Is Capitalism Hurting Synagogue Life?

As I’ve shared with you, in addition to my regular blog, I blog once a month at the Rabbis Without Borders blog on the My Jewish Learning website. (My slot is usually the first Wednesday of the month).

It is an honor to join a chorus of my colleagues in bringing diverse voices, opinions and conversations to the public stage. And for me, since I blog regularly, it is a forum to explore different topics that I normally might.
This week was no exception. As a pulpit rabbi I am attuned to the life of my synagogue, but I am also attuned to the life of synagogues in general. I make it a point to keep up with what his happening in the greater Jewish world of course, but what is being talked about regarding synagogues in specific is of keen interest since trends and best practices affect us as well.
And sometimes, I have something to say on the topic. So this week’s post is a repost of my Rabbis Without Borders post in which I reflect on issues of synagogue size and resources:
06-03-2015 09:00:05 AM

“How big is your congregation?” This is the number one question I am asked as a congregational rabbi in settings of other rabbis or Jews in general. Rabbi valedictories celebrating a successful rabbinate (upon retirement, for example) will always use synagogue growth as a number one sign of success. And any congregational website will feature […]…»

From “Member” to “Chaver”

Some of this post is drawn from my remarks at our annual congregational meeting, as well as a letter sent to our chaverim.

What does it mean to be a part of a synagogue community? Being a part of a congregation is a unique form of association. It is being a part of a covenental community, a community of choice, and a community with a shared past, future and set of values. It is being a part of a community based on relationship.

Just like in a marriage, or in a friendship, while there may be disagreements or multiple opinions or competing interests and desires, there is first and foremost a fundamental commitment to the relationship itself. Being a part of a synagogue community is the same way. We are in relationship with Jewish tradition, with our community and with one another.

This is why my congregation, Temple Beth Hatfiloh, has taken what I see to be a big step I how we organize our community: we have changed the name of one who affiliates with our congregation from “member” to “chaver“.  Chaver is a Hebrew word which means partner, friend, fellow, associate and companion. While “member” describes a status, “chaver” describes a relationship.

In my line of work I keep up not only with the latest in education, or Torah commentary and study, but also with what is happening in Jewish communal life, with the synagogue as institution, demographics, and cultural approaches to institutions. The latest thoughts, in a nutshell, are that affiliation rates are dropping, younger people don’t see the same need to join as a generation ago, and as a whole, the question of what relevance are larger institutions now, when one can build their identity with a little bit from here and a little bit from there with the Internet and the democratization of information. Additionally, the question of “value” is an important one.

The word “chaver” implies what it truly means to be a part of a synagogue community. The older language of membership still has meaning for some, and I want to honor that. And for others, it is a barrier. Using the term “chaver” is a means to project the idea that being a part of a congregation is to be in active relationship, and not a passive recipient of services. It is to be committed to that relationship despite shifting needs, and to commit to the institution for the benefit of all, and not just oneself. It is to commit to co-create the institution and not just “purchase” it whole cloth.

We have also stopped using the word “dues.” While we still request that a chaver supports the community financially, we call this support an “annual pledge.” “Dues” implies that money is a prerequisite to participation, rather than the other way around.

As the primary synagogue in a smaller city, we have taken a very open approach to engagement. On the High Holidays we don’t have tickets, we just publish the schedule of services and open the doors, for example. Anyone who wants to be on our email list can. We see ourselves as a center for Jewish life for those who wish to connect Jewishly, however they may define that. Many more people are in relationship with the synagogue than those who “join.”

So functionally, moving from “member” to “chaver” is a semantic shift. But more importantly, ideologically it is meant to say that all who wish to be a part of our community can, and in doing so commit to entering into a relationship, one that is transformative to the individual as well as to the community.

It’s Blintzapalooza!

Today is Blintzapalooza day at Temple Beth Hatfiloh, at once the most counter-intuitive and the most appropriate day for a Jewish congregation.

Blintzaplooza was started by TBH members 25 years ago as a means to give back to the community, when it was felt by some that the congregation was not engaged enough outside its walls. (It was also a time when it was harder to get bagels in Olympia.) The premise is simple: invite the entire Olympia community to buy blintzes, bagels (with cream cheese and/or lox) and used books. Sell some hats and merchandise. Throw in some Jewish culture and a Jewish baking contest. And then, GIVE ALL THE MONEY AWAY.

For synagogues that must be self-sustaining, it would seem like an odd thing to put months of planning and many volunteer hours into a fundraiser which does not benefit us financially. (Blintzapalooza usually raises upwards of $10,000). But it is more than a fundraiser. It is a community event, and it is a way we can live out our values of tzedakah. Plus, all the money goes to local charities, in order to help our immediate neighbors. We may not line our pockets, but we become rich in other ways.

Al tifrosh min a tzibbur—Do not separate yourself from the community, Hillel advised in Pirke Avot. We take these words seriously. Through Blintzaplooza we lift up our neighbors and we lift up ourselves.