congregational Rabbi for 10 Years”

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Maybe you think you know what I am going to talk about this year. What is the list going to be this year, you may think? Anything major that happens to me you think, Ok, we are going to hear about this at Rosh Hashanah! For at this time I come to you with some reflections and thoughts based on things that are going on in my life. I have shared with you—with occasional breaks over the years—what I have learned about life and teshuvah from having a child, from planting a garden, having a back hoe hit my house, from hitting a car in a parking lot, from having brain surgery, from going on sabbatical. This year, maybe, the most obvious one would be the list of things I learned from contracting bacterial meningitis. But I don’t want to go there right now.

Now, there were two other milestones I hit this year, and that is where I am going to draw from. First I turned 40, a milestone age. 40 is a powerful number in Jewish tradition—it represents a generation, a period of time that represents transformation and renewal: the flood of Noah lasted 40 days and 40 nights—the time for renewing the earth from evil. Moses was on the mountaintop talking to God for 40 days—the period of time of divine experience and receiving the Torah and wisdom. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years—a punishment, yes, but the time needed for the community to truly be far enough away emotionally from the slavery of Egypt in order to fully be able to come into the land and come into their own. And 40 days marks the period of time we are in right now, from the beginning of the month of Elul through the Rosh Hashanah to the end of Yom Kippur, the time in which we begin anew and start over. Turning from the past and towards a new future.

So, yes, 40 is an important time.

But instead of regaling you with observations about my increased propensity for heartburn and inability to stay up past 10:30 at night, I will instead focus on the other milestone—the 10 years since my ordination as my rabbi and the assumption of the pulpit here at Temple Beth Hatfiloh.

I am currently in my 11th year of service to you, and this my 12th High Holidays, including the one I spent when I was a wee rabbinical student. A decade is a long time, and it seems like an appropriate amount of time to stop and reflect. We have come a long way since then, first and foremost this new sanctuary in which we gather, but there has been a growth of spirit as well. Like with many careers, the true learning begins after the degree, after school. And while clergy do not have residencies in the same way doctors might, it is always important to approach the pulpit with an open mind, because there are always opportunities for growth.

I have learned much over these past 10 years—about Judaism, about myself and about the rabbinate. I have also learned much about you and this congregation, and congregations in general. So tonight, on this Rosh Hashanah, I present the 10 things I have learned by serving as the rabbi of Temple Beth Hatfiloh over the past 10 years.

(1) Everyone here does not know more than you—Over the years I have had the opportunity to welcome many people to the community. Some have been engaged Jewishly before and have come to Olympia and TBH for whatever reason, some have Jewish background but do not have much Jewish knowledge, and they are hoping to explore, some are new to Judaism completely. The common thread among those who I get to welcome to the congregation is the hesitation with connecting to a new community. Groups can be scary, especially if we are new, and we don’t know where we are going to be able to fit in. The intimidation factor is high, and this seems especially true with synagogues. For although we seek to connect, and feel that we should, we always feel held back.

Part of this has to do with the fact that covenantal community makes demands on us, and we always feel we need to know a certain amount before we can engage. We end up making assumptions we make about the other people in the room, we assume that everyone knows more than us. Everyone else knows more Hebrew, or when to stand and sit, or when to bow, or what the tunes are. Everyone else knows the jokes, the cultural references, or has the right foods on their tongue. Everyone else knows more, everyone else has been here longer than I have, everyone else has more of a right to be here than I do, we think.

Well, you are wrong. Everybody does not know more than you, everyone brings something else to the table, a different set of skills, a different set of life experiences, which can be brought to bear on our life in this community. Everyone is equally welcomed here, and everyone has as much a right to be here as the one sitting next to you irrespective of age, family status, background, history in the community, or any other demographic factor you can identify. Everyone has a right to be here, and no one knows more than you do.

And along in the “assumption” department, (2) Everyone is suffering: One of the things I find most powerful about being in spiritual community is the ability to find comfort and solace here when you need it most, whether it is asking for and getting prayers of healing when you are in pain, or comfort when mourning a loss. Having a challenge is very isolating, we feel that we are the only one, and even though we are in a room full of people, we feel alone. Everyone else is happy but me, we believe. No one else struggles like I do, or faces the same challenges I do, we think.

But let me tell you are not alone. And I do not just mean you are not alone when you are in community, but you are not alone in your suffering. Everyone here has their own challenges, facing illness, or loss, or a whole host of troubles. They may not be publically known, nor oftentimes should they be, but rest assured that we all have our tsuris, our troubles.

We do not know everyone’s complete story, or how they feel challenged, but believe me, everyone has their challenges, their doubts, their fears. And everyone feels that everyone else is better off than them. And the power of spiritual community is that we do not need to share all of the details to know that we are here to support each other, just know you are not alone. Everyone is suffering.

(3) Labels don’t matter (that much):  Not long before I came to TBH the congregation had affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement, and gone through a very thoughtful decision making process about affiliation. Now that the movement is making some structural changes, and the question of what affiliation means is brought up, it raises some interesting questions as to what we are and who we are. And over the course of my time, I’ve come to realize that labels don’t matter all that much.

I think affiliation is important, it connects us to a larger network of congregations with a like minded ideology. And labels can be helpful in many ways, they are shorthand or a particular outlook, and can describe some things, but they don’t fully describe who we are. And sometimes labels can be misleading because they may lead one to assume something that may not be accurate. Or because you are coming from one thing (“I grew up X,” for example) and finding we are another you may think that it is not the place for you. But congregations are much more connected with their own culture rather than a culture of a denomination. And what we are is a community-based synagogue, one that is rooted in the history of this place, one that reflects the culture of this community. A congregation is defined by the people who constitute it, and not what a label may say it is. What kind of synagogue is this? It’s your synagogue.

(4) Don’t underestimate the power of time. One of the great healers in congregational life, one of the great change agents, is time. Time has this uncanny ability to bring new ideas into fruition and to heal rifts and disagreements. And what comes with this is a need to be patient. Organizational change takes time and patience. The conflict that seems heated in the moment and irreconcilable in the short run will mellow over time. Some things happen quickly, but communities and congregations more often shift—both consciously and unconsciously—over time.

Time is a teacher as well. What worked in the past may not work in the future. And what doesn’t work now may work in the future. Time, as much as will or interest, can dictate how things work.

Time is also a factor in how we connect with community. We are all on a journey, and we know that the path of our life’s journey is not a straight line, but a winding path. How and when and why we connect with Judaism and Jewish community on our life’s journey will shift. There are some times when we will feel a strong desire to connect, and other times that we don’t. Which is why time is important, why longevity is important. Congregations require longevity so they can be there for you when the time is right. So no need to rush into things. Take your time.

(5) It’s all here for you: In our sacred teachings, Rabbi Bag Bag said: “Turn it, and turn it for everything is in it.” He was referring to Torah, that our sacred text and traditions would have everything you need, just that you may have to search for it. That is true with this congregation as well. I’ve spoken before of this congregation as a beit am, a house of the people, a place with many doors through which you can enter. That you find a way in that is meaningful to you. We have affirmed that recently with our branding process where we added the tagline: “A Center for Jewish life.”

Over these past 10 years I have learned much about your stories. I have learned that you come from many different backgrounds, have many different interests, and it was many different motivations that brought you into the door. Yet all have been able to find a place here. And, that once you were here, you were able to explore something new. You came to services and got involved in a tikkun olam project. You brought your kids to school and started playing on the softball team. You came to camp and you volunteered to pull weeds. And if you didn’t find what you were looking for you made it happen. And that is one of the other powerful factors of congregations, they are not static, but dynamic. They are not any “one thing” just like you are not just “one thing.” Congregations are living, changing, growing institutions, and all they need to grow and change is you.

(6) On the other hand, maybe we can’t be everything for everyone. While it is my vision that this be a place for all Jews in our community, sometimes this is not entirely possible. There are times when some feel they can not be a part of this community for a particular reason. I hope that if that is the case, it is for an issue that is core to one’s identity as a Jew, making it so that connection is not possible, rather than a quibble about something was done or a reconcilable slight. Sometimes it is about religious expression—that our approach to Jewish life and tradition is incompatible with yours. We saw that 20 years ago when a group of families broke off from TBH to form their own congregation. And some times during my tenure that has happened a few times relating to Israel. That there are those who felt they could not be a part of TBH because of a position on Israel.

What is interesting is that this motivation has come from both sides, the right and the left. I’ve tried to take a consistent and principled stance on Israel, emphasizing commitment, engagement and dialogue, even though I have been pushed from the left and the right. Recently there have been some communications, some public, some private, taking issue with my—and by extension TBH’s—position on Israel, and using some hurtful language towards me to do it. The irony is that both of these notes come from completely opposite sides of the political spectrum. My take away is that if I am not able to satisfy the two extremes, then maybe I am doing something right. For as a community we can not cater solely to the extremes, but think about what would be the best for the most people, accepting and honoring disagreement and difference. We will never be able to satisfy the extremes, and if we cater to them, then TBH will be no more.

I make the commitment to you—I will be there for you no matter what, no matter what your beliefs, your political opinions, your feelings about me. But if you feel that you can not be a part of this community for whatever reason, I will mourn the loss.

(7) Relationships Matter Most: What troubles me when people do decide to leave for superficial reasons, is that it seems to indicate that the connection to the community wasn’t strong in the first place. Just like in a marriage, in which the commitment to the relationship has to be first and foremost, it is my hope that people value their relationship to the community and those within it first and foremost.

Yes, we as a congregation are still going to do things. We will hold classes, events, Blintzapalooza, book groups, holiday celebrations and services. But as the old joke goes, Schwartz goes to shul to talk to God, and Goldman goes to shul to talk to Schwartz.

The affect of our social relationships on our physical health and overall well being is well documented. The need to connect, for social engagement is very important, and I have seen it develop here. One of the things that first inspired me about this community and continues to inspire me is how close knit it is—that this isn’t just a place where people go, but it becomes a social framework for people. I have seen new people come and be absorbed, established relationships strengthen and grow closer. The relationships fostered here have become social safety nets for others, and allowed people to grow and thrive.

Congregations are first and foremost a network of individuals. Individually there is a limit to what we can do. Collectively we can do much more. But in order to do that, in order to have the strong collectivity in order to transcend ourselves, we need to have the strong social fabric of relationships. This involves meeting each other, accepting each other, engaging with each other, trusting each other. Without the relationships this organization could not survive, and any program we run or event we hold will be empty.

We are well positioned to do this, because (8) Size is destiny: One of the things I like most about this congregation is its size. It is a good size congregation. How big are we? I don’t know.

It’s a common question that gets asked about congregations. How big is your congregation? Sometimes this is meant as a way to ask, how big is the Jewish community? Other times it is a way of asking how successful you are. For in the synagogue world, size equals success. Look at any valedictory of any rabbi, and you will probably find a sentence like, “and she came to Congregation such and such which had a membership of X and when she left it had X + whatever.”

Plus, numbers get to be important when talking about nationwide trends with affiliation in faith communities. How many people are showing up, who is showing up—demographics become important.

But I’ve stopped answering the question because I don’t think it is accurate. I can count up the rolls, but who makes up our community—the membership list? Our mailing list? Who comes to services? The numbers of the membership—those who make an affirmative affiliation with the congregation and agree to regular support—don’t tell a true story of who we are. We serve a lot more people than are that. And what numbers don’t tell us is about the quality of the engagement and not just the quantity of the engagement.

I do think we have some challenges regarding our size: we are big enough to have real expectations and needs as to how we function, the speed at which things get done and the maintenance of our organization, but we are not big enough to have the resources and revenue to make that happen smoothly. That is something we will need to address. Yet, we will never be a huge congregation, and that, I think, is a good thing.

In regard to our congregation I often think of the Dunbar number, the number theorized by anthropologist Robin Dunbar as to how many social relationships one can meaningfully hold. The generally cited number cited is 150. People can meaningfully maintain a social network of 150 people. In that way we are doing well, size-wise—we as a congregation are able to foster meaningful relationships with one another.

(9) Synagogue is as relevant as ever: Trend-watchers like to note how congregations are in decline, that attendance is dropping, and that they are becoming less relevant institutions. Within Jewish community as I have read, that younger people are not connecting with synagogues, that they are too institutional, and that they do not fit newer models of social organization. Maybe we are immune from some of these trends because of our geographic location, or because of our situation as being the main Jewish institution in a small town. But whatever the reason, this institution is still very much a relevant one.

Every institution needs to take stock of itself, of course. But it doesn’t mean we simply throw out existing institutions. Congregations are needed in order to pool resources to educate our youth, or to provide a vehicle to have a bar or bat mitzvah in community. And at the same time, synagogues like ours can be Petri dishes for new ideas, a central address for Jewish experimentation, a resource for new initiatives. We should welcome the opportunity to try new things.

The synagogue is relevant because everywhere we look we see the need for community and communal structure. If people don’t find it in existing institutions, they will create new ones.  At my son’s elementary school, for example, in addition to academics they are taught values, have weekly gatherings to share songs and stories, mark annual celebrations, do community service, focus on community, support individual growth. Sounds kind of like synagogue to me.

But we don’t have to start something new. We have it already. Yes it changes, and grows, and modifies. We just marked our 75th anniversary and look where we have come from then. And who knows where we are going in the future. But our congregation is and should be an important institution in your life.

Because we need connection. We need tradition, we need stability, and we need a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives—and that is what synagogues and our synagogues should have as our mission. This is what I have learned from the past 10 years—this can be considered the 10th thing—What is TBH? TBH is and should be a place to honor tradition, celebrate the cycles of the season, foster the desire for meaning and connection, a vehicle for social justice and community service. A community joined together by covenant, by common cause, by shared values, by relationship.

That is what we are, that is what we should continue to be.

I will commit to work with you to build this covenantal community. And there are a few things specifically I ask of you to help fulfill this vision (I’m sneaking in another, shorter list here). The few things I ask of you are: I don’t want you to become a member, I don’t want you to pay your dues, I don’t want you to join a committee, I don’t want you to show up.

Now before the members of the board jump up here and drag me off the bimah, let me explain what I mean.

I don’t want you to become a member. Rather, I want you to become a chaver. We got rid of the word membership this last go around, because it didn’t accurately reflect the relationship one has with the Jewish community. Chaver is a Hebrew word which means friend, fellow, part of a whole. It doesn’t mean you are part of a club but that you are part of a community, and you find value in this organization, in the community, and you want to see the perpetuation of Jewish life. It’s not based on your frequency of attendance, or your religiosity, or your preference for or distain for blueberry bagels. It’s based on the shared value that as Jews we are better off together than alone, and that congregations are needed to maintain traditions and forge those connections.

I don’t want you to pay your dues. Rather, I want you to support this community based out of a sense of deep commitment, engagement and gratitude. I know all of you are thankful that this community is here, you are sitting in the room right now. All this is here because of you. All what is possible is because of you. Support is important, but “dues” is not the right word, for your support of the community should not be seen as a prerequisite for but rather a result of participation.

I don’t want you to join a committee. Rather I want you to join with other like minded folks, committed to the same goals and outcomes, to work together on common cause to make something happen. Whether your interest is governance, or education, or grounds-keeping, or an entirely new idea. Find some interested folks and do it. Forget the meetings and the minutes, think about the creating and the making.

I don’t want you to show up. Rather, I want you to be present. To not see yourself as a passive recipient but an active participant of congregational life. To come to services hoping to be moved and find meaning, to come to a class hoping to learn and be inspired. To come to a service project ready to get your hands dirty and make a change in the world, and be the better for it. To come to meet, to be open to a new relationship, new friendship, to come to laugh, and eat, and share. To accept help when you need it and give it when you are able. To be a part of this community.

This is what I want from you. If you do your part, and I do my part then we can fulfill the promise of what it means to be in sacred community.

Thank you for letting me be your guide over this past decade. But most of all thank you for teaching me what it means to be a part of community, to bring the spirit of Judaism alive and to demonstrate that when we join together, we can transform and be transformed.

One response

  1. Marc Brenman

    Excellent column and list! Well said!


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