A Rosh Hashanah Sermon
In tractate Sanhedrin 17b of the Babylonian Talmud, we read:
A Torah scholar is not allowed to live in a city that does not have these 10 things: a law court that metes out punishments; a charity fund that is collected by two people and distributed by three; a synagogue; a bath house; a public bathroom; a doctor; a craftsperson; a blood-letter; a butcher; and a teacher of children.”
In an article on the importance of community, Rabbi Jill Jacobs explains that the Talmud establishes the base-level characteristics of a healthy place to live. She writes, “In other words... a community must provide for all of its members’ spiritual and physical needs. The presence of a [law court] helps to protect residents from falling victim to crime. A [charity] fund under appropriate supervision aids community members who have fallen into poverty. A synagogue offers a place for prayer, as well as for communal gatherings. The bathhouse, bathroom, doctor, craftsperson, blood-letter and butcher provide for the physical needs of residents. [And,] the teacher ensures that the next generation is versed in Jewish tradition and prepared eventually to assume leadership of the community.”
For Rabbi Jacobs, this tractate’s emphasis on community makes sense since, “It is no accident that the Jewish people call themselves ‘Am Yisrael’ – ‘the people of Israel’ — rather than ‘Dat Yisrael,’ or ‘the religion of Israel.’ A sense of peoplehood has long been the defining characteristic of the Jews. Accordingly, the central experience of Jewish history– the only event that demands an annual retelling– is the exodus from Egypt. Though wrapped up in an encounter with divinity, the exodus was primarily an experience of national liberation, rather than a moment of religious awakening.”
Fifteen hundred years or so after the Talmud explained exactly how much went into supporting a strong Jewish community, American Judaism found itself in the middle of an unexpected crisis.
In 2008, in response to the incredible financial strain of the recession, synagogue membership across the country started to decline at an alarming rate. In the past decade, countless articles have been published in every Jewish newspaper, magazine, and academic journal bemoaning the future of synagogues as we know them- all of them offering some variation on a pretty standard prediction of doom.
Articles written by rabbis often point to their congregants’ failure to participate or invest in the synagogue like past generations did. In contrast, lay people often place the blame at the feet of unimaginative clergy who fail to make Judaism relevant to them. Sociologists chime in with comments about smaller families and fewer Jewish children while never missing an opportunity to point readers to the Pew Reports that show that American Jews are both less religious and less interested in joining any institution. There is certainly no shortage of explanations for American synagogues’ current woes, and, unfortunately, the vast amount of attention being paid to this issue has made following Jewish newspapers and journals feel a little bit like having a non-stop conversation about why contemporary Judaism is failing.
But here’s the thing- I don’t actually think that American Judaism or the synagogue is doomed. I don’t think our current troubles are harbingers of destruction. Instead, I would suggest that they are simply “red flags” which should remind us of the constant need for evolution and growth.
But before we get back to my view of the situation, I want us to check in with some prominent opinions about the future of the American synagogue.
Boris Smolar, reporting on the status of several synagogues in the greater New York area and beyond, begins his article with the all-caps title, “THE SYNAGOGUE CRISIS.” He then continues, “The synagogue in America-- one of the major pillars of Jewishness in this country-- is now undergoing a severe financial crisis. Most of the congregations find it difficult to meet the mounting costs of maintaining their synagogues and schools without constantly increasing membership dues and tuition fees for children.” Boris then proposes that at least one of the reasons for the current “crisis” is a lack of interest from the younger generation. He writes, “A good many of the younger elements who have been active in the synagogue are now drifting away more and more to activities in other directions. The synagogue is taking a back seat with them.”
Rabbi Louis Newman writes from San Francisco, “The accusation is being increasingly made by Jewish and non-Jewish critics that the Jew is losing his religion. We are told that Jewish solidarity is maintained through a so called, ‘Jewishness’ in which the religious element plays a minor role. We are informed that the Jewish people will remain alive and intact, but without the assistance of the Jewish faith. We have admiration for those Jews who would create Jewish communal organization[s]... on a secular...foundation, but we must remind them that they must not ignore Jewish education in terms of the fundamentals of the Jewish faith. We are equally ready to address… our colleagues whose interpretation of Jewish life minimizes the place of religion and the synagogue. For historically the Synagogue is the very [heart] of the Jewish spirit… The Jewish people for a time can continue on the basis of the collectivism created by [social groups]; but [Judaism] can never rise to its full stature among the peoples unless its communal and group life is motivated by… knowledge and... faith.”
And finally, in a letter attributed only to, “An Anonymous Layman,” an unknown author excoriates the American rabbinate when he writes, “What do you rabbis [have] to give to us today? Dry doctrine? ...We do not want it. An interesting program of reading, singing, and lecturing? Frequently the lecture is unprepared and poorly delivered, the singing is mediocre, and the responsive reading is unresponsive and stupid… [You say] you inspire, you point to the ideal, the noble, the real, the eternal and seek to bring us nearer to it. Do you? How? With dry doctrines? With dull lectures? With condolence calls that any [social club] does better? ...The rabbis say that the fault is not with Judaism but with the people. They are wrong. The [synagogue] and not the people should feel discredited because the [services] are empty.”
If I’m being honest, there are certainly aspects of these critiques which ring true. But still, these words are tough. They paint a picture of an organizational structure that is hanging on by a thread. It’s enough to make anyone employed by a synagogue a little nervous about their future.
But, you know what, I just remembered that I didn’t tell you something really important about these articles. While each of them describes the impending crisis or even devastation of American Jewish life, the only place that you can find any of these articles is in a collection of historical Jewish newspapers. That’s because the most recent of the three articles that I just quoted was Boris’ “The Synagogue Crisis,” and it was written in 1977. Rabbi Newman’s call to turn away from secularized expressions of Judaism and return to synagogue life was published 92 years ago almost to the day. And the truly brutal critique of the “Anonymous Layman” appeared in The Sentinel, one of Chicago’s most famous Jewish newspapers, on July 21st 1916.
I didn’t choose these particular articles because there’s some kind of shortage of more contemporary examples, and I didn’t share them with you today in order to convince you that our current synagogues don't have real problems that demand real attention. Instead, my intention is to show you that when we allow Chicken Littles to convince us that any day now the sky will fall, we lose the ability to see any sort of context, and we distract ourselves from the work that needs to be done.
Over the last century, it seems that the Jewish community has spent an incredible amount of time trying to diagnosis what has been plaguing the American synagogue, and we have allowed this preoccupation to make us forget the most central and defining characteristic of the Jewish tradition- namely the ability to evolve in order to meet the needs of our community.
Synagogues that look and feel like ours does may be a relatively recent development in the grand scheme and scope of Jewish history, but the focus on serving our communities, on banding together to support one another’s growth, on providing education and opportunities for spiritual exploration- all of this has been at the heart of our religion for thousands of years. That focus is what defines us as Jewish people, Jewish families, and as a Jewish community.
Having said all of that, knowing that we are in the most recent loop of a cyclical process does not mean that we can stay the course and hope to survive. Doing nothing is not a healthy option.
So how do we fix what currently ails the American synagogue?
I put the many, many paths forward that others have proposed into two broad categories:
1st- those that help Jewish people and Jewish families connect with one another and 2nd- those that address the needs of individual Jews without reinforcing any connections to the larger community.
Of those that fall in the first category- ideas which connect Jewish people and families with one another- the range of solutions suggested includes everything from helping Jewish millennials to host Shabbat dinners for their peers by subsidizing their costs to offering an alternative High Holy Day experiences that includes Goat Yoga classes as a twist on the Yom Kippur Afternoon liturgy.
The proposals in this category are often innovative, meaningful, and fun. And all of the efforts to help our communities evolve while still focusing on experiences that offer connections are deepy exciting and should signal to us that things will be alright in the end.
In contrast to the first category of solutions are those that help individual Jewish people meet their own needs while not connecting them back to the larger community.
The Jewish tradition teaches us that every soul is precious. But, that does not mean that being Jewish is a solitary endeavor. For more than 2000 years, it has been impossible to live a fully Jewish life without the presence of a Jewish community. And no matter how these communities have chosen to express their Judaism, the core belief that one cannot be Jewish in a vacuum has remained unfailingly important.
With this in mind, I want to propose my own plan for the future of American synagogues:
First, congregations need to prioritize their evolution and focus on preparing for this next phase of their existence. This will require an investment of capital, time, and energy as synagogues ensure that clergy, staff, and leadership have the training that they need in order to think innovatively and joyfully about the best ways to meet the diverse needs of their communities.
And second, Jewish individuals and families need to embrace the covenantal aspect of Jewish identity. Being Jewish is not now and has never been about seeking out meaningful Jewish experiences for yourself. Being Jewish is and has always been about belonging to a Jewish community, about contributing something unique to that collective, and about finding individual spiritual fulfillment while and even because you are strengthening your community.
I imagine and will continue to work toward a future of American Judaism where congregations are truly extended families made up of diverse and unique people committed to walking through this world together. A future where joining a synagogue feels less like signing up for a service that provides you with exactly what you think you need and instead will be more like signing a Ketubah, a wedding agreement, where both sides of the relationship promise to grow with one another, to meet one another’s needs as they develop, and to push one another to be the strongest incarnations of themselves.
I imagine and will continue to work toward a future where the covenant of synagogue membership is not simply between a family and a rabbi or even between a family and the temple. Instead, it will be a covenant linking every person in the congregation to one another.
I imagine and will continue to work toward a future where belonging to a Jewish community means that every member is responsible for the education and care of every child who walks, crawls, or is carried through the front door. A future where belonging to a Jewish community means that no one is every alone when they confront illness or painful experiences because they have been grafted into the extended families of every single member.
The world that we live in tells us that we need to prioritize expediency over everything else and that we should embrace the technology that allows us to bypass the mess and complications of community life. In 2018, we can live as islands and pick and choose to engage with only those parts of the Jewish tradition that we think we want or need.
But Judaism tells us something truly counter cultural. It teaches us that our ultimate goal should not be meeting our own needs. Instead, we are commanded to want more for ourselves. We are commanded to seek out, to build, and to cherish connections with other people. This obligation is at the heart of Judaism, and more than anything else, in the next phase of our synagogues existences, our communities need to focus on helping every Jewish person and family make this commandment our reality.
This work will take all of us, but I believe that we can do it. Let’s consider this Rosh Hashanah the renewal of our vows. Let’s consider 5779 the year that we recommit to both our own Jewish journeys and, even more importantly, to supporting the successful journeys of every member of the extended TBC family.
In the spirit of that renewed covenant, I’d like to close today with a prayer for our congregation that I’ve adapted from the Ketubah ceremony in contemporary Jewish weddings.
Source of all life:
We ask Your blessing for the extended family of Temple B’nai Chaim.
We pray that the sacred commitments of our congregational community will sustain us all the days of our lives.
May the friendship that binds us be lasting,
May our hearts be filled with patience and understanding.
May our synagogue be a mikdash ma’at, a sanctuary built on devotion to God, Torah, and Israel.
May we be blessed with health and courage, as our ties deepen through the years.
Ken Yehe Ratzon. May this be Your Will. Amen.
As we begin the new year of 5779, I say to all of us:
Chazak. Chazak. V’nitchazek.
Be strong, be strong, and strengthen one another.