Sunday, September 8, 2013

Rosh Hashanah Sermon: The Story of Congregation Anshei Chazon

Anshei Chazon is a different kind of synagogue. For one thing, it has no fixed dues. To be considered a full member with all that implies, you have to donate something; but the amount is left up to each member. Every year, the synagogue publishes a detailed budget which explains exactly how much will be spent in the coming year and for what. Everything, from clergy and staff salaries to the cost of paper clips and coffee filters, is itemized and accessible to any member. The total budget is divided by 52 weeks, and every member knows how much has to be raised every week for the synagogue to stay solvent. Each week, both the weekly and year-to-date figures for income and expenses are published in the synagogue bulletin.

The members of Anshei Chazon know what it costs to run the synagogue and each member knows how much they can afford. The board trusts the members, and the members trust the board. Everyone gives what they can afford or what they think the synagogue is worth to them. No one has to apply for reduced dues and no one contacts the office to complain that they are being billed in the wrong dues category. And somehow, it all works; some years the synagogue raises a little more than it spends, and some years a little less, but for the last five years or so the books have been more-or-less in balance.

At Anshei Chazon, committees are kept to a minimum. There is a Board of Directors which meets monthly and a smaller Steering Committee which meets once a month as well. Besides these, there are only three standing committees. The Nominating Committee makes sure that there is always new leadership in the pipeline, and sees to it that up-and-coming leaders are not only identified but also given the training they need to succeed in their roles. The Finance Committee comes up with the annual budget, explains it to the members, oversees the synagogue’s accounting and manages the small reserve fund.

And finally, there is an envisioneering committee which meets quarterly. Besides the rabbi, the cantor, and the chairs of the standing committees, the envisioneering committee includes Anshei Chazon congregants who are not necessarily the most Jewishly knowledgeable or the most pious, but have a good sense of what’s going on in the larger world outside the walls of the synagogue. They help Anshei Chazon position itself to meet the ever-changing Jewish and secular worlds in which the shul operates. Among the members of the envisioneering committee are a fundraiser for a Jewish charity, a journalist, a congregant who is involved in local politics, and a single young woman who works for a small non-profit. The committee tries to make sure to include members who have non-Jewish spouses, Jews of color, Jews by Choice, and gay and lesbian Jews. By being as inclusive as possible, the committee reminds the congregation leadership that there are lots of types of Jews with lots of different interests and needs.

Aside from these standing committees, there are special Task Forces that take charge of specific events -- a Shabbat dinner, a concert, a special guest lecture or whatever else might be going on. Anshei Chazon realizes that people are reluctant to commit to something if they think it means endless meetings, an open-ended time commitment and lots of bureaucracy. At Anshei Chazon, project or event chairs are given certain general parameters -- like a budget or a time frame -- and then they are trusted to do their job with minimal oversight. And they’ve discovered that when people are treated as trustworthy, they tend to actually be trustworthy. If a project fails, it fails; lessons can be learned from our failures and not only our successes.

Spiritual life at Anshei Chazon is guided by two overarching principles:
1.) Every Jew connects to God in different and truly unique ways, and
2.) Someone else’s spiritual life is none of your business.

What this means is that Anshei Chazon is open to a variety of different expressions of Jewish spirituality, both in terms of prayer services and in classes. If a group of Anshei Chazon members want to organize a certain class or a certain type of service, Anshei Chazon will provide a space and publicity and maybe a budget. The only rule is this: the initiative has to come from the members, not the board or the staff. It’s not the job of the rabbi or the board to guess what members might be interested in; but it is their job to help facilitate it once the need has been expressed. There is more than one way to “do” Judaism, and Anshei Chazon is open to the entire range of Jewish practice and learning. Although Anshei Chazon is a member of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and its main sanctuary service is mainstream Conservative, Anshei Chazon is open to an incredible variety of Jewish expression, recognizing that each Jewish soul is unique and precious in God’s sight. Anshei Chazon practices radical hospitality, just like our ancestors Abraham and Sarah.

Because of its recognition that every Jewish spiritual journey is unique, Anshei Chazon has a minimum of rules and regulations. Most children attend either a Jewish day school or Anshei Chazon’s excellent religious school, but some parents choose other alternatives for their children. When Anshei Chazon’s rabbi suggested several years ago that Anshei Chazon look the other way if parents chose not to send their children to its religious school, there was some fear expressed. Maybe everyone would stop sending their kids, since the other alternatives were easier and cheaper. But this turned out not to be the case. Parents appreciated the opportunity to choose Anshei Chazon’s religious school rather than be coerced into sending their children; most children attend, because the quality of the program is high and the kids feel a part of the overall community. The teachers are delighted; the kids are there because they want to be, the parents are supportive because they believe in the school, and it’s no longer a struggle to maintain attendance or discipline.

Because of Anshei Chazon’s unique style and culture, the rabbi and cantor play different roles than they do in most other synagogues. The rabbi is not the CEO of the synagogue, nor is he the chief priest. He functions as a resource person, connecting Jews to Jewish wisdom, Jewish text, Jewish practice and Jewish values. Of course he counsels individuals and groups, visits the sick, and comforts the mourners. But the community understands that while the rabbi should do all these things, it is not only the rabbi who does these things. Visiting the sick and comforting mourners are mitzvot, they are the responsibility of every Jew.

The rabbi is also the community’s resource person on halacha, but he is not the “God cop.” The rabbi is knowledgeable enough to answer questions which are straightforward, black-and-white. But he also knows his community, that while some members will indeed do something simply because the halacha says so, most won’t. The rabbi sees his role as teaching people what the Jewish tradition says and helping them to figure out the best way to apply the wisdom of Judaism in their lives.

The synagogue’s cantor, too, serves as a resource person. While she sometimes chants the liturgy -- indeed, she probably does that more often than anyone else in the congregation -- she is not seen as primarily a performer. As the rabbi is the teacher of Jewish text and Jewish wisdom, the cantor is the teacher of Jewish music. She has taught the congregants to understand how the different types of nusach indicate as much as the words what’s going on at any particular point in the service or day. Congregants now know the difference between weekday and Shabbat and High Holidays tunes and why the tune used for Shabbat mincha is unique, different than that for any other service. The cantor is passionate about helping the congregation be a more tuneful place, teaching congregants how to lead services, chant Torah and hafarah, and with the rabbi exploring ways to make the sanctuary service more spiritual and participatory while preserving its essentially traditional nature.

But what is most unique about Anshei Chazon is not the role of the board or committees, the rabbi or the cantor. It is not the religious school or the dues structure. Rather, it is the communal culture of the congregation.

Anshei Chazon lives out a theology of Relational Judaism. Almost one hundred years ago, the great Jewish thinker Martin Buber taught us that there are two types of relationship in the world: I- It and I- Thou. An “I-It” relationship means we relate to the other primarily in terms of of how we use or experience him or her. Our question in an “I-It” relationship is, essentially, what’s in it for me?

By contrast, in an “I-Thou” relationship the other is seen as a person with worth beyond the purely instrumental. By relating to the other fully, in truth and love and respect, I help him or her fulfill his or her role in this world. At the same time, I also grow as a person and a Jew. By embracing the other in all of his or her uniqueness, I myself grow as well.

The members of Anshei Chazon also understand and live by the Talmudic teaching in Kiddushin 70a that the traits we despise in others, we despise precisely because we know that we ourselves possess them. The Talmud calls this “ha posel b’mumo posel” and psychologists call it “projection.” Through lived experience, the members of Anshei Chazon have come to realize that everyone is frail, no one is perfect, and everyone is struggling with a burden that may not be obvious. At Anshei Chazon, the feeling is “I don’t have to agree with you to love and respect you.” At Anshei Chazon, no one feels judged. Everyone is loved and valued. Everyone is treated as a “thou” and not an “it.”

This commitment to relationship is not always easy. It’s so much easier to go off and do your own thing, to associate only with people who feel exactly as you do and share your perspective, your interests, your economic and social background. But the people of Anshei Chazon have internalized two truths:
1.) Judaism is lived in community, and
2.) I don’t have to like you to love you. God commanded us to love our neighbors; we aren’t commanded to like them. But we still have to treat them with respect.

Anshei Chazon stands as a counterbalance to the American cult of individualism. Its members understand that it’s easy to encounter God in the sunset at the beach or a walk in the woods. It’s much harder to encounter God in your neighbor who voted for the wrong political party and has a baby who’s crying through the sermon. But at Anshei Chazon they understand that community is where the religious rubber meets the road. Where we are challenged, where folks ask hard questions, disagree, need things from us, require our forgiveness. It’s where we get to live the teachings of the Torah and not just study them. Anshei Chazon is certainly not perfect, but it constantly strives to be and to become what Martin Luther King called “The Beloved Community.” And in order to Be Loved, we must love.

Truth be told, Anshei Chazon was not always this way. In fact, Anshei Chazon was not always known as Anshei Chazon, which means “People of the Vision.” The congregation was founded around 50 years ago as Jews started moving into the outer suburbs. A Jewish couple put an ad in the local paper looking for other Jews interested in founding a synagogue. They got a lot bigger response than they anticipated. Soon the congregation was formally established; they had regular Friday night and occasional Saturday morning services, renting space in schools, libraries, and community centers. The needs of the community were modest, as were the resources. If something needed to be done, the members pitched in and did it.

As the community grew, a building was built. Staff were hired. A lot more money was needed, but getting the necessary funds wasn’t that difficult. Lots of Jews were moving into the area, and almost all of them felt that they needed to send their kids to Hebrew school so that they could have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. The synagogue was the gatekeeper for this lifecycle event -- if you wanted a Bar Mitzvah for your kids, the synagogue was the only place this could happen so synagogue membership, a building fund pledge and five years of Hebrew school were pretty much givens.

As the synagogue grew, the culture changed. While there was always a core of members who were deeply committed and involved, there were also a lot of peripheral members who mainly joined when it came time to send their children to Hebrew school to prepare for Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and mostly resigned or let their membership lapse after their youngest child’s Bat Mitzvah or Confirmation. This wasn’t such a big problem since Jewish families with children were still moving into the area and still felt they needed the synagogue for Hebrew school and Bar Mitzvah, so the congregation generally gained as many new members a year as it lost.

But as time went on this equilibrium could not be maintained. The demographics of the neighborhood changed -- fewer Jewish families with children were moving in. And the demographics of the American Jewish community also changed. Jewish families didn’t always feel the need to send their kids to religious school, or to have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. And even if they did, other alternatives were now available which were less expensive and more convenient. The congregation and its religious school and youth programs began to shrink; the budget began to show a deficit year after year.

The leadership of the congregation did their best to cope with these changes and challenges. They tried some new programs, they brought in some consultants, they invested more in advertising. But in retrospect it must also be said that there was quite a bit of fear in the leadership’s reaction. The true extent of the synagogue’s financial difficulties was not shared with the congregation at large, for fear that congregants might begin to doubt the viability of their synagogue and join other congregations in the general area.

Eventually the synagogue leadership came up with a plan but it was not acceptable to a significant segment of the members. After an angry debate, the suggested plan was rejected. A lot of angry and hurtful words were exchanged on both sides. Many people -- including some of those who had played prominent roles in the synagogue for many years -- left. The rabbi and the executive director, each of whom had served for many years, both retired on the same day. It wasn’t clear that the synagogue would survive.

But it’s almost a decade since all of that happened, and now Anshei Chazon is thriving. It’s smaller than it used to be, but it doesn’t measure success by how many members it has. Anshei Chazon measures its success by a completely different set of metrics: how do its members treat each other? How many members have a deep and meaningful connection to God, to Torah, to the Land of Israel and the State of Israel? How many members engage regularly in acts of gemilut chasadim, acts of loving kindness? How many members study Torah regularly? How many members view Judaism as a joy and not a burden?

How did this remarkable transformation occur? Frankly, it was not easy. When times are tough, there is a natural tendency to circle the wagons, to draw red lines and create litmus tests, to blame others. But eventually, the transformation did occur.

The new rabbi had a lot of creative ideas but he was also a little bit afraid to push his agenda. Like many who go into the helping professions, he wanted to be liked by everyone, so he was afraid to articulate and push for his vision, because he did not want to say things that some people might not agree with. But the rabbi was fortunate in that one of his congregants was a leadership coach. She constantly asked him: “what would you do if you knew you could not fail?” Finally, the rabbi realized that trying to satisfy everyone was a recipe for disaster. He grew bolder in articulating his vision, and the congregation bought in.

At the same time, the members of the congregation grew to realize that in the end all of those who had chosen to remain with the congregation were on the same team. They understood that being angry at those who were no longer around didn’t accomplish anything. That gossip and talking about who did this to that one and who said this thing about somebody else, was lots of fun in the short run, but utterly destructive in the long run. They took to heart one of the key messages of the Days of Awe -- that as we ask forgiveness, so we must grant it. That we must remember the past but not dwell in the past. We will never move on until we leave behind anger and resentment and fully embrace the fierce urgency of now.

Is Anshei Chazon the product of a vision, or only a pipe dream? As Theodor Herzl said, “if you wish it, it is no dream.”

1 comment:

Ari Sherris said...

Dear Charles,
This is an engaging beginning to a book. The style is direct, cogent, and succinct. A narrative unfolds. You might consider developing an outline for a book.
Happy New Year!
Best wishes,

Ari Sherris