“32, 180, 230, 3, 0, 2”: A D’var Torah from the TBH Annual Meeting

These are the opening words I shared at our Annual Congregational Meeting on Sunday, June 2, 1019:

This week we begin a new book of the Torah in our reading cycle, the book of Numbers. In Hebrew, the name of the book is Bamidbar, and it describes where the Israelites are at the moment of the narrative—in the wilderness. The rest of the book will recount their wanderings as they make their way from Mount Sinai, through the desert to the Promisted Land.

The name in English refers to the first section of the Book, which is a census. Before moving on in their journey the Israelites are told by God to take a census, and the first section of a book is a list of numbers—the population of each of the 12 tribes.

Why do they need to take a census before moving forward in their journey? They need to take stock of where they are and who they are, so they have a clearer sense of themselves as a community before moving forward.

As we gather for our annual meeting, that is in many ways what we are doing: we want to have a clear sense of who we are as a community as we end one year and begin another. So I would like to offer you some numbers, relevant to our community, so we can have a clearer sense moving forward.

Those numbers are: 32, 180, 230, 3, 0, 2

32: It was 32 years ago that TBH passed its first set of bylaws. I imagine it was a huge step forward from the original articles of incorporation that were drawn up a few decades before. And now we are preparing to take another huge step. Even though those original bylaws were amended over the years, they still reflected a different organization in size, staffing, assets, etc. This new set of bylaws that we are preparing to adopt today reflects our new reality, and lays the foundation for our future. Even a spiritual community needs good governance, and the work put into this effort reflects the very best of who we are. Take it from your rabbi, passing bylaws is sacred work because it allows us to do what we do.

180: This is approximately how many households are members of TBH. Perhaps I should have asked you how many members you thought we had. Is this more than you thought? This is more than when I started, and represents a continued growth as we, and really our region, is experiencing growth. At the same time, this size feels good, and accessible, and comfortable, and allows for real relationship building and connection. But then there is also the next number:

230: This is, perhaps, closer to reality of what we can consider to be the size of our congregation. And I say reality, because as I’ve said to the Board, while we may have 180 households on the books, we have a lot of what I call “non-member members.” People who come to our events and services, get our emails, interact with our posts on Facebook, contact us for information, consider this their congregation and me their rabbi, but who are not members. This is something to be proud of, it is a result of our low barrier to participation and entry, and it means our positioning as a center for Jewish life, regardless of how one defines that, is successful. At the same time, we want those to find value in our community to demonstrate that and help support our community. We should make a concerted effort to invite those folks to join and support us, and that role falls not just to the Board, or a membership committee, but to all of us. I invite you to think about someone who you know has benefited from TBH or appreciates what we do, and invite them to join. And that is made easier by the next number:

3: Or, more specifically, 3 percent. Our efforts to truly be an open, inclusive and welcoming congregation go beyond making sure we are friendly to newcomers and mindful of differences. We need to be sure that our systems of membership are open, inclusive and welcoming as well. We have taken steps over the past few years to think about how we define membership—moving away from a “dues” system—a pay to play, or pray, as it were—to a “pledge” system, in which we ask you, our members, to show your support by making a pledge of financial support that is meaningful to you. So its pray, then pay—we want you to be a part of our community, and to then make a meaningful pledge to show your appreciation and support, so we can continue doing what we do. There is a suggested amount set by the Board and based on our budget, and we are transparent about that, and still it is up to you to choose how much you would like to give. And through this personal pledge system we hope to lower the barrier to those who wish to be a formal part of this community.

And this year we are trying something new with renewal. Rather than add a modest increase to the overall suggested pledge amount, what in the past we might have called “raising dues,” we are asking each of you, each member, to increase your individual annual gift by 3%. I hope you will consider that in making your pledge, especially because of the next number:

0: I am so proud of our community for taking our financial sustainability seriously, and we have truly matured as an organization over these past few years. We have built an endowment to help us care for our sacred space. We have a planned giving program that will help support our community into the future. And you can know that of the amount you give in your annual pledge, $0 will go to paying down debt, or a mortgage, for we have paid it off (made possible by a bequest). All that you give goes into our programming, our staffing, our building. That is quite an accomplishment for any congregation. And finally…

2: This is perhaps my favorite number. Two is the number of weddings I am officiating this year for people whose b’nai mitzvah I officiated. I feel so moved and blessed to be invited by these families to officiate at their wedding. It is a sign not only of the length of my tenure, but also the connections and relationships we have built over the years. We have grown up together, and I look forward to continuing that connection.

In the Torah, the review of numbers in the parasha, the taking of a census, was an important step to community building. So too should we take a census, take stock of our numbers, so that we continue to build our strong Jewish presence in Olympia.

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