1. Shabbat Shalom
2. In the wilderness of northern Canada, the trails freeze at the beginning of winter and don’t thaw out until it is almost summer. One unpaved trail had a sign posted at its entrance which read, “Be careful of the rut you choose, you will be in it for the next ten miles”.
3. At the Rabbinical Assembly Convention last week, that seemed to be the unwritten theme of the event. For the last 50 years, our Movement has been in a rut and only now are we beginning to climb out of it. It has been a particularly nasty rut. Our congregation is only thirty-seven years old so we are not responsible for getting Conservative Judaism into this rut, but since almost all of us come from some other congregation up north, we have not really thought at all about the rut we are in; after all, we were in the same rut as every other synagogue so why should we be different?
4. What is this rut we are in? Somewhere, long ago, synagogues began to worry more about raising the money needed to pay the bills than about what kinds of spiritual teachings they were imparting to their members. Somewhere in the middle of the last century, Bar and Bat Mitzvah was about requiring membership and paying school fees and not about transitioning a child into the world of Jewish adults. Or maybe the world of Jewish adults was so focused on money that we just forgot about the Judaism that was supposed to be the reason that synagogues existed.
5. I am not blaming anyone here for this particular rut. I suppose there was a long history behind how it began and why it was so enduring. We forget that the Jews who came to the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century were not the most pious of Jews. When they arrived here, the Sephardic Jews who had been in this country for a century, were embarrassed by these greenhorns, and the American Jewish community, as it was at that time, focused on making the Eastern European Jews into good Americans. The Jewish stuff was often overlooked. The immigrants were only too happy to leave their Judaism behind. It is said that New York Harbor must have thousands of pairs of tephillin on its bottom, thrown there by immigrants as the first thing they would do when they sighted the Statue of Liberty. The real religious Jews stayed in Europe and were killed by the Nazis. The Zionists all went to Palestine. The Jews who came to America were those who were, more often than not, the ones ready to leave what they knew of their faith behind.
6. The children of these immigrants also played a role in getting us into this rut. Moving from the cities to the suburbs, they built there great synagogue cathedrals, built by famous architects, to rival the churches in the surrounding community. These buildings came with large mortgages and large staffs that made dues and fund-raising a crucial component to synagogue life. Adult Jewish Studies was not important. Torah Study was not important. Judaism could be taught to children, but the real adult work of the synagogue was fund-raising.
7. For the past ten years, there has been a trend among modern young Jews, to move back into the gentrifying inner city; to places very much like downtown Delray Beach. There these young Jews, to the chagrin of their parents, decided not to build big synagogues, but to gather in small minyanim, in homes and in small rented spaces, where they created their own hybrid services, Traditional nusach, community singing, an all Hebrew service but with egalitarian seating, honors and participation. They kept their costs down by not having a school for children; they either sent their children to day schools or charter schools; by not having a building and a staff to maintain and having everyone pitch in rather than to hire a cantor or rabbi. The elders of Judaism in American cried “gevalt” these young people are not participating in “Jewish Communal Life” meaning they were not “paying their way” like everyone else. They had chosen to get out of the rut and see their faith as one that made spiritual demands on them, but not financial demands. It is a whole new world.
8. At the Rabbinical Assembly Convention, we noted that the problem with Conservative Judaism is not in its philosophy nor its commitment to Jewish Life, but in the way synagogues have lost their way. The Movement’s synagogue organization, The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, is in the process of having to completely restructure itself. It has to prepare for a world that is not about membership of families but the engagement of Jews into Jewish life. It is not about how much each Jew pays, but about how involved each Jew might become, in study, in social action and in the ritual life of the congregation.
9. My children do not belong to a synagogue. They have a “Kehillah,” a community, where they daven. Kehillat Hadar, as it is called, has no membership dues. They have instead a minimum suggested donation for the High Holy Days and that is what carries them through the year. Many of the young adults make donations in honor of life cycle events in their family. Sponsoring a Kiddush means going out and buying the food and then calling some friends to come help you set it up for after the service. The Kehillah only meets on Saturday mornings. They have weekday study classes and they are attached to a Yeshiva, called Yeshivat Hadar, where young Jews can study more intensively. They organize community service projects where those interested can participate. Hadar does not have a board or officers. They only have a “Leadership Team” who pitch in to help in whatever way is necessary and to insure that the service and other events are properly supported. They have no advertising budget. They communicate strictly by email, website and Facebook. They have thousands of supporters and over 200 young Jews attending every Shabbat.
10. Another nearby model on the upper west side of Manhattan, is an old congregation, its building is over 100 years old. Thirty years ago, they were ready to close their doors. But as new kehillot formed around them, they invited four of these communities to use their building and to help them pay for the upkeep. Slowly the different communities fixed up the building, worked out ways to share the expenses and to repair the common areas. The original congregation took out the first ten rows of pews in their large sanctuary, and put in a circle of moveable chairs with the bima on the floor in the middle of the circle. Congregants only go on the Bima when they need to take out or put away the Torah. Three of the groups share one Kiddush after the service. The fourth group has its own Kiddush most weeks. Since members of one group may also attend other groups in the building, sometimes the different groups will join together on a Saturday morning and share the davening and the Kiddush in honor of a wedding or a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. The groups are not rivals; each one supports the others.
11. Services on Shabbat morning start at 10 AM. Why should anyone have to get up early on Saturday? Most are finished by 12:30 or 1 PM. Many members go to each others homes for lunch. Services are almost always led by members. The synagogue has a Rabbi and a Cantor, but they mostly guide the service from the side. Even the sermon is given by members about ideas that they found when they examined the parsha. Sometimes, at the end of a service, a coordinator announces that there are still some weeks where they need someone to read Torah, lead the service or give a sermon. By the end of the Kiddush, usually the openings have been filled.
12. Each kehillah has a wide range of ages and Jewish abilities and each encourages its members to grow in their Jewish ritual abilities. None of these Kehillot depend upon a school or pre-school for supporters. The participants understand that everything costs money and they are not afraid to pay for what the Kehillah has to offer. Every night, a number of homeless men are brought by the city to sleep in the synagogue basement. Volunteers from the congregation’s multiple kehillot check them in and a few stay up all night in case there are any problems to be addressed. Long before morning minyan, the homeless are taken to social service centers to help them get back on their feet and the volunteers from the synagogue go back to their regular work.
13. The Rabbis at the convention got a good chance to see what life outside the rut could look like. We did not discuss how we could “save” synagogues, but how we could transform them into places of Jewish spirituality and learning. How a synagogue could be a place that could change the life of a young Jew looking for a way to make a difference in the world. Helping young families teach their children, by example, Judaism, in a community that is supportive of their observance of Shabbat and Kashrut. How a synagogue could be the center where Jews of all ages could learn how to lead a service, study the Bible, or share their Jewish journey with others who are also seeking to get more out of life.
14. Perhaps it is time for all of us at Temple Emeth to get out of our rut. To ask ourselves what is it that I would like to learn to enhance my connection to God? Maybe it is time, after all these years in synagogue, to get up and lead a part of the service, to discover the special spiritual feelings of leading the congregation in prayer. To have the aliya to the Torah I was never given the chance to have. To learn to read from the Torah, to chant the Haftara or to give a D’var Torah about something I learned about or found in the weekly parsha. Is it really enough to just sit in the pews and say “amen” from time to time? It is good to be with friends on Shabbat morning but could our time here be so much more? Which is more important, being on the same page as the Hazzan or feeling grateful to God for the blessings that were received this week? What does it mean to pray and to speak in the presence of God and our fellow Jews? How should we express our gratitude? In what way could we use our faith to express how thankful we are for good health, for the food we eat, for the shelter our homes give us from the storm and for the miracles of medicine that give us more days to get more out of life?
15. Everyone has the right to worship in his or her own way. Judaism does not have a creed or a liturgy that demands only one proper path to God. We need to be open to new possibilities in prayer, so that our words do not become rote and monotonous. That our prayer should not be in a rut. We need to find our own way to feel closer to God, using our siddur as a guide but not a GPS that demands we follow the route that it picks. And if we have others who travel a different path, we should celebrate together our differences and not insist that our way in prayer is the only way.
16. We have already traveled too far in these frozen ruts. It is time we allowed ourselves to be seduced by the extraordinary landscape that is our Jewish world. To bask in the sunshine of learning, to explore the caverns of our souls and to climb the mountains of participation and practice until we reach the mountain top where we can better see how God has connected all of life in one spirit. And how our life is connected to the whole and how our participation has made all the difference, to ourselves, to our families, to our grandchildren, to our friends and to God. It is time we all stand up, raise ourselves out of our ruts, and discover that every day is another opportunity to go and grow with God. May this be our plan for whatever years lie ahead as we say Amen and Shabbat Shalom.