Rosh Hashanah Day 1 - 2013-5774
20 Years - Then & Now
This Rosh Hashanah marks the 20th High Holiday season that we are observing together. September 1994 - one month after I became your rabbi - was our first Rosh Hashanah together. Life was different in 1994. It was really a transition time from phone calls and typewriters to email and the internet. We may laugh thinking about those “olden days” but the advent of Facebook and Google has transformed our lives dramatically. In those days when people needed to learn something they went to the library. If something was wrong they went to the doctor. If they needed to do something Jewish they went to the synagogue. Today to answer any of those needs all one has to do is search it on the internet. A book to read is ready to download, a diagnosis is found on WebMD and our Jewish questions are answered on MyJewishlearning.com. Life and especially Jewish life has been transformed.
Aspects of our lives may have changed but has Jewish life really changed? When I arrived here in 1994 people needed me to get married, people needed shabbat services and people took adult education classes. I happily filled those pastoral, religious and educational functions then and I still do so today. Yet somehow I sense that people might not need synagogues anymore or if they do they need them far less in their lives. There are more things competing for our attention today than ever before and people are exploring other options more than ever.
An acronym that is ubiquitous today is DIY - do it yourself. There is a show on cable TV titled DIY highlighting many ways one can fix things at home. People are empowered today to do things on their own and many people might feel uncomfortable if they have to look for help. With the availability of multiple libraries’ worth of information at our fingertips it’s remarkable what the average person is now empowered to do.
That certainly is true in the Jewish community today too. There are so many Jewish websites today that offer advice for young parents; that offer customized ketubot for weddings; that offer prayers to be recited for various occasions and many, many more that one doesn’t have to walk into the synagogue anymore to be Jewish! Every Jewish need can be met with a few keystrokes on the computer or finger strokes on the iPad screen.
But with all these remarkable advances there a few things I learned these past 20 years that would counter this DIY culture today. The lessons I have learned would show that the synagogue as an institution - and not just Shaare Tefila Congregation - is even more important today than ever before.
One lesson I learned is how much of an impact synagogue programming can have on our Jewish lives. If we define the success of a shul event by how many people attend then we would all agree that the most successful programs we run are the monthly Friday night shabbat dinners and the annual Purim shpiel. Hundreds of people attend and come away with a sense of community and religious fulfillment. People are left feeling satisfied that Shaare Tefila is fulfilling their needs.
There are three things that make us want to attend these programs and have us anticipate them. One is the amount of work that goes into making the programs successful. Many people work many hours behind the scenes. The Purim shpiel draws 300 people because Lisa Arber and Cantor Wendi write an entertaining script and direct and produce scores of people. Everyone wants to take part either as an actor or behind the scenes.
People also want to work with Fran Weiss and the Friday night dinner committee by cooking in the kitchen and setting up the room. Many gather the week before the dinner choosing recipes, shopping and cooking together. The planning creates bonds of friendship and you can hear the laughter from far away in the building!
These two programs also obviously fill a need. Hundreds of members and guests attend the Purim shpiel every year because they are lively and fun. We come together to hear our children and adult friends sing and act silly. This great social activity fulfills our need to come together with family and friends and celebrate the holiday of Purim.
On shabbat we come together to recite the prayers and catch up with family and friends. Friday night dinner is meant to be a time when family gathers with friends to relax after a long week. We leave the stresses of our lives behind as we allow the warmth and tranquility of shabbat to embrace us. By having dinner with our shul family and friends we magnify the holiness of shabbat and hopefully learn ways we can carry that forward in the intervening weeks at home.
By prompting people to work behind the scenes and by filling the religious and social needs we have, the programs build community. People volunteer and attend with their friends. People bring non-members to highlight the vitality of our congregation. We don’t mind all the rehearsal time or all the cooking because we’re doing it with our friends. We love having shabbat dinner with 90 people or watching a Purim shpiel with 300 people because they energize our spirits and uplift our souls. Programming therefore has proven to be an essential component in the life and vitality of our shul.
Another lesson I learned is how much our synagogue serves the religious needs of our congregation. At the most trying time of our lives - when a loved one dies - we instinctively know that we need to sit shiva and to say kaddish. By doing so we make life normal when at that moment life is chaotic. Religion helps us navigate the inevitable obstacles that life presents us. Providing a minyan at the shiva house and ensuring that we have a minyan every night in shul has been relatively easy. People know when it is their week to serve and they make the necessary effort to attend the evening minyan. We know when a family is in need and we come to their side during shiva by providing food and comfort. Our chesed committee works behind the scenes to make sure that the needs of every family is met and we do everything we can to meet the religious needs of our congregants at this most trying time in their lives.
We fulfill the religious needs of our congregation in times of sorrow and we do so on shabbat and holidays as well. Over the years as I have talked about our shul with my rabbinic colleagues it is clear that proportionally we get more people at our shabbat and holiday morning services than the average synagogue. We want to celebrate shabbat and holidays in shul and we have always sang and danced with the Torahs on Simchat Torah and participated in Torah discussions on Shabbat mornings. We have always done our best to fill the religious needs of our congregation.
Providing programs and answering the religious needs of our members have been two defining elements of our congregation but arguably the singular event of the congregation during my 20-year tenure must be our move from Silver Spring to Olney. After 40 years in White Oak we undertook all the work necessary to recognize that the demographics were changing, our building was in need of repair, and that we needed to move. We hired experts - fundraisers and architects - and we spent countless hours in town hall meetings and planning sessions finding land to buy, picking a building design, selling our building, and finally constructing a new building. While Wendy Abraham had us close our eyes and dream about the new synagogue that would keep our 60 year old congregation alive, we worked behind the scenes to secure rental locations for daily offices and weekly shabbat services. So many people - too many to name - gave their heart and soul to our shul to make the move a reality.
Ultimately the reason the move succeeded is that we all believed in the goal. We all not only wanted the move to happen but we gave of ourselves - by contributing funds and/or volunteering our time - to make it happen. No other event these past 20 years sparked our imagination or inspired us to act in as significant a way. We all felt that Shaare Tefila was a part of our lives. We all felt that Shaare Tefila had been there for us - education for our children, life cycle events for our families, meeting and making new lifelong friends - that we knew we had to ensure the survival of OUR synagogue. Our move to Olney proved that if we have a religious vision that people subscribe to then anything can be possible.
These three lessons - programming, fulfilling religious needs and having a clear vision - have been the most important elements of our successful synagogue life. These three areas combine to make our shul a kehila kedosha - a sacred congregation. Over these past 20 years I have devoted my efforts to these 3 areas and have witnessed how important they are to our lives. I am also convinced that they will be just as basic to our lives in the years ahead.
Many sociologists and Jewish community leaders are predicting the decline of the synagogue. They say that due to a variety of factors people don’t see synagogues as a necessary component of their lives anymore. The economy is one such factor. The cost of living keeps rising and salaries aren’t keeping pace so people are evaluating their budgets and deciding how to spend their decreasing amount of discretionary income. Synagogues may bear the brunt of cost cutting.
Another factor leading some to predict the Synagogue’s demise is the availability of Jewish information and resources on the internet. As I mentioned earlier, one can learn whatever one needs to or wants to about anything Jewish. Jewish texts are available online in the original Hebrew and in English translation with commentaries and explanations. Training audio and video clips are available for anything from how to blow a shofar to how to bake a challah. One can attend religious school online and even be trained to become Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Today the synagogue isn’t the first place one would turn anymore to learn more about Judaism or even to be Jewish.
And finally another important factor is the rise of independent minyanim or congregations and Chabad. Chabad like the DC minyan or Sixth and I or Segulah in downtown Silver Spring - to name a few - don’t require dues. Sure donations are strongly encouraged but what’s more encouraged is just showing up. Like minded folk congregate to these independent shuls at which people can fulfill their requirement to pray with a minyan or attend an interesting program at little or no cost. These groups fulfill our DIY - do it yourself - mentality and can be quite satisfying.
So with these significant mitigating factors it’s a wonder that any synagogue survives in this day and age. One would think that the Jewish demographers may be right. Synagogues in our area have declined significantly in membership numbers or at best remained stable. Very few have seen a steady increase. Yet I am convinced that the three lessons I shared can serve as our strategy moving forward so that we can prosper in the future. We need to be reminded of our vision, we need to have strong programming, and we need to satisfy the religious needs of our members.
Because underlying all three elements is community or, more specifically, relationships. We as human beings need community to thrive. We are meant to have a partner, raise a family and find support for our values and goals with a like minded community. No matter how much easier it may be to do so now, we can’t navigate the world on our own. The rabbis, in developing Judaism into what it is today, recognized that from the start. God said in Genesis chapter 2 that לא טוב היות האדם לבדו - it isn’t good for human beings to be alone. The rabbis said that even though we can pray by ourselves, there are certain prayers - such as the mourner’s kaddish - that can only be recited in the presence of a minyan. At a wedding in the “sheva berachot” - 7 blessings - we say that the whole community is celebrating with the wedding couple. We need community to be human beings and we need community to grow as human beings.
The goal for us is to show people that they can best be Jews and grow as Jews at Shaare Tefila. We all rallied around the idea of the shul when we went through our transition/building years. We instinctively knew what our vision was and we devoted all our efforts to carrying it out. The same must be true today. We need to be as energized about building our membership as we were when we were building the building. Our membership vice president Cilla Grosberg always says that we all serve on the membership committee and she is absolutely right. We must rally around the membership committee as it reaches out to potential members. We need to express our pride and love of Shaare Tefila with our unaffiliated friends and colleagues and bring them to shul. We rallied around the shul before, we must do so again.
But even more important than rallying around Shaare Tefila the point of this talk is to have us realize the importance of synagogue in general to our religious lives. We can find short term answers to our needs elsewhere, but long term fulfillment and satisfaction can only be found in relationship with others. Building those relationships takes time and effort. We need to be motivated to do so. When we are in need, or when we are celebrating, or when we feel the urge to pray we need to realize that we will feel better in all those circumstances if we are with community. And that community can only be found in the synagogue.
Twenty years is a long time. We’ve been through alot together. Through it all I have been impressed by our congregation’s warmth, it’s friendliness, and it’s fostering of community. My family was welcomed immediately with open arms as I know every new and prospective member is. As the new year begins I know I will be committed to having people see the value of Jewish community and synagogue in their life. Through our approach of special programming and meaningful services we fulfill our mission of enhancing Jewish life and supporting Shaare Tefila. Let’s pray that the year 5774 is one of health, happiness and prosperity for all of us.