Relational Judaism and Staying Positive

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5774

“I [am] saddened and fed up by the plethora of articles, blog posts, and vicious harangues that have become an emergent cottage industry in the Jewish world. Every day we read about impending doom, boring services, insipid rabbis, the terrorism of Hebrew school and the vacuousness of supplemental religious education, and failing federations. Is it in our DNA to kvetch? Why have we allowed it to become profitable to peddle disdain and promote gloominess? And why on earth would our people (let alone anyone new!) be attracted to—let alone commit themselves to—such depressives?

It is easy to stand on the sidelines and critique. Heck, it can even be entertaining. [But] building holy community, breathing life into Ezekiel’s dry bones, hearing God’s voice in 2013, putting together the shattered pieces of our world—now that’s a challenge!

Do we in the Jewish world have room for spiritual growth, for inspiration, for deepening our davening to get our hearts soaring? Sure we do. Every year. Every Shabbes. Every day. Should we look at who we are, what we do, and why we do it? Measure our impact? Reflect on how to disorganize and reorganize for the next generation? Yep, this is vital to our future.”

These words were posted on the Central Conference of American Rabbis Facebook page By Rabbi Michael Latz following on the heals of an article in Tablet magazine by Abigail Pogrebin that declared, “High Holiday services are a slog. All right, not at every synagogue, not all the time, not for everybody. But it’s true widely and often enough that most of you are nodding to yourselves. Granted, services aren’t meant to entertain us every minute. But which of the 613 commandments prescribe boredom?”

Perhaps some of you agree with Abigail Pogrebin. You agree that services are boring, High Holy Day services especially so. You agree with her when she explains that “Year after unchanging year, [Rabbis] guide their flocks through the long hours of often-stilted liturgy without explaining what’s being recited, how it’s relevant, or where a segment begins or ends. Congregants turn page after page, parroting passages aloud as instructed, sitting and standing (and standing … and standing)—with few people knowing why.” It might surprise you to hear that there are moments when I agree with her as well.

I agree that in order for services to have meaning they have to feel relevant, they have to feel “meaningful.” There has been article after article lately about how exactly that should be done. Article after article about everything the synagogues have done wrong for a hundred years. Article after article about what the millennial generation wants, where that generation finds meaning, how that generation decides where to spend it’s smaller and smaller attention span.

But of course in a synagogue, in a community, the work, the really hard work is to care for everyone’s needs not just those with the largest soapbox. Are we supposed to be keeping everyone entertained? Are we supposed to fulfill everyone spiritually? Are we supposed to educate everyone at every level? What programs should we be offering and when? And where does individual responsibility for our own experiences take over? What is it really that we are supposed to be doing here in our synagogue and does that require regular evaluation and revitalization? Absolutely it does.

Dr. Ron Wolfson has a book out this year, which is receiving a lot of attention. It’s called “Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community.” He tells the story of what used to be one of the largest Synagogues in America. In 2000 they had no mortgage, no debt, and a balanced budget. The building was old, the longterm senior rabbi was retiring and most of the younger folks in that community were moving further away from where the synagogue is. That synagogue decided what they needed was a new hot-shot rabbi, and a lot of amazing programs, so they borrowed a million dollars and had concerts, lectures with nationally renowned speakers, marketing programs, website, etc. During that year a lot of people showed up for these events. A lot of new people who came to learn something, or to be entertained, and they seemed to enjoy the programs. While the numbers at each of these events probably led the organizers to declare each one a success, they did nothing to change the ambience of the congregation, which was widely considered cold and unwelcoming. Nothing was done to engage the people in attendance with those around them in any way. No one asked who the people were who came, no one asked about their children, their parents, etc. No one followed up with the people who came to see if they wanted to come to other events, if they would like to have a Shabbat dinner, if they wanted to carpool to religious school.

Ten years later the congregation was a million dollars in debt and the membership had shrunk down to 300 households. They invited Dr. Wolfson to work with them to change this situation. What he told them was, “It’s all about relationships.” Folks will come for programs, for education, for a concert, or an excellent speaker. They might even come for High Holy Day services and sometimes even for Shabbat. But Wolfson explains that the reason they don’t come back isn’t about how well entertained they were when they were there. The quality of the program they attended had nothing to do with it. They don’t come back because they didn’t have a relationship with anyone there. They didn’t feel that anyone cared about them about whether they were there or not.

Of course this is completely obvious. Why does anyone go anywhere? Why does anyone feel obligated to do anything. Either there’s a fee for services model like at the health club. I need to use exercise equipment so I pay a membership fee for the opportunity to use that equipment at any time that the club is open. I don’t look to make friends there—perhaps some folks do, for me I prefer to sweat without the chit chat, but maybe that’s just me. I expect the place to be clean and the staff to be friendly and the hours to be appropriate. I don’t expect or need the person who checks me in to care about my kids.

I feel similarly at the movie theater. I expect to be entertained when I go there and I am willing to pay a fee for that entertainment. If the movie didn’t live up to expectations I am disappointed, but I will probably go back the next time I’d like an evening out and there’s a movie that looks good to me. I have no expectation of relationship with the others in the theater with me or with the people who make the popcorn.

But here in a synagogue we do try to entertain with programs for learning and socialization. We do care about your health, not with exercise machines, but with prayers and bowls of soup and visits. We care about your spiritual development with services and discussions of deep questions that have been asked by Jews for centuries. We try to do all of these things. We will never entertain you as well as Cinetopia. We will never burn your calories as well as they do at the gym, in fact we might try to get you to eat more. The only thing we have over those other kinds of places is relationship and that’s where our focus has to be.

Now I know some of us are already nodding and patting ourselves on the back, because at Kol Ami we do work hard at this. We do pride ourselves on getting to know new people the minute they walk in the door. We do really want folks to always feel welcome. We support our kids here like nobody else. Our entire community comes to Bar and Bat Mitzvah services, we volunteer in the religious school and Hebrew school to teach each other people’s children. We do this really well, and the results are there. Our students stay in our school and even more, they volunteer as well to teach the younger students. Our students know they have a home here and they know they are loved here in all their awkwardness and brilliance and kooky kid behavior.

But we don’t always do as well with the adults. And you adults out there who don’t already know and love us. You are a hard nut to crack. Some of it is us, the Jewish institutional world, we have an obligation to provide services and community that is useful to you. But some of the responsibility lies with you as well. Wolfson explains that the goal should be to change the way we see ourselves, rather than “a Reform Jew,” or a “Federation Jew,” or a “secular Jew,” and defining oneself by how often one attends services or how much money one gives, but rather to see our selves as “relational Jews,” that is a Jew who builds relationships with the totality of Jewish experience. This has to do not with actions, not with what we do, but with our internal Jewish identity. Wolfson says we need to ask ourselves these questions:

Do I see myself as Jewish? Does my Jewishness influence the way I live my life: my work, my purpose, my hobbies, my indulgences, the food I eat, the music I listen to? Do I see myself as part of a Jewish family? How do I relate to being a Jewish father, daughter, grandfather, sister, partner, spouse? Do I locate myself among a network of good friends, friends who will be there for me in good times and bad? Do I engage in lifelong learning about Judaism? Do I try on Jewish practice? Do I commit to living a Jewish life? Does Jewish observance shape the way I live: the rhythm of my week, the calendar of my year? Do I belong to and support the community—a synagogue, JCC, Federation? Do I connect to the Jewish people, the “tribe”? Do I care about the State of Israel? Do I work to repair the world? Do I wrestle with God?

How you answer these questions is a step toward involvement with Jewish community, but only a tiny step. In our culture today we are able to do so much for ourselves on our own. Who needs face-to-face community when the constant and easy community of facebook is always available, my friends from kindergarten give me immediate and positive feedback about every post and every picture by “liking “ everything I do and say within moments. Face to face community with people who don’t instantly “like” everything I do is a lot more challenging. Who needs classes on Jewish topics filled with other people who might talk too much when all Jewish knowledge is easily available in the thousands of books out there on every topic, and if I have a quick question, I can find an answer on line while I’m pumping gas.

We can do so much on our own and for ourselves now—more than ever before, everything you can get from an institution can be gotten on your own. What does anyone need Jewish community for? Especially if it’s cheaper for me to buy a few books and eat a bagel. And especially when every time I open a paper or a magazine I am reading about how badly Jewish institutions do everything!

So what do we, those of us already a committed part of the Kol Ami community, what do we need to do in order to become more interesting and attractive to those other folks who come and visit but do not invest their time and energy with us. How do we show them there is value here that is different and hopefully better than what and individual can do on their own?

Some of it we are already doing. I believe that at least 75% of the time new folks who walk in our door are overwhelmed with a community interested in meeting and learning about them. I have heard a few times that we can be “nosy,” but I would take that over cold and uninterested. But we have to do more than meet people, we have to get to know them and let them get to know us. We have to tell new people our own stories rather than just ask about theirs. We need to tell them that we also didn’t grow up here, tell them that we too are in an interfaith marriage, that we also never had children, that we are single, that we didn’t grow up Jewish, that we are from NY, or LA, that we didn’t grow up in a synagogue and also weren’t sure what we were looking for when we first came here. Everyone comes to a place carrying their own overt and covert baggage. When we come to a new place we are always worried that our baggage won’t fit the way everyone else’s does. Hearing that Kol Ami has seen and handled every kind of baggage before and we are all better for it and happy for it will help new folks feel safe. And then we need to really listen to their stories, not just to find out how what they want fits with what we offer, but in order to just get to know them.

We have to invite people, new people who we don’t know into our homes for Shabbat dinners. We have monthly pot luck Shabbat dinners here, but it’s not the same thing as having a meal in a person’s home, the conversation and the ambiance is completely different. When we meet someone new we need to take our own risks and really invite them in.

We have to show up for our own programs. There have been a lot of times, too many times when new people come to services or a study session and are met by only a small handful of our congregational regulars. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m staid and boring. I can accept that, and I can promise you that I will continue to work to always make services inspiring and relevant. We have changed the times so that there’s time for dinner, we have better music with all of our wonderful volunteers, perhaps you would like to lead services some time—please I will welcome your involvement. What is absolutely true is that when there are more of us, it’s always better. We are energized by each other, I am energized by you. We show ourselves off the best when we are present. If we are hoping others will find us compelling we must find ourselves compelling, and if you aren’t seeing what you want in your own community, please come in and help make it happen. We have already a full calendar of events for the year. Lots of opportunities for study, for worship, for community, for celebration. Come.

If we want our community to be better, to be more engaging, to encompass more people doing more things, then we are all responsible. I certainly am. I want to meet you, I want to know you. Please say hello to me after services, and I will say hello to you too. I am here for study, for services, for kids, for adults, for difficulties, for celebrations. And I pledge to be even more present and more open to those of you I already know and to those I haven’t yet met. Those of you who are all ready an active part of this community, you have a challenge as well. Be present, be open, be welcoming, be active, and I hope—be positive. For those of you who have not fully become a part of this community—I hope you will see that we are all better in community. We are all better when we share our lives with others, and when we struggle with the folks who don’t automatically “like” everything we do and say.

But I want to get back to all those articles we read about just how terrible Jewish institutions are, just how badly we do everything. There was another one in the NY times this morning about how terrible all Bar and Bat Mitzvah programs are. The more we focus on how badly we do everything, the less of a chance we have at creating the kind of community that will do those things better. We must honestly critique ourselves after all that’s what this time of year is about, but perhaps we might honestly critique the things we do well and not just the places where we fall down. So here’s a challenge for 5774: Let’s take a 100 day break from every negative articles & effusive espousal of our impending disappearance from existence. How about we take 100 days and proclaim the incredible community we have, all the amazing and dedicated volunteer teachers, our inspired leadership, our compelling learning, and the deep impact we’re having on social justice here, in Israel, & through out the world? Lets take just 100 days to focus on the precious gift that Jews and Judaism are to ourselves and the world. After Hanukah we can start kvetching again. I will make that pledge and I will work hard to keep it—I hope many of you will join me. When we can see what we do well we become more attractive to ourselves and to everyone else—that’s the kind of community I know we can continue to create.