Friday, June 5, 2009

A change will do you good.

Two shabbatot ago, Memorial Day weekend, I had a wonderful opportunity; I got to sit in the back (think about it; how often does a rabbi get to do that) for a morning service/bar mitzvah at Beth Emeth, my soon-to-be new congregation. It was an opportunity to learn something about the culture, wish mazel tov to the family, daven, chase my son around (hope grilled cheese is allowed in the sanctuary!) and get to know the congregation a little better. In the course of conversation about how nice the service was, what a great job the bar mitzvah candidate did, etc. with people, two individuals (no names!) both said, 'so, I guess you're going to be changing things, huh?'

Change is an incredibly loaded term, with both positive and negative connotations. For many, the first thought is negative: watching a neighborhood of proud historic buildings give way to big box stores (or worse, vacant lots), or a ball player go from star to benchwarmer (I'm looking at you, Big Papi) can be heartwrenching for people. When that change is sudden, it can be a shock to the system. And when it comes to a spiritual community like a synagogue, well, 'change' can be as frightening a word as you're going to get (the others are 'dues increase' and 'out of cookies', but that never happens). Our tradition itself has a mixed response to change. Additions to the liturgy were acceptable, but subtractions weren't (which is how you get a one hour service evolve into four). New ways of understanding Jewish ethics were warmly embraced (well, by some) so long as they didn't contradict the halakha. The Reform movement emerged not out of a desire to form a new branch or denomination or stream of Judaism but to remake traditional Judaism for a modern age (and we all know what happened, ya?).

What makes it so anxiety inducing is the implication; change might mean losing what made the community--its programs, services, its relationships--special for you. It also suggests criticism; that something is being changed because the way it was done before was somehow fundamentally wrong (which, of course, implies that all the hard work you and your forebears did was wrong, they and you were wrong and you were wasting your time. Put that in your peace pipe and smoke it.).

But change doesn't have to be all negatives, hiding in the closet like the boogeyman waiting to scare folk. Lots of change is good and healthy. As cliche as it is, my life has been inextricably changed by my son coming into this world; some of it has been a challenge (though thank God, manageable in nature) but all of it has been a blessing that has allowed me to grow and appreciate the world differently than I did in my 20s, when the only one I had to worry about was me. Likewise, for a congregation, change can reinvigorate, filling the community with new purpose. It can allow previously uninvolved and unaffiliated individuals to engage. It can give a congregation the opportunity for reflection on who it is and who it wants to be.

Change (assuming we're not all suffering from fatigue of the word) doesn't have to be bad. It does have to happen in a thoughtful and meaningful way. As my teachers Terry Bookman and Bill Kahn repeatedly reminded my PEER classmates and me, change can only happen when you honor what came before, and you have buy-in from the congregation. It means building consensus, putting out feelers and (dare I say it?) marketing (creating focus groups, putting out surveys). It means listening . It means experimenting (I prefer the term beta testing; sounds a little less threatening to me) the idea and soliciting feedback. It means building on what's already worked and slowly, gently, pushing the boundaries of what's comfortable for the congregants.

So are things going to change? Sure; they have to. I'm different than the previous rabbis at Beth Emeth, with a different kind of energy (thanks for that turn of phrase, Cantor Stanton). I have ideas that are different, I lead services in a different way, I have a different style. That doesn't make me right or them wrong; it doesn't make their way worse or mine better. Just different. And over time (God willing) as I build relationships with the folks at Beth Emeth, and we begin to build trust, we--we --will change things. We'll beta test things. We'll listen to each other and talk about what makes our congregation wonderful, and we'll build on that. Some people will like what's changed, some won't, but will understand. Hopefully, so long as we honor what has come before, the foundations of our community, folks won't equate change with knocking the house down. So long as we keep talking and listening and learning about each other and with each other, the changes made don't have to be so scary.

So, I can talk on this all day, but it's no good if you're not talking back. Let me, then, ask this of you, dear reader: share with this blog a positive change from your life that you faced with trepidation. What made you anxious, or scared you? What reinvigorated you? How were you transformed? What blessing did you take away from the experience? What changes excite you, and what changes worry you? Leave your comments below!


  1. Not sure if your new congregants are aware of your blog and are reading this just yet.

    I can tell them sit back and enjoy. For those that are concerned about change, I can assure them that this transition will be a positive one.

    We will miss you in Bucks County!

  2. Looks like I'm the first "new" congregant to post! Personally I have no trepidation about the immiment ascension of Rav Yair to the postion of Senior Rabbi at Beth Emeth (though I'm fairly certain others do). I look forward to our journey together.

  3. I tend to view change in a favorable light and, like Zeke, look forward to the changes that will inevitably occur at Beth Emeth.
    To answer R. Yair's question - when I think about the changes in my life that I was worried about, they were accomplished and made easier by support from people in the new environment i.e. the new job, the new location, etc.