Turn, Turn, Turn

For all can see that wise men die, that the foolish and senseless all perish and leave their wealth to others. They think their houses will remain forever; their dwellings for all generations; they give their names to their estates. But man, despite his splendor, does not endure.  [Psalm 49]

Derek Penwell wrote an article for the Huffington Post called “What if the Kids Don’t Want our Church”  and it cuts to a question that every generations asks each other; “Will our children really care about the things we value most?” it is a hard question. I look at the things my wife, Michelle and I have collected over the years and to almost all of it we have meaning and memories attached to it. We must only remember that these meanings and memories are our own, and our stuff may not have the same meaning or memory to our children who are now finding meaning and memory in their own lives. I admit to a certain curiosity of what things my children may want from the stuff we have collected and when, someday, I have grandchildren, I know that they will have their own memories of stuff they played with and saw at their grandparent’s house and perhaps our grandchildren may keep some of our stuff for their own reasons.

But there are things that I am sure my children will keep for as long as they are alive. They will keep our insistence on honesty. They will treasure our lessons on kindness. They will remember for a long time the lessons we tried to teach them about life and they will bring their own interpretations of our practical wisdom to meet whatever new situations in which they may someday find themselves.

We fool ourselves when we believe that the stuff we accumulate will live on after we are gone. The symbolic meaning we attach to it is very personal and perishable. The late Rabbi Jacob Chiel in one of his books tells a story of a mother who valued her stuff over her children, banishing them from the living room lest they break her valuable treasures. Now her daughter is sitting in the house while her mother is dying at the hospital and she looks around at all the stuff that her mother worked so hard to preserve and it has no meaning for the daughter at all. In fact, she has learned to despise all the things her mother scolded her to not touch all the years she was growing up and again when the grandchildren came over. Now, at the end, the stuff her mother had ‘saved’ was all “for nothing.”

This applies to our homes, and it applies to our churches and synagogues. What good are all the things we leave behind if we don’t leave behind memories, ideas and lessons for living? The next generations will not care about stained glass windows or who donated them if they never did anything worthwhile in their shadow. Why should they care about a building if nothing of substance was ever done inside?

I have said many times in my own sermons and on this blog, it is not about the stuff, it is about the relationships. We treasure the people we love and the meaningful activities that make a difference in the world. Rabbi Akiva once said to the wealthy Rabbi Tarfon that he had a good investment if Tarfon was willing to put some money in. Tarfon agreed and Akiva then gave all the money for scholarships for students. Later Rabbi Tarfon asked about the investments and when he might see the return on the investment. Rabbi Akiva took Rabbi Tarfon to the academy and showed him the students who were learning there. “Here is the return on your investment”, Akiva said. Rabbi Tarfon had to admit that his investment in Torah learning would pay important dividends even if it did not put more money in his pocket.

Our children don’t need our buildings, our architecture or our pews. They need to know about our faith, our acts of Hesed (kindness) and the important lessons of our religion. These they will carry no matter where they may go and no matter what they may do, and they will treasure in their own hearts  and in their own way these moral values no matter if the buildings we build will survive or not. The most important part of the building is what the people are doing inside.

It is interesting to see what happens to a building over the generations, the transitions it goes through and the transformation of its neighborhood. Israeli archeologists have uncovered some extraordinary ancient synagogues and a great many dedication inscriptions that are an important part of Jewish history. These synagogues were all lost and forgotten. The faith practiced in those buildings, however, has remained eternal though the buildings have not. Our ancient faith is still being taught, not in the old ruins but in new places. It would be a real tragedy if our children don’t find their own love of the values and lessons of faith they learned in our synagogues and churches. Our stuff comes and goes but the lessons of life are eternal. Our buildings and our “stuff” are only as important as the relationships to God that are forged inside.


When I was younger, so much younger than today,
I never needed anybody’s help in any way.
But now these days are gone, I’m not so self assured,
Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors.  (Beatles: Help)

Cyd Weissman in in her blog LivingLOMED, wrote an article called “Surprisingly Easy to Quit my synagogue”. I don’t want to misrepresent her feelings about leaving the synagogue where her family had been members for 20 years. I think it is important to click on the link to her article and hear, in her own words, what happened that brought her to leave.

Her article sparked many thoughts in my head. I have been a pulpit rabbi for over 20 years and I can create, in my mind, what might be going on in her former rabbi’s head. I have been there. I understand. Maybe, years ago, I may have thought the same way. Maybe someone out there who is reading my blog can actually remind me of a moment when I insisted that there be only one service at the synagogue on a Saturday morning. I can only say that it was wrong then and it is “more wrong” now. Not because of the feelings of those who commented on her post. I can feel their pain; and not because she felt she had to quit over the issue of not being able to have the program she wanted at the time she wanted it. It is wrong because it reflects a concept of what a synagogue should be, and that model is, at best faulty, and at worst, a terrible wrong turn of history.

In centuries past, when a rabbi in the community only spoke twice a year, the rabbi could compel the entire community to come hear what he had to say. Today, when a rabbi speaks twice every weekend, to insist that all attend the Saturday morning service is no more than an attempt to force the community to come hear him speak. If he spent all that time preparing his sermon, well, you better be there to hear it! But this is just like the professor who comes to the department head and says, “The students are not registering for my class, we need to make it a requirement.”

If we are talking about a half century ago, maybe the need for conformity would trump the individualist streak Ms Weissman and her fellow students represent. I would have thought that the rebellions of the 1960’s would have put that kind of thinking to bed long ago. While Ms Weissman may be of a younger generation, I suspect that an older “baby boomer” would feel the same way. A synagogue can’t be everything to everybody and still be true to its mission. But there are realities in the “marketplace” (I don’t like that term, thus the quotation marks, but I don’t quite know what else to call it) that you just can’t avoid. If you close the parking lot on Shabbat, the Jews will park around the corner and then walk to shul. You can send your children to a kosher camp for the summer and the first thing the parents will do, on the way out of camp is to stop at McDonalds for lunch. If you have a group of people who are coming to shul on Shabbat, you don’t tell them that they are no longer welcome to come to learn, that they have to come to pray. You have to be grateful, in this era where all Jews are “Jews by choice” that they come for a good Jewish reason on Shabbat (and not just to see what kinds of  fashions people are wearing).

What really pains me is that we are creating a generation of Jews who have been rejected by their congregation. That you can see in the comments after the blog. Why is this happening? It happens because history does not change instantly. I like to teach that the two important dates in American History are 1492 (voyage of Columbus) and 1620 (Pilgrims land at Plymouth). Yet there was an entire century of exploration in the “new world” that somehow is ignored.  Every rabbi must, by now know that the model of synagogues, the one that was once the most successful model of synagogue in history, has succumbed to changing demographics and changes in society. Everyone knows this model must change, but not everyone is ready to do something about it. The change is spotty. Some congregations are already very successful in their response to changes in the way Jews live, in the way society has changed and in the way we are all affected by technology. There are also congregations, however, that have looked at the issues of falling membership and financial woes and have tried to go back to the “pure” model of the 1950’s, where all Jews joined a shul at age 21 so they could give their children a good Jewish education and “have a Bar Mitzvah”; a world in which they don’t have to deal with gay marriage, singles of any age, serious adult education and serious efforts at social action.

This modern world is one in which one size does not fit all. This modern world is inclusive, not exclusive. This modern world does not want to go back and fight the same old battles of gender, sexual orientation and social expectations. You can’t go back in time. There is a reason that a car has a large windshield and a small rearview mirror. We need to look back, but we also need a vision of the future. Some congregations get that. Some smaller minyanim are experimenting with new approaches to membership, High Holy Day seating and having multiple entrances to Jewish life. The sad part is knowing that there are rabbis like the one in Ms Weissman’s former synagogue, who may understand what is going on but, as one colleague said to me, “That is just not the kind of rabbi I want to be.”

I can only say that, slowly but surely, the Jewish world is coming around. What is a decade or two when we have a 4000 year history? Still, the world moves faster and so does the pace of change. I take heart that 20 years ago a colleague stood up at a convention of rabbis and declared “I think children in the service should be quiet or be escorted out.” That rabbi got a chorus of “boos” from the other rabbis present. Change is happening, we need to find new ways to navigate a new world or we risk losing members of 20 years or more.

I don’t know who Ms Weissman’s rabbi was and I really don’t want to know. His issue is between himself and Ms Weissman. I can only add my voice to the chorus and say, “BOO!”