Thursday, October 10, 2019

Defining Community, Defining Ourselves

Sermon Delivered Yom Kippur Evening 5780
October 8, 2019

           The members and board of Congregation Shomrei Shatnez were faced with a dilemma. It was a dilemma that in some ways was nice to have, but it was a dilemma nonetheless. A philanthropic fund with an interest in innovative approaches to Jewish life had approached the congregation with an unusual but very tempting offer. The fund would make a huge gift to the congregation -- something in the order of $20 million -- but the congregation had to agree to one stipulation in return. 

            Shomrei Shatnez was a smallish suburban synagogue with an annual budget of less than a million dollars, so a $20 million endowment with an average rate-of-return would provide more than enough income to cover its budget. But here was the stipulation: Shomrei Shatnez would no longer be allowed to charge dues or to raise money. Because people often make donations to their synagogue in honor or in memory of some person or event, the shul could accept donations, but they could only be used outside of the congregation, to help meet needs in the general community or support overseas Jewry. The only funds available for the congregation itself would be the proceeds of the endowment.

            So what was the dilemma that Shomrei Shatnez now faced? For the typical American synagogue, membership is defined financially. You fill out an application, you pay your dues -- or if you can’t afford full dues you make some kind of arrangement and pay a lesser amount -- and that’s pretty much it. If a congregation could no longer define membership by virtue of paying dues, what would be the criterion?

            One suggestion was simply to continue as before but without dues. If you want to join, you fill out the application and voila, you’re a member. But some of the leaders of the congregation realized that this might inadvertently lead to problems down the road. The $20 million gift was more than enough to sustain the congregation’s needs at its current level of budget and activity. But what if, discovering that there was now a congregation that didn’t charge anything to belong and didn’t even ask for donations, unaffiliated Jews and members of other congregations decided to join Shomrei Shatnez? Would the congregation need to hire additional staff, perhaps an assistant rabbi? Would the religious school grow larger than the faculty and facility could accommodate? Would they even outgrow their building? They realized that if they could no longer determine membership simply by paying dues, they would have to come up with some other way of defining it.

            What I have said so far has really just been a thought experiment. There is no congregation called “Shomrei Shatnez” and no one has set up a huge endowment conditional on a synagogue not charging dues. But if we were in a position so that we no longer needed to charge dues -- indeed, if we were actually forbidden to charge dues -- how would we define membership? And how would we define ourselves?

When people join a synagogue, what exactly are they joining? What does membership mean?
            To give you an example of entities trying to define themselves, in the 1960s in the United States, two very large companies completely controlled the market for manufacturing glass bottles which soda, milk, and other beverages came in. In 1970, the plastic soda bottle was introduced and both companies realized that they were facing a major challenge to their business. One of the companies increased its budget for R & D, hoping to make its manufacturing process cheaper and its glass bottles higher quality, because after all it was in the business of making glass bottles. It raised its advertising budget, hoping to convince consumers and beverage companies that glass bottles were superior to plastic and that they should stick with what was tried and true.

            The other company decided “we’re not in the business of making glass bottles. We’re in the business of making containers for beverages.” It transitioned its manufacturing facilities from glass to plastic. Today only one of those companies is still in business. Which one do you think it is?
So what business are we in? And by “we” I do not necessarily mean Kehilat Shalom but rather the American suburban synagogue, especially but not exclusively in its Conservative iteration.

            For several decades following the end of the Second World War, the suburban synagogue was in the Hebrew school and Bar/Bat Mitzvah business. Jews were moving  to the suburbs, which were ethnically and religiously mixed, from their urban, predominantly Jewish neighborhoods. The Jews leading this exodus were mostly American born children of immigrants. When growing up they might have spoken English with their parents but they probably spoke Yiddish or Yinglish with their grandparents. The neighborhoods where they lived were overwhelmingly Jewish. The newly-suburban Jews might not have been religiously observant but they were steeped in Jewish culture.

            Now they found themselves living in neighborhoods which might be ten or twenty percent Jewish rather than eighty or ninety. Their children were going to public schools with mostly non-Jewish classmates and very often the grandparents stayed behind in the “old neighborhood.” New synagogues were created at a dizzying pace and were sometimes unkindly labelled “Bar Mitzvah factories.” The typical membership trajectory saw a family join when their oldest child started Hebrew school and give up their membership shortly after the youngest kid’s Bar Mitzvah or maybe Confirmation in tenth grade. The fact that a significant percentage, perhaps even a majority, of families were only members for a few years didn’t threaten the stability of the model because there were always more families in the pipeline to replace them. Jewish parents would always want to make sure their kids had Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, the only way to do that was to join a shul and send your kids to Hebrew school, so people would join, pay the assigned dues, and send their kids to Hebrew school for the specified number of years.

            But this model started to crumble in the 1990s or so. More families had a Jewish and a non-Jewish parent, and even families with two Jewish parents didn’t always consider Jewish education a priority or feel the need to provide their children with Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies. As Harvard Professor Robert Putnam documented in his book “Bowling Alone,” the post-Boomer generations tended not to join clubs and organizations as much as their predecessors did. And if the family did decide that a Bar or Bat Mitzvah was important, there were other ways of doing it; independent Hebrew schools, tutors, free-lance clergy who operate on a fee-for-service model. The recent Washington Jewish Population survey revealed that between 2003 and 2017 the total number of synagogue members in the Greater Washington area shrank slightly even though the total Jewish population had grown by 37%;  and that 58% of Jewish children received no formal Jewish education of any sort at any point.

            On the walls of one of the dining rooms at Goucher College in Baltimore there are painted a number of different quotes about higher education. The one that has stuck with me ever since I volunteered with Goucher Hillel almost twenty years ago was this: “I cannot show you the college. It is on vacation. But I can show you the buildings.” I understand this quote to mean that the college is not the buildings but the people who study, teach, and research in those buildings.

            The Hebrew terms for a synagogue is “Bet Knesset” which means “House of Assembly.” But when we pray in Hebrew for the welfare of the congregation and its members, we do not use the term “Bet Knesset” but rather “Kehila” or “Kehila Kedosha” -- congregation or holy congregation -- the same word as in the name of our congregation. We are Kehilat Shalom; we are not Beit Knesset Shalom. Our beautiful building is the place we study, the place we pray, the place we gather with each other for friendship and fellowship. But the building is not the congregation; the people are the wonderful congregation we have today.

            Because American synagogues have generally not asked for anything from their members other than money, synagogue membership has been for many a business transaction. While it is true that we use the term “member”, so does Costco. I am a “member” of Costco which asks nothing of me other than payment of my $60 annual dues. But if Keleigh and I ever reach the point where we shop at Costco so infrequently that it no longer seems worth the $60, we will not have any moral qualms or lose any sleep over our decision not to renew our membership.
Rabbi Yohanna Kinberg of Washington State recently wrote a piece which captures the problematic nature of the commodification of Judaism: “we are a cooperative. Not a business. We are a community, not a product. We exist only to bring vibrant and meaningful Jewish life into this world, something we have been doing together for more than 2000 years. If we view the congregation as a product, as a thing, as something that either serves all our needs personally in the exact ways we need to be served—we are no longer traveling the path of sacred Jewish community. We are shopping. . . .I often hear people say that they do not want to support the community because they do not “use it.” When I hear those words I am hit in the face by how much Judaism has been turned into just another product that people either “use” or do not. Commodifying Judaism strips it of its inherent beauty and strength.”

            A few minutes ago I mentioned Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone” which documents the decline of “social capital” in the United States. Social capital means the benefits we as a society get from all kinds of voluntary involvement -- churches and synagogues, volunteer fire and ambulance squads, service clubs like Rotary or Lions, and so on. If you have been involved in any of these types of groups you know that it is harder and harder to get members and to convince members to step up and become leaders. But the decrease in joining is not limited to volunteer organizations; Putnam notes that more Americans are bowling than ever, but fewer of us belong to bowling leagues -- we are “bowling alone.”
A few years ago, a Protestant minister named Lillian Daniel wrote a “Daily Devotional” for an internet e-mail list that went viral and eventually prompted her to write a whole book based on it. I shared it then. with my previous congregation, and I share it now because I think it speaks to American Jews as well, since we are at least as American as we are Jewish and we are not exempt from general societal trends.
Here is what she wrote:
“On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is "spiritual but not religious." Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo. 

Next thing you know, he's telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet? 

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself. 

Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community?  Because when this flight gets choppy, that's who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church. “

If you look at the liturgy of the High Holidays, almost all of it is written in the plural. We refer to God on the High Holidays as “Avinu Malkenu” -- our Parent, our Sovereign -- in the plural. We ask God for forgiveness “al chet shechatanu lifanecha” -- for the sin which we have sinned against You. We say “ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu”  “we have trespassed, we have dealt treacherously, we have robbed.” We, we, we; us, us, us. 
How do we understand the fact that our liturgy is in the plural? Why am I expected to confess to a whole series of sins which I have not personally committed?
As our teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us: “in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” 

This sense of mutual responsibility is expressed, I think, in the requirement of a minyan for certain prayers. There is an old Yiddish saying that nine rabbis don’t make a minyan but ten horse thieves do. It is an important lesson: in order to “count” in Judaism you do not have to be a rabbi or a saint. You just have to show up.

You have to show up because we need you and because you need us -- we need each other. We need each other because together we can do what is impossible for each of us as an individual. 
The increasingly individualistic nature of American religion and Judaism’s emphasis on community come into tension particularly around the requirement for a minyan in order to say Mourner’s Kaddish. This tension was highlighted some years ago in an episode of the TV series “Northern Exposure” where the inhabitants of Cicely, Alaska, went to great lengths but were ultimately unsuccessful in putting together a minyan of ten Jews so that the lead character, Dr. Joel Fleishman, could say Kaddish for an uncle who had died. Here in Upper Montgomery County  it is generally not difficult to arrange for a minyan when one is needed but it can take a little pre-planning and maybe a few phone calls to friends and neighbors.

Some will choose to say Kaddish even without a minyan and while I do not endorse such a practice I would never attempt to prevent anyone from doing so. But I think the practice of saying Kaddish with a minyan is important and is worth some inconvenience to maintain.

The requirement for a minyan serves, I think, to force the mourner out of his or her isolation. It requires the mourner to be in contact with other people and requires the community to assist the mourner as well. Relaxing the requirement for a minyan, encouraging people to simply say Kaddish at home or wherever they are, may seem compassionate, but it undermines a core pillar of Jewish life and accelerates the disintegration of our sense of community, our sense that we are responsible to one another.
I started this talk with a thought experiment about a congregation that had the ability, in fact the requirement, of decoupling membership and finances. Unfortunately we don’t have that luxury. But Doug mentioned during his talk on Rosh Hashanah -- and it’s not the first time he’s said this -- that he considers everyone who participates in one of our activities as part of our congregation.
Some of you here today are former members of Kehilat Shalom; others have never been members but have given annually in order to attend High Holiday services. With respect and affection, I want to tell you that we need and want you to become members of our congregation. Your participation matters to us; you matter to us.
Synagogue membership is not a “fee for service” proposition where you are purchasing certain services from the congregation. It is a brit kodesh, a holy covenant. It is a two-way commitment and a two-way responsibility. 

The Days of Awe are all about teshuvah, which while we translate it as “repentance” is really closer to “return.” There are certain values which we know we ought to live by. We know that we need community, that we need each other. We know that our society can be better, that taking care of our neighbor is more important than saving a couple of bucks, that caring about others and being cared about are basic human needs. Yom Kippur comes to remind us, to call us back to a better way of life. May we have the courage to live our lives in community and with concern for each other. 

No comments: