Wednesday, February 25, 2015

What was supposed to be this week's sermon

So I ended up talking about Israel and freedom of expression, but this was supposed to be this week's sermon. Enjoy!

There’s been a lot of people asking the question: Why synagogues?
Is there a better way to bring people together to do Jewish? Do we spend too much time on programs, on the building, on this demographic or that demographic?
Last week mentioned Tent Peg Business etc.
There are some really cool models out there of alternatives to synagogues, but I think that’s the wrong question.
It presumes that synagogues need justification, validation.
Rather we should ask: how synagogues?
How do we make synagogue life work? What does it mean, what are the necessary ingredients to good synagogue.
What are they?
For me, the key ingredient is: Participation from all, freely given
From that element flows: mission, vision, transparency, enthusiasm, a sense of purpose. It stops being about the program for its own sake and becomes about programs that help people do synagogue, and do Jewish.
If it’s only about an elite, or a select group that cares; or if the focus is not on how to create opportunities for participation but how to ‘force’ engagement—through gimmicks, through programming, through beautiful buildings, etc.—
In Terumah: The Eternal spoke to Moses saying, Tell the Israelite people to bring me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.
We spend a lot of time with this text asking why: why a tabernacle? Why ask for gifts? Why make them free will, yet indicate what they should be?
The question that’s more interesting to me is how: Participation from all, freely given. No one was forced, nor was it only the leadership. If the Tabernacle, the Mishkan was to be where God would dwell among us (vs 8), then it had to be for us, by us.

So let me ask you: not why do you do synagogue, or do Jewish, but how. Are you happy with the way you do Jewish, or do synagogue? Could you do more? Could you create space to let others do more? Are there people here that you wish came and did more? And how are you going to make that happen? Are we making a sanctuary for God to dwell among us? Because if we’re not, then what are we doing? 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Sometimes business is good, too.

So it's been a while since I blogged, and not because I haven't been chewing on stuff. There's actually a blog on b'nai mitzvah on deck...eventually...I hope.

But I'm posting now because I've been seeing a lot of talk about the 'real' role of rabbis, and the many distractions that come from synagogue life. Rebecca Sirbu guest post on my teacher Hayim Herring's site on Disrupting the rabbinate; Joel Alperson's Op-Ed in JTA on our love affair with buildings (or, as many a rabbi has referred to it, our 'Edifice Complex"; Nina Badzin's post at Kveller on dues not being the only obstacle to affiliation, and Noa Kushner's fabulous update of her father Larry's manifesto The Tent Peg Business, all are raising a hue and cry that we have heard, now, for decades in one form or another. For years, we have been anticipating the death, disruption, defeat or otherwise demise of the synagogue. And, like the joke about the dying man who emerges from his deathbed to have a taste of mandelbrot only to have his hand swatted away by his wife declaring 'these are for shiva!', the synagogue just refuses to die.

None of these are new issues. None of these should surprise us. The role of the rabbi has been shifting since there were rabbis, and as David Ruderman points out in his book, this has been especially true since the 1600s, and certainly increasing since the 19th century, as communities sought rabbis less as halakhic experts and community adjudicators and more as teachers, role-models, and 'ministers'. So in one generation the rabbi is the Ph.D, the next the social worker. Then the programmer, the CEO, the guru, the rebbe. This is just as true as for the synagogue. The shteibel becomes the grand hall, then the Jewish Center, or the "shul with the pool", followed by the converted house with beanbag chairs, the rented space, and back to the shteibel again (perhaps).

And in each generation, we shake our heads, we gnash our teeth, we rend our clothes as the old model fades away against the luster of the new, which itself is destined, eventually, to fade.

So here's the deal. I'm in the Judaism business. That means I need to engage with those who are interested in Judaism. Historically the people who were interested enough in Judaism to do Jewish were called "Jews". Historically these Jews tended to congregate amongst themselves: to learn, to share, to be with each other, and to pray. These sharing spaces were called synagogues. It didn't matter how many, or how big, or what size or shape they took (both the "Jews" and their "synagogues"). The rabbi (the person in the Judaism business) was compelled to serve them.

Sounds simple, right? Of course, it's not.

Sometimes we get bogged down and focus on the wrong stuff; we spend too much time talking about the personalities of the Women's Club, the leaky roof, how this or that program is or is not serving my needs. We forget that the Women's Club does important tzedakah work, that the building is here to provide us a space to worship, study, and celebrate; that the Torah, not the budget, is our sacred document; that those programs keep people together and help build relationships.

And sometimes the acquaintances specifically sit together because they're both saying kaddish, and hold each others' hands. And sometimes the building is filled with laughter and joy and dancing. And sometimes the rabbi has the blessing of consecrating a child, then being present at the bat mitzvah, then standing with her under the chuppah, and many years later, standing again, with her child. Sometimes the person with an idea finds a voice and a role in leadership and it transforms their experience and their family for the good. Sometimes the donor gets to kvell over the good work being done in their name.


Look, the easiest thing in the world with any relationship--familial, professional, marital, and Jewish--is to look for the exits. To vanish. To walk out the door when things get hard and complicated or worst, boring. That's the easy thing. And lord knows, we Jews aren't good at easy relationships; we're too nosy, too expert in everything (or so we think), too negative, too MUCH. How good it would feel to walk away from talk of dues and budgets and carpeting and programs and calendars and service times and on and on and on. But hands need to touch hands. And Jews need to express gratitude, and explore, and delve, and express pain, and be surrounded by others who get it, without need of explanation. Without justification. Without embarrassment. But with love and humor and real JOY.

So fine, let's do the Timewarp again. Let's deconstruct the synagogue--and the rabbi--again.  But let's also not give up--on it or each other. And let's remember that the opposite of not giving up is commitment--full throated, unrepentant, unhesitating, enthusiastic commitment. To be 'all in'.

Remember what the Baal Shem Tov taught: "Your fellow human being is a mirror for you. If there is love and compassion in your soul, you will see the goodness in others. If you see a blemish in another, it is your own imperfection you encounter. Take careful note of the flaws you perceive in others. This is a lesson for you: they are your own flaws set before you, a reminder of your own spiritual work."

And remember: none of us can do that work alone.