Asking the Hard Questions
Sermon by Rabbi Jill Rubin on Erev Rosh Hashanah, 5783
September 25, 2022
The questions we ask of ourselves and others say so much about who we are.
These are just a few of the questions which stuck with me from search committees around the country as I was interviewing for my first rabbinic job this past December:
Why aren’t young people becoming members of our congregation?
How can we survive with our numbers so rapidly declining?
Do you think the synagogue will disappear?
It quickly became clear to me that congregations everywhere, in the south, the northeast, the west and the midwest, are extremely nervous about the future of organized Jewish life. And they were looking to me, as a soon-to-be-ordained rabbi, to assuage their concerns, and even worse, to have all the answers. However, it felt to me like instead of asking the questions from a growth mindset, seeking to learn, they were asking from a scarcity mindset, expecting the worst.
Throughout my 5 years of rabbinical school and my 2 years studying for my Masters of Jewish Nonprofit Management, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the synagogue as an institution. I came to understand that we had to start asking new questions, sometimes provocative questions, to get to the heart of the matter.
What is the role of the synagogue in people’s lives today? Does the old model of synagogue membership still work for us in the 21st century, especially with the advent of Zoom in the COVID era? Do synagogues still appeal to a population that is young and transient?
While I don’t claim to have all the answers, I am deeply hopeful that we, as a Jewish community, will see a flourishing of organized Jewish life in the years to come. But, I believe this is only possible when we ask the hard questions.
So, the questions that I’d like to pose to you tonight, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, are: how can Temple Shaaray Tefila respond to the needs of our Jewish community in the new year of 5783? Where are we falling short? And what are we going to do about it?
The first thing we must admit, even begrudgingly, is that our synagogue must evolve beyond the synagogue of our grandparents, even our parents, if we are going to respond to the needs of our community today. In the months and years ahead, we need to embark on transformational change in order to become a synagogue that not only survives, but thrives.
When I think about congregational life, I am immediately brought back to my childhood synagogue in Northern California, a place where I felt valued, loved, and challenged. I had personal relationships with my rabbis, and I sensed that they cared about me for me. My friends and I were on the youth group board, and the synagogue celebrated us for taking on leadership roles. It was a place where I truly wanted to spend time, and the relationships I formed there deeply impacted who I am today, including my choice to become a rabbi.
It is my deepest desire that every single person here tonight, and all those watching at home, feel that same sense of connection and belonging here at Temple Shaaray Tefila, and wherever else you find your spiritual home. I know many of you already feel deeply connected to this community, and I know that we can always do more to respond to your needs.
So, where do we begin?
As we often do as Jews, we begin with history. Scholars disagree on the exact history of the synagogue, but we know that the synagogue likely existed long before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. Some scholars believe that people first gathered in houses of worship outside of Jerusalem to pray together when their priestly representatives were offering ritual sacrifices in the Beit haMikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem.
And some believe that the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE gave rise to the synagogue when people’s homes were used for “public worship and religious instruction.”1 However, it was only in the year 70 CE, when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, that the synagogue was officially established as the central gathering place for Jewish worship. Now, instead of ritual sacrifice, prayer was the only way to communicate with God.
By the middle of the 1st century CE, Jewish communities in Palestine, Rome, Greece, Egypt, and Babylonia all had synagogues where weekly public worship services were held. In the synagogue, the Jewish people observed Shabbat, read Torah, and celebrated festivals. And as time went on and rabbis became the established leaders of Jewish communal life, Jews went to synagogue to consult their rabbi and to hear sermons, usually in their native tongue, about how to live upstanding Jewish lives.
I am sure much of this sounds familiar – we, too, go to synagogue to worship, to celebrate festivals, and to hear sermons from our rabbis. But nowadays, the synagogue is not the only place where we can be Jewish.
The 92nd Street Y, a proudly Jewish organization just up the street from us, hosts a myriad of Jewish programs throughout the year, online websites like halakhipedia.com have democratized access to Jewish knowledge, and Jews can even access private, on-demand B’nei Mitzvah services. Synagogues no longer have a monopoly on Jewish life.
According to JTS former provost and professor Jack Wertheimer, “cafeteria religion, picking and choosing only those morsels of Judaism that seem personally appealing, is the new–and perhaps only–norm among most Jews.”2 In his book, The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today, he points to a trend of radical individualism in American life, often referred to as “the sovereign self,” which has caused a “shift towards a more personalized, customized Judaism” away from the traditional legacy institutions of Jewish life.3
He explains that individuals might attend fewer Shabbat services because they don’t feel the same obligation of the past, but they are still looking for things that bring them meaning and connect them to their Jewish heritage. At the same time, synagogue membership is dropping, fewer young adults are involved in synagogue life, and attendance at weekly Shabbat services has gone down significantly in congregations around the country. In 1953, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel declared that “the modern temple suffers from a severe cold.”4 And it seems that the cold hasn’t improved much 70 years later.
I am not telling you all of this to depress you – in fact, I wholeheartedly disagree with the people who say that an existential threat, either in the form of inter-marriage or assimilation, is looming over the Jewish people. Rather, I am quite amazed by all the ways that we can be Jewish in today’s world. There are countless options for Jews today, especially in New York City. So I wonder, how can the synagogue stand out? What can we, as a congregation, offer that is unique and adds value to people’s lives?
I believe that the synagogue will best serve the Jews of today when it is first, and foremost, a place of connection and community. When we can show up for people in their moments of greatest struggle and greatest joy. This is at the core of Jewish life – being present with others in transition, in suffering, and in celebration. This community can walk beside us whether we are mourning a loved one, struggling with our children, or celebrating a family simcha. But it takes a lot of work, and we have to put the time in.
Yes, prayer and learning and lifecycle events are significant aspects of congregational life, but how can we view them all through the lens of connection and relationships? How can we think about b’nai mitzvah services, baby namings, and funerals as community milestones? How can we ensure that every single person who walks through our doors feels a sense of belonging because they know that someone here truly knows them? How can we make our congregants, instead of our clergy, the centerpiece of our congregation?
This summer, when I started as assistant rabbi, the incredible lay leaders and staff at Shaaray Tefila organized welcome events for me on 5 Wednesdays in a row. During each of those events, I had the chance to meet many of you and learn about your history with the synagogue. I was blown away by how many people feel such a strong connection to this place, AND how COVID had kept so many people away.
“I am so happy to be here,” you all told me. “I haven’t been back in the synagogue in two years.” “I can’t believe how much I’ve missed it.” “It’s been so long.” “I didn’t realize how much it would mean to me to be back.”
Friends, I heard it so clearly from you when we met this summer: we are all craving connection and community right now. We need the synagogue to be a place that fosters meaningful relationships, relationships that extend beyond our walls.
Of course, so many of you know all about this. You have been members for years, have served on different committees, raised children together, and feel deeply tethered to one another. But even the most engaged have been weary of coming back, or venturing out, or being face-to-face with others as we continue to navigate the world of COVID. But, in this new year, I believe we are ready to reconnect, and I am thrilled to tell you that here at Shaaray Tefila, we are attempting to do just that.
Tonight, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, we are launching “Shaaray Circles,” Temple Shaaray Tefila’s Small Groups Initiative. These monthly lay-led gatherings will be in small groups of 8-10 people, and their goal is simple: to foster meaningful relationships among members of the synagogue.
There will be two ways to join a circle of other congregants. One, you can choose one of five affinity groups led by incredible lay leaders. These Shaaray Circles will be eating at Israeli restaurants, studying Pirkei Avot, walking in Central Park, engaging in meditation, even without prior experience, and reading longform articles.
Or two, you can opt in to a small group called Open Shaaray Circles which will meet once a month from November to May, focusing on accessible Jewish material curated by the synagogue. For example, the Open Shaaray Circle in November will look at Thanksgiving, drawing out the quality of gratitude in Jewish and secular texts. These groups are not about learning and teaching, but about building relationships and engaging in meaningful and fun conversations.
If any of this excites you, I strongly encourage you to sign up on our website. Registration opens tonight, and you are the first to know about it. At the end of our service this evening, the Shaaray Tefila staff will be passing out postcards with more information and with the sign-up link. We want to make it as easy as possible for you to get started.
The small groups model was popularized by Dr Ron Wolfson in his seminal book Relational Judaism. He writes that the goal of Jewish institutions should not be self-preservation, but rather, “to engage Jews with Judaism.”5 And how can we do that? Wolfson believes that the key to success is providing the opportunity for people to form relationships – relationships with our organizations, with ourselves, with God, and with one another.
Synagogues around the country have had great success engaging their congregants with their own small groups initiatives, and in turn they have transformed their congregations into places that emphasize moments over member numbers, and relationships over revenue.
Rabbi David Stern, senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, tells a story about a member of his congregation who resigned after twenty years. “I was shocked because she showed up to all our programs,” he said. “So, I called her to ask why she was leaving. You know what she said? ‘I came to everything and I never met anybody.’”6
Now, Temple Emanu-El runs one of the largest and most engaging small groups initiatives in the country. A longtime congregant who had always been involved in their community garden shared the following about her participation in the synagogue’s small group: “I thought I knew these people. I had been gardening next to them for years. It turns out I knew nothing about them. Today I feel much closer to them; we have supported each other through periods of mourning with meals made from the garden’s produce, shared hilarious moments of camaraderie, and developed meaningful spiritual practices.”7
Small groups can help a large synagogue feel small, and can ensure that every time you walk into our building, you not only know someone, but you have a friend. In my first three months at Shaaray Tefila, I already know that this congregation is an extremely warm and welcoming place, where people truly care about one another and have made lifelong friends. And, I know that we can always do better at fostering connection.
Shaaray Circles will be an experiment for our congregation as we move in the direction of transforming our community, and its success will depend on you all, our congregants. And, if the small groups initiative does not sound like your cup of tea, I still encourage you to get involved in the congregation in this new year and make three new friends. Whether it’s joining Shaaray Social Club, Sisterhood, or Men’s Group, participating in soup kitchen, studying in Torah Talk on Wednesday afternoons, singing in Kol Rinah, joining our beautiful and intimate Shabbat morning minyan, or getting involved in the myriad of social justice offerings, there are so many ways that you can make deep connections as a part of this congregation. Your presence will enrich our community, and it is our deepest hope that this community will enrich your lives in return.
There is a wonderful story in the Babylonian Talmud that goes like this:
When Moses ascends Mt Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, he finds the Holy Blessed One adorning the letters of the Torah with crowns. He knows that the Israelite people are waiting for him below, and impatiently asks God to finish the task: “Master of the Universe, what is holding you back from giving the Torah?” God answers him, saying, “There will be a man in the future, after many generations, Akiva son of Joseph is his name. He will interpret heaps and heaps of laws from just the tips of these crowns.”
Moses does not believe what he is hearing, so he asks God to show him this Akiva who would expound laws simply from the decorative markings on the letters of the Torah scroll. God instructs Moses to “return behind him,” and Moses finds himself in the back row of Rabbi Akiva’s classroom, 1400 years into the future. Moses listens carefully to the discussion that ensues between Rabbi Akiva and his students, but he becomes very distressed when he does not understand a word of what they are saying.
When the students come upon a certain matter that they do not know, they ask their teacher Akiva, “Master, from where do you know this?” And Akiva says to his students, “It is a law given to Moses at Sinai.” When Moses hears this, his mind is at ease, and he returns to speak with God. “You have a man like this, and you’re giving the Torah through me?” Moses asks God. “Quiet, this is what I have decided,” God responds.8
I tell you this story for two reasons. One, because it is one of my favorites. After all, who doesn’t love a time-traveling Moses? And two, because it illustrates that Jewish tradition is meant to grow and change over time. This is how Judaism stays relevant; this is how Judaism has survived thousands of years when we have always been a minority among others.
As Professor Barry Holtz explains, “Even Moses—the person closest to God’s revelation—even Moses will not be able to understand the Torah as its interpretations grow through history.”9 And Moses is ok with that, once he gets over his initial shock and fear! When Akiva explains that his interpretation of the law is based on the very Torah that Moses received, Moses can breath easy. He might not recognize what is being taught, but he knows that its foundation is in God’s Torah. That is what matters to him.
So, too, the very institution that represents Jewish life for most Jews – the synagogue – does not look the same as it did thousands of years ago, hundreds of years ago, or even twenty years ago. Temple Shaaray Tefila has an incredible 177-year-old history, and our congregation looks really different today than it did when it was first founded.
And that is ok. When we become comfortable with change and recognize the most important role of the synagogue as creating connections and relationships, we will be well on our way to meeting the needs of 21st century Jews.
As with all things in Jewish life, we cannot afford to remain stagnant. We must push forward, take risks, and even fail every once in a while. We must approach these difficult questions with a growth mindset, eager to learn and change as we chart a new path. The stakes are simply too high to do nothing.
And it doesn’t have to end with small groups. I think back to those questions that search committees asked me last December, and I am filled with so many ideas. I wonder about exploring different dues models, engaging a multi-generational crowd on Friday nights, and creating alternative ways to invite people into our space, like offering great coffee and comfortable chairs where people can hang out and just relax.
I want to dream big with all of you as we think about the future of our congregation. Yes, we must look to the past to guide us; our tradition offers us thousands of years of knowledge and wisdom that we can draw upon. But we must also be mindful of the present and look to the future, and work together as sacred partners in order to create the relational community that we so desire and deserve. For in those meaningful relationships, we find God, and that is the biggest blessing of all.
Shanah Tovah. May 5783 be a year filled with sacred connection and community for us all.
2 Jack Wertheimer, The New American Judaism, page 9.
3 Ibid, 49
4 Relational Judaism Handbook, Preface, xiii
5 Ron Wolfson, Relational Judaism, p. 36
6 Relational Judaism Handbook, 19
7 Relational Judaism Handbook, 88
8 Bavli Menachot 29b