I recently shared a taxi with a talented colleague. He asked for advice, as he is debating whether he should devote himself to an important Jewish organization or an important congregation. Because we were in a cab and we didn’t have much time, I told him simply: “Synagogues are where the rubber hits the road in Jewish life.” He agreed. A strong Jewish community absolutely depends upon thriving schools and a variety of service organizations, but as I am about to begin my twentieth year in the rabbinate, it is more and more clear to me that synagogues are most necessary for sustaining Jewish life.
Rabbi Moscowitz once taught me that throughout our history the two anchors of Jewish life are the synagogue and the Jewish home. The Jewish home, however, is weaker than it used to be and therefore, the synagogue has an even more important role to play. I see each day, how the synagogue is the touchstone for families and individuals to enter into Jewish time and to be guided meaningfully through the stages of Jewish life.
Why We Attend
The Canadian Jewish News prints my monthly “conversation” with Rabbi Mark Fishman of Montreal. Last week’s exchange, entitled “Why Bother with Synagogue?” received good feedback on social media. (Thanks to congregants who participated in that!) In it I refer to a recent Gallup Poll, which asked people who attend a synagogue, church or mosque at least monthly to rank the reasons why. I was not at all surprised to read that 64% put programming for children and teens as a top priority and 59% identify community outreach and meaningful volunteer opportunities as motivators. But I was very surprised to learn that 76% of the people polled say the sermons and talks about sacred texts are what compels them to attend and 75% say it is for the sermons or lectures, which “help connect religion to their own lives.” It is both thrilling and daunting for a rabbi to hear that in 2017 what shul-goers want most of all is Torah.
What kind of Torah do Holy Blossom-ites seek? I believe our people are not looking for a simple truth, but for complicated and nuanced truths. Most are not satisfied with a list of do’s and don’ts, but long for a life-long series of challenges and guideposts, which push and elevate us in the direction of sacred purposes. Even those who attend less than monthly have a hunch that Torah-rooted Judaism can be an engine when we are strong and an anchor when we are vulnerable. We have a hunch that Judaism has survived the millennia because Torah provided for our ancestors who, just like us, had pressing questions about our purpose and our potential here on earth. Ben Bag Bag’s teaching from two millenia ago is as true today as it was in his time: “Turn the Torah over and over again, for everything is in it. Reflect on it, grow old with it, and do not distance yourself from it, for there is no better path than this.” (Pirkei Avot 5:26)
Why We Don’t Attend, but Might with the Right Invitation
This same Gallup Poll surveyed people who attended a synagogue, church or mosque at least monthly while growing up but who seldom or never attend today. Interestingly, no overarching reason emerged. The most often cited reason (44%) was that they prefer to worship on their own. Gallup research shows belonging to a religious community “improves personal wellbeing,” so the social scientists behind the study recommend congregations can be successful in reaching out to lapsed members by building the case that there is benefit in connecting with others for worship and sacred study. We certainly reach out to former congregants who are still looking for a place to call home.
Last year, Holy Blossom welcomed 123 new households into our congregation, including some returning members and most notably, 67 young families with children 8 and younger. This is something to be proud of. Let’s build on this good momentum. With our Renewal of Spirit and our Renewal of Space (yes, Phase I is due to open in time for Pesach!), now is a perfect time to welcome newcomers and welcome back those who were once with us at Holy Blossom. You are our finest ambassadors.
How We Count
Our Torah scrolls are now set to the Book of Numbers, in which the Israelites are counted and recounted. Why do we do this? How many Jews in the pews? How many in our schools? In our summer camps? How many travel to Israel? Our Sages imagine God counting the souls of Israel again and again as if each were a precious gem. Another metaphor, so central in our High Holy Day liturgy, depicts God as a shepherd who makes each sheep pass under his staff in order to assess their deeds and their needs. Let us count, not as the demographers count, but as God, the Shepherd who knows us, who cares for us, who seeks to guide, protect, and nurture each one of us to realize our own greatest potential. As it is written in Psalm 23: “Adonai Roi, lo echsar. The Eternal is my Shepherd. I shall not want.”