I recently received this email. It said, “Dear Rabbi, we have decided to not renew our synagogue membership. I want to thank you for being a wonderful Rabbi. Unfortunately, I don't think the temple is a good fit for us as family- we never really felt like we fit in or belonged and so we don’t see the value in staying members. I don't think it's anyone's fault- we just never really 'clicked' with any committees, groups, or even through the Religious School. So, we are done with being members. Love, your former congregant.
I don’t have to tell you that in churches, synagogues and houses of worship across the country, clergy are receiving letters and emails such as these, describing people’s feelings of lack of connection and seeing houses of worship as neither meaningful nor necessary. As a Rabbi, along with my minister friends, I am saddened by this reality. I mean, if more people begin to feel this way, what is to become of the congregation in the next 10-20 years, as less people affiliate and support the congregation? And what will happen to the Jewish people if there is a loss of community, Jewish learning and no one to help teach and guide the children to a Jewish identity?
Let me ask you - What is it that brought you to services today?
Do you think you’re commanded to do so? Do you come because you find meaning in coming on the High Holidays? Maybe you’re here because you’re committed to continuity of the people who built this congregation. Or maybe you just wanted to be a part of the collective whole that hears the sound of the shofar, the old prayers and music by the choir, and to see family and friends.
It would certainly be sad if in the future there were no need for a synagogue. But don’t worry about me – I have a plan B. I would start up a new ride-sharing service for all of the out of work Rabbis and model it after uber. Rabbi’s could pick you up and transport you to your next destination, sort of a ministry on the go. What would I name my new company? Schlep!
But it’s a good thing to remember on this day of holiness that community and connection - both to community, to each other and to God, are integral parts of life. There is more to being a part of a community than just showing up. Community is about our responsibility to one another as it is about our own spiritual needs, our desire to learn more about Judaism as well as our own personal growth.
So what does being a part of a community give you?
There’s a story I like to tell - about a man who normally would join the daily minyan. One particular day, there was a blizzard and he was unable to get outside his door because the snow was piled so high. So, he made a fire, and had his coffee, alone. He realized how nice it was to sit alone with his thoughts and say his daily prayers. The next morning, the snow had melted sufficiently that he could have gotten out, but he chose not to. He sat alone with his coffee and his thoughts, enjoying the solace.
Third day same scenario. But, that afternoon, the Rebbe came to visit. The man was surprised to see him. The Rabbi did not speak.
Instead, he took a poker from the fireplace and pulled a piece of coal away from the fire. That piece of coal burned strong for a few moments, but then the fire diminished, and grew cool. The Rabbi pushed the piece of coal back to the center of the fire, so it reignited and once again grew hot. The man looked at his Rabbi, nodded saying, “I’ll be back tomorrow for the morning minyan.” The Rabbi was demonstrating a value we find in Pirke Avot (2:5), “Al tifrosh min ha tzibbur - Don’t separate yourself from the community.” This gentleman, who had just discovered the joys of a casual morning and a long cup of coffee, understood that without community, his life would be diminished. What are the things you might not know about if you were not a part of our home?
Well for one, access to information you may not already know. There are pamphlets available as you leave the sanctuary about Jewish Genetic diseases which affect Ashkenazi Jews. You may not necessarily desire to know about them but it’s important to do so. As a community years ago, we learned about the genetic diseases affecting Ashkenazic Jews and also about the importance of getting genetically tested. As a community, we’ve incorporated mental health awareness and the importance of having accessibility for mental health services at the Congregation. Donors came forward and funded our ability to host JCFS, Jewish Community and Family Services in our Congregation for the next 5 years. Many are not aware that we have a social worker who meets confidentially with those who are in need here at the synagogue and is available to help individuals and families. We also have a case worker who gives us access to services we would not normally have on our own. All because we stood together as a community.
In October, we will have Etz Chaim Healthy Community Day with the topic “Self-Care in Times of Change: What can we do to take care of ourselves, our families, and our community. This will include programming on how to care for aging family members, how to reduce stress, how to manage the details of life transitions, and maybe even laugh during times of change. Information about this day will be available in the rear of the sanctuary as well as forthcoming over email.
We have a thriving Lifelong learning committee who brings us classes, workshops, and learning opportunities for all ages - information about this can be found in the pamphlets on your seats. Our Religious school and youth groups teaches our youth and give our students the ability to connect to other Jewish kids throughout the area where being Jewish can feel isolating and different. Our Social Action Committee brings us the ability to help others and bring about social change through activism and action.
Our community is strengthened when we gather to help each other. Aristotle said that “man by nature is a social animal.” We need to interact with one another. It makes us healthier, stronger and even smarter! Personal interaction is not easy. It can be challenging when dealing directly with people with whom you may not normally mix. But, being a part of a community provides us with overriding benefits. There’s the sense of belonging, the reasons that my colleague Rabbi Paul Kipnes beautifully wrote in an article that, “Being part of a community is like ensuring that your room is still there even after you go away to college. You can always come home. And even if you don’t show up, we are still here.
Being a member teaches future generations that being a Jew matters, even if you aren’t a power user of the synagogue at the moment.
It means that you always have a place to turn when you are in need, that you have a spiritual home, that you take responsibility for the next generation, like the previous one did for yours.
Being a member is not contingent on your bank account.”
But being a part of the community does ask for commitment. One has to give up parts of an individual self in order to become a part of something bigger. To give of yourselves, to give your time, your energy, your financial support and to give Tzedakah. Being a part of a community asks you to care for the disenfranchised, to care about Israel with all of the issues that accompany that support, as well as to care more for others than for yourselves.
Which reminds me of a story. One day a young boy asked his father, “what is the value of my life?” Instead of answering, the father told his son, “take this rock and go sell it at the market. If anybody asks the price, raise two fingers and don’t say anything”. The boy then went to the market and a woman asked, “How much is this rock? I want to put it in my garden”. The boy didn’t say anything but raised up his two fingers, and the woman said “2 dollars? I will take it”. The boy went home and told his father, “a woman wants to buy this rock for 2 dollars”. The father then said, “Son, I want you to take this rock to a museum, if anybody wants to buy it, don’t say a word, just put up your two fingers”. The boy then went to the museum and a man showed up wanting to buy the rock, the boy didn’t say a word but put up 2 fingers and the man said “$200? I will take it”. The boy was shocked, went running home and told his father, “A man wants to buy this rock for $200”. His father then said, “Son, the last place I want you to take this rock is to a precious stone store, show it to the owner and don’t say a word, and if he asks the price, just raise up your two fingers”. The son then ran to a precious stone store, he showed the rock to the owner, “Where did you find this stone? it is one of the rarest stones in the world, I must have it! How much would you sell it for?” The boy put up his two fingers and the man said “I will take it for $200,000”. The boy not knowing what to say, ran home to his father and told him that there’s a man that wants to buy the stone for $200,000, his father then asked, “Son, do you know the value of your life now?”
“It matters where you decide to place yourself”
You see it doesn’t matter where you come from, its about the people with whom you surround yourself. Everybody has a diamond inside them, and we can choose to surround ourselves with people that see our value and see the diamond inside of us. We can choose to put ourselves in a market, a museum or put ourselves in a precious stone store.
Rosh Hashanna is a time to be return and be reborn anew. May we in the year to come, value the precious community of which we are a part. May we always choose to see the value in other people and strive to help other people see the diamond inside of them. May we always place ourselves in the middle of our community as we continue to grow and thrive, and be a source of peace and harmony as we strive together to fulfill the ideals and purposes of Judaism and spirituality. May this be God’s will - Shanah Tovah!