I want to share an experience I had with you some time ago, one that I suspect you can relate to. If you remember, a few years ago I went to the AIPAC conference. In case you’re worried, by the way, this isn’t an AIPAC sermon. That said, it was unlike any other experience I’d ever had, and I’ve been processing it ever since.
Now, a word about me and large gatherings of Jews: I’m really comfortable with them. I’ve been going to the URJ biennial since 1991. That doesn’t overwhelm me. Being in a room with five or seven thousand other Jews for services, or just milling around energizes me. Heck, I probably know half of the people in the room. Between my camp, HUC and youth group experiences, Biennial becomes Trafalgar square. Add to that my comfort in gatherings in general. Without popping my collar, I know how to work an oneg. Been doing it my whole life. In fact, Marisa and I frequently joke that, when we’re at a gathering of people we don’t know, we go into ‘oneg mode’ and just wade into the crowd, introducing ourselves, making conversation and connections.
But AIPAC was different. After going through security and getting my credentials, I walked down to the main convention floor, and suddenly realized that, other than the Delaware delegation and a couple of colleagues sprinkled about the 10,000 attendees, I didn’t know a single person. I was overwhelmed. I was alone. And I was miserable.
As I said, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about that experience. It’s not that the work we were doing wasn’t important—I bought into the reason for being there. It’s that I didn’t have enough points of connection with the other people there. For me, there wasn’t a sense of community. I made small talk with a couple of new people, exchanged business cards, and got to meet Shmuely Boteach, but otherwise felt like I got nothing out of the experience.
Notice what I just said. Because I didn’t make meaningful connections with people, I didn’t feel like I got anything out of it. Meaningful connections weren’t the reason for being there—it was never the point. The point was to learn about issues affecting Israel and advocate for the Jewish state on Capitol Hill. But that lack of engagement with others meant a lack of engagement with the program itself. I’m sure for those who are regulars they were ‘at home’, and no one was mean or explicitly rude, but for me it felt cold, distant and off-putting.
So why have I been thinking about it for the last two years? Because I worry—no, I know—that for too many of you, that’s your experience HERE. You want to be here, you want to make a connection. You’re good at connecting with others—you have a circle of friends and loved ones, and have no trouble schmoozing in your given circle. But when you come here, you’re alone, and miserable. Not because someone treated you explicitly poorly, and not because you’re not committed to the idea of being a part of the synagogue—you’re here, after all. But there’s a lack of engagement, a lack of comfort, a lack of connection. So you come, you have some chitchat, and you leave disappointed rather than renewed.
And so, increasingly, being a part of the synagogue doesn’t mean being a part of the synagogue, it means being apart from the synagogue. I can’t tell you how many people I talk to who leave the synagogue who say it’s because the kids are gone or they don’t use it, but in conversation we eventually get around to “my friends aren’t here anymore” or “I don’t feel connected to anyone here”. A lack of meaningful connection means a lack of engagement with the synagogue itself.
My friends, this is a problem. It’s a hard problem to see, because we look so successful, and in many respects, we are, or to borrow the punchline from the joke about the Jewish businessman, we’re comfortable. We have a beautiful building, a religious school filled to the brim, and a calendar so chock-full of programs it gives me a headache. Our pews are not empty on Friday night. But the problem is there. It’s there when I see people once active start to back away and eventually disappear without an explanation. I see it in folks who come to services but don’t stay for oneg—and not because they’re going out with a group from the Temple for a drink. I see it in Chavurot that are lovely to each other but seem to have very little connection with the synagogue itself. I see it in the folks who, despite this being my FIFTH high holidays, have never had so much as a conversation with me over a cup of coffee. And I see it in the occasional assumption of mistrust that no one wants to talk about: that new board members won’t know the history, while longtime leaders are trapped in the past, that the young and the old in our congregation work at cross purposes, and that we can’t speak truthfully AND sensitively at the same time.
Friends, it’s not about the building—buildings exist to serve our needs, not the other way around. Programming, as wonderful as it is, can only do its job if people are engaged with each other, and not just the event. And knowing each of the different groups in the congregation, no one is trying to pull a fast one on anyone else. And by the way, the problem we face isn’t a catastrophe, not a crisis—yes, believe it or not, not every issue is a crisis! Ours is a good congregation, a healthy congregation, a normal congregation. But we can be better. We can do better. We are good—we can be great. But it won’t happen if we don’t work together on this fundamental problem: a problem of relationships.
What do I mean? I mean that we’ve been spending a lot of energy—spiritual, financial, programmatic and emotional—on the wrong set of outcomes. For many of us, for too long, we’ve thought the goal was transactional: to belong to a synagogue in order to educate the kids, bury loved ones, participate in programming, have a place for the high holidays. But it’s no more about the programs than it is about the building. It’s not about giving the kids a bar mitzvah, or High Holiday tickets. Ron Wolfson articulates it well: The goal is…to become a Relational Jew, a Jew who views Judaism as impacting virtually all of one’s relationships.”
Think about that: your Judaism impacting—in a positive way—your relational choices: at work, at school, at home, with your friends, with your family, with yourself and—dare I say it—with the still small voice of God within you. Belonging to a Jewish community, then, is not about getting an outcome, it’s about engagement; it’s about relating to your fellow Jewish man or woman.
The question is how.
The first part requires all of us to be a little more optimistic, a little more hopeful, and a little more kind in our interactions with each other. Let’s assume good intent toward one another. Let’s assume we’re all here to help and support one another, to love one another the best way we know how—not necessarily the way we want, but the way we can. True, a new board member doesn’t know the history of what happened here in the 1970s, but she still works for the good of the congregation and to benefit her members. The parent who comes in bedraggled from a schedule packed to the gills is looking for help, but also for meaning, he just doesn’t always know how to ask for it. That doesn’t mean he wants the place to crumble. The phone call that comes from a stranger sometimes is about checking up and making sure you’re okay. And the good suggestion you want to share with the rabbi may just get heard and implemented—but only if you share it.
The second part is one of engagement. Much of it rests on me. As I said, this is my fifth high holidays, and too many of you I’ve only met once, or not even once. You’re going to be hearing from me. You’re going to get personal invitations to connect—here in the synagogue and out of the building, connected to a program and unconnected to anything except an opportunity to build relationships. We owe it to each other to deepen that connection, so when you get that envelope or phone call, say yes; to coffee, to wine-and-cheese before services, to a chance to study together. Say yes.
The third is going to require your help. We need to deepen our relationships with each other, to know one another better. Ask each other: what keeps you up at night? What gets you up in the morning? What crossroads are you at this week? But that means more than just showing up, it means reaching out and touching each other. If you have a suggestion how that can happen—great! Bring it forward. My answer will be yes. Let me say that again—it will be yes.
So why bother? Why do we need to do this? Is this just about dues, about preserving the institution? Nothing could be further from the truth. Those who know me well know that, while I’m loyal to the people of Beth Emeth, I’m not one for perpetuating institutions for their own sake. If Beth Emeth were failing its members, utterly failing, I’d be among the first and the loudest to say it was time to pack it in. We are not failing. We’re doing good work, we’re serving needs. But it’s time to take it to the next level. It’s time to ask the question “why are you here” and not answer “because I get this, that or the other thing” out of my dues, but to answer “Because we need each other, and the greater community needs us.” “Because by sharing in study, worship, singing, and gathering with my fellow Jews, I feel renewed, energized; I grow as a person when I’m there.” “Because this is where my friends are: we support each other.” “Because my voice and experience matters.”
Two years ago I asked the question: Why are you here? Tonight I ask the question again. Are we here out of a sense of obligation, or to get our money’s worth, or are we here with a great and heavy ambivalence? Or are we here because, on this holiest day of the year, it’s essential to touch and be touched by people who share our people’s values, because we love each other deeply and fiercely? I hope the answer to the latter is yes; but I appreciate that for many, getting to yes will take time and effort. Tonight we ask the question, tomorrow we explore more deeply how we’re going to get there. But for now, we end with a prayer:
Hear, O Israel-
On this Sacred Day we Stand:
We stand together,
We stand apart
Our hearts ache to reach toward each other,
But we don’t know how.
We are seeking one another
We are seeking our God in each other’s eyes
May our efforts be received with love
May our Kavannah, our intention, be shared
And may we come to fulfill the words of Our Torah
That we stand Facing one another
And thus facing the God who loves this people
And calls us to love each other. Amen.