Every time I step onto the bimah I remember my first time leading services as a rabbinic student. It was in the chapel at the Hebrew Union College, and there I stood before what felt like the entire student body and faculty, including many of the future luminaries of the movement. An intimidating moment, and, needless to say, I don’t remember a whole lot from the experience, but I do remember that feeling of awe and trembling, whether before God or the congregation. That feeling has never left me, and even now, standing before all of you, I feel that sense of yirah, of awesomeness, of trembling, of deep abiding reverence for the congregation I am leading. I am feeling it even now.
That said, I am increasingly convinced that the sanctuary, dramatic and powerful as it is, is not the most sacred or important space for this congregation. Nor the classrooms, library, certainly NOT my office. No, I have come to believe that the most important space is the parking lot.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that the parking lot is the most important space at congregation Beth Emeth. Why? That is both the first and last place we encounter each other. It is in the parking lot we first ask after each others’ health and well-being. It is in the parking lot where invitations for Shabbat dinner or lunch are extended. It’s where hugs and handshakes and stories are shared, where parents kiss their kids goodbye on Sunday mornings, and when more than a few prayers are recited as people dodge traffic. The parking lot is where the meeting AFTER the meeting takes place, as friends catch up with each other or process what just happened. It’s where we collect food on the holidays and offer support to one another and where volunteers work on the landscaping, and Barry Kittinger takes the kids into the garden. It’s where new members and guests have their first impression of this place and its membership. And it’s where the religious school used to gather to have their picture taken by the photographer standing on the roof. It’s where we line up in cortege to process to graveside.
I’m not trying to be cute. So much of what makes us a holy community takes place outside the realm of worship and study or even programming. It’s about relationships: relationships between members, relationships between the past, present and future, relationships between our memory of who we were and our aspiration of who we want to become. Pulling into our parking lot is, for many people, an emotional moment as they remember and reconnect and prepare themselves for what is to happen inside. The parking lot really is that first point of contact for people, and for me, that makes it sacred space.
So, how can we do more of that? How can we build on our parking lot experiences and unscheduled, informal interactions? How can we move what happens in the parking lot and move that into the vestibule, the hallway, the classrooms, the board room, the social hall, and the sanctuary? How do we take all of those things we love about our experience here at Beth Emeth—our stories of love and learning and support—and use them to move this congregation forward, to move from good to truly great?
In part, we need to rededicate ourselves to understanding and clarifying our mission as a congregation. I spend a lot of time talking about mission, and what our mission is together in Temple life, which sometimes earns me funny looks. It’s a synagogue, and don’t we know what synagogues do? Or even worse, I hear from some that mission is just pablum, something to throw on the website that is so broad it does very little. And there’s some truth to this. We have a mission statement—do you know what it says? And it isn’t just us: if you looked at nearly every synagogue’s mission statement they’d all look basically the same. You know, house of study, house of gathering, house of worship, yadda yadda yadda. We all carry a sense of what synagogue is about, and it is about services, educational experiences, and opportunities to meaningfully gather. But those are the means, not the ends in and of themselves.
I said before and have said repeatedly that it is all about the relationship; that what resonates is not just the service, but the invitation to dinner that takes place afterwards. It’s not just the study, but the chance to sit next to your friend. If that is true interpersonally, then it is certainly true with the community as well. There is a relationship between us as individuals and us as a collective, a kahal, and that relationship cannot be either a matter of providing a good or a product, it cannot be transactional, but rather TRANSFORMATIVE. And by transformative, I don’t just mean for us alone, but for the community in which we dwell. I believe we need to reimagine this relationship, this dynamic as a means to transform our lives; all of our lives. If that’s the case, then we need to come up with new language to talk about this relationship. To paraphrase educator and business consultant Peter Drucker, our “product” at the end of the day is not to create programming, not to bar mitzvah your kids, to throw Chanukah parties and Purim Shpiels. It’s not even worship services. At the end of the day our product is changed human beings. It’s the bar mitzvah student who comes back to chant Torah again and again, and as a result becomes more confident. It’s the service that leaves the worshipper ready to connect with his family differently. It’s the Purim Shpiel and Chanukah party or Sunday morning experience that teaches the Jewish parent who hated religious school that Jewish learning is full of joy. It’s the moment a social justice program transitions from feeding a stranger to helping a friend.
If our work is to facilitate dynamic spiritual lives, doesn’t that mean we need to take our experiences, our stories, into account, recognizing that we all may need to take different paths to get to the same place? Judaism, after all, is not one size fits all—The Torah we are about to read makes that clear. We read: “You stand here today….to choose” But the ‘you’ is plural; atem nitzavim. You—all of you—all of us, gather to choose holiness, to choose life. All of us stand here today, not only those here but those yet to be, to make that choice. To make many choices. And we do. We love to make choices; so why shouldn’t we as a community do everything we can to help each other make sacred choices? Isn’t that what community is all about?
So, what does that mean for us? This means we need to look very carefully at what we’re doing, at who we think we are and who we want to become. For 110 years, Beth Emeth has stood for a kind of constancy, of tradition, and we do an excellent job of engaging our past. Starting now, and I do mean now, we need to cast aside our assumptions together and move into a process of reflection and discernment; we need to engage our future. We need to share our stories of transformation and engagement, so we can learn how to do that even more, and even better. It is clear that we are doing many things that are engaging: our Shabbat hikes, Torah study, our partnership with Family Promise, are just a few examples of experiences that people find transformational. I have no doubt there are more, but we don’t know what they all are, and we don’t know WHY they work. And when we’ve created or changed experiences, we’ve done it based on gut instinct and a need to move quickly, assuming there was some kind of problem that needed fixing. Case in point: Up until this past June, Shabbat service time had nearly always been 8pm, until this past year, as we saw regular attendance drift ever downward, as fewer and fewer people found the timing working for them. This summer we began an experiment with an earlier time, 6:30, with a Nosh beforehand. Not only have we seen attendance up, but it has brought in a more diverse group, and more engagement with the experience. For example, instead of passively receiving the oneg, people are making plans to gather for Shabbat dinner after services, and inviting each other along. It all looks great—except I don’t know why it’s working. Is it the time change, or the change in schedule Is there another factor in play? Were people looking for a different way to celebrate Shabbat, and is there more we should be doing? Are there things we should be doing for those who are disaffected by the change in time? Honestly, I don’t know. None of us in leadership do. So we’re collecting feedback, but again, it assumes that there was something wrong.
But what would it look like if we had a way of sharing our stories, our experiences, and affecting change in a positive way? What would it mean if we looked not for problems, but to what we’re already doing right, and simply do more of that? What would it mean for us—all of us—to dream together, to envision together, to share in a conversation about what it is we might become? And when I say all of us, I mean—just as Moses means—all of us standing here today, and all who are not gathered today but are a part of our community, our congregation.
Friends, you’ve heard me say over and over again that, however good we are, we could be great. Truly great, a place of deep spirituality, learning and transformation for ourselves and others. The leadership of the congregation agrees. We are at a turning point, with new senior staff—including Rabbi Koppel as our new director of lifelong learning—and new leadership at every level, as well as legacy leadership—board members, teachers—who are deeply invested in the future of this congregation. We have the opportunity to pivot, to move toward being a place driven by a mission to change people’s lives.
And what does that look like? To be honest, I haven’t a clue. Seriously. We have pieces here and there that we know are working, we have a sense, a gut feeling, we’ve had staff and leadership try to, essentially throw things against the wall to see if they stick, but we truly, honestly, don’t know. What’s more, there’s stuff we’re doing that we have no way of knowing if it’s transformational or not. They may be well attended or poorly attended, cost us a bundle or be self-sufficient, but we can’t evaluate whether or not they work, whether or not they change people’s lives.
Which is why I’m very proud to announce such an initiative called Engaging Our Future, endorsed and led by the board and guided by Alan Ebner, Connie Kreshtool, Jason Horowitz, Jenn Steinberg and Ruth Rosenberg, and this initiative begins now. Right now. Starting now and moving over the next several months, every single one of you is invited to a session, hosted and facilitated by members of our leadership. At these sessions, we want you to share your stories. Stories of what works, of what’s good, of why you engaged before and why you engage now and how you can engage more. From these sessions, from the stories you tell, we’re going to look at what we’re doing right, how we’re doing good and fulfilling that sense of mission, and move those experiences and encounters to the center of what we do. We are going to build our future around what we do best.
For some folks in the room, that may sound Pollyanna, like some kind of feel-good fest. It doesn’t give us a chance to talk about our problems. That’s true, it doesn’t. Shouldn’t we talk about what we aren’t good at to make that better? The answer, audaciously enough, is no. We shouldn’t. Why? Because to quote my friend Pastor Josh Snyder, we can look at our deficiencies and pour all our resources into fixing them, and at the end of the day we’ll be mediocre. Or we can pour our resources into what we’re good at and become truly great. Case in point: I love art; I volunteer to work in the art shack at camp every summer. I love being surrounded by artists and speaking with them, looking at art, listening to the stories of artists’ experiences. I am not an artist. Kindergartners sculpt better than I do, and I can barely paint a wall all the same color. I will simply never be even a good artist, never mind a great one. And thankfully, I’m not evaluated as a rabbi on how well I can draw or throw a pot. I have other skills and abilities. What I can do, however, is take that love and appreciation for art and use that as my pivot point, my way of improving and enhancing my relationship with art, even if I am not a creator myself: I can go to museums and exhibitions, encourage artists to display, including in our small display at the entrance to the building, curated by Riva Brown, support artists whose work I appreciate, and teach on art. I can even judge competitive interpretive art as a part of this year’s Maccabiah at Camp Harlam—yes, it was a real event!
So it must be with us. We need to start where things are good in order to make them great, start where we already have good experiences and good feelings we can build upon and pivot from. In the same way Ron Wolfson challenges us to ask “what gets us up in the morning?”, rather than “what keeps us awake at night?”, we need to ask the question “what brings us to this place? Why do we enter this parking lot, and why do we tarry long after it’s time to leave?” Each of us has story that binds us to this place. Let’s share our stories together, let’s engage our future together.