“It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next 15 years, and for decades to come.” So said President Obama in his State of the Union speech last night as he began to speak less of specific legislation and more of the values that he believed should shape how we, as a country, approach the choices we make and the kind of society we want to live in.
Earlier in the day I had participated in a multi-faith community prayer service at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester MA. The semester begins with a coming together that expresses a spiritual foundation upon which everything else is built at the college. Near the start of the ceremony they invited all present to stand to represent their faith tradition. Those who identified as Humanists, Atheists, and those who identified as “Agnostics, Seekers, and Questioners” were among the many groups called to stand. In other words, the whole college community was included. And without preaching, a presentation of the beauty and message of a variety of faith-based paths set the tone for the start of the semester.
However, even more than the ritual itself, I was struck and impressed by a conversation I had with a student after the service; a young woman who identified as Jewish, who came from a mixed-faith family background. I was particularly struck when she shared with me that studying in a college where faith community and spiritually-infused values are the foundation for everything that they do is so inspiring because there is a greater sense of purpose and meaning that feels so evident in the college community. Even though the college is overwhelmingly Catholic in its student make-up, the message has not been to be Catholic. Rather, she has been inspired to think more deeply about how her own sense of faith is defined and how it inspires a sense of purpose in her own life. And she is learning about the importance of being part of a larger community, working together, to live out that sense of purpose.
Hearing the President speak last night, and listening to this young woman earlier in the same day, I was reminded of what we know to be true but so often, caught up in the details of daily life, we forget. Whether as a country, a town, or a congregation, we easily lose our way and are more inclined to make poor, short-sighted choices, when we narrowly focus on immediate gains and don’t do more to convey the “why” of our institutions. We all want and need to be part of something greater than ourselves that is purpose driven.
President Obama asks, “who do we want to be?” In the remainder of his speech, he made it abundantly clear that this was not a solo question. He talked about economic justice, gender equality, LGBTQ equality, environmental concerns, international relations, the right to vote, and more. What we are creating together is incomplete when we leave some of us out.
For all of us who are part of communities, and for those of us leading congregations, this is the question that needs to lie at the heart of our mission statements and the focus of our being together. “Who do we want to be?” We may have different answers to that question but if asked with a broad and inclusive sense of “we,” the conversations that we have and the sense of purpose that we create will be ones that unify rather than divide us. Whatever else we may be doing in and with our congregations and communities, always returning to this question will anchor us and, as the President articulated last night, “… will make us stronger.”
This past Shabbat I hosted the last in the three-part set of gatherings that had been planned, designed and implemented by our congregation’s membership committee. The goal of the gatherings was to introduce our new member families to our community, providing some orientation to many of its moving parts, and to each other. Our final gathering was purely social and it was quite evident that wonderful connections have already been made. In the space of just over a month, those families who chose to avail themselves of this opportunity probably traveled further, in terms of community connectedness, than they might otherwise have done in the space of two or three years of synagogue membership. Our next steps are looking at other groups within our congregation where we could help facilitate this kind of connectedness, whether they have joined us in recent years or been members for over 10 years.
Among the many conversations I had on Shabbat afternoon, was one where a parent thanked us for facilitating and providing the times and spaces for connections to be made beyond the walls of the synagogue and the timeframe of prayer services. With young children she said, quite honestly, that she didn’t expect to be a regular attender at Friday night services, but that they were interested in being a part of a community in other ways and at other times.
Back in the mid-1990s, I had a short first career, before deciding to retrain for the rabbinate. I did my PhD at University College London, in Cultural Geography. My thesis was examining the world of environmental education – so often aimed at youth with the hope that the next generation will be inspired to do more than their parents’ generation to alter behaviors that will enable us to live more sustainably on the planet. In my cultural/sociological research into the lives of some of these children, my research pointed out that, so often, the claims made by educators and the assumptions made about the effectiveness of such education were made in a vacuum. Content or Program alone could not tell you how effective the efforts of environmental educators would be. Children, just like the rest of us, live their lives in connection to others. Why, I might ask them, did they join the Scouts/Guides? Why did they get interested in a particular hobby? What kinds of experiences had they had in different kinds of natural environments? Over and over again it was members of their family who provided one primary set of influences, and their friends – their social connections – that drove the vast majority of what they did or didn’t do. Not so surprising a conclusion, but nevertheless so many people who are passionate about the environment focus solely on the educational content and program and continue to ignore the social context in which all of our everyday behaviors and choices are embedded. The former may be easier to create and form than the latter—it is more concrete and tangible—but that doesn’t make it the most effective way to go about doing things.
I share this, because that background and research has guided much of my thinking about religious education and religious communities too. We Jewish professionals tend to overly focus on the prayer service, the program, and the educational course without spending enough time focusing on the social context. To be successful, we need to know who are congregants are and the lives they are leading. Because of the particular demographics of the community where I am based, those dynamics can be quite different to those of another community in another geographical location. What I am learning is that, by emphasizing how gathering opportunities will facilitate community connection, and then being more intentional to make sure that the timing and the nature of the gathering will truly lend itself to these goals, all of the other Jewish content can be shared too. But we start with the connections. Last Shabbat we shared a beautiful Havdalah ritual together, and I was able to teach something about this ritual that many of the children present (and plenty of the adults too) were seeing for the first time. But we didn’t invite them to a Havdalah gathering; given the lack of context for that for some of them, that would have been a meaningless label to describe the nature and purpose of the invitation.
This, of course, is the whole rationale of what Ron Wolfson has termed ‘Relational Judaism‘ and many congregations are turning their attention toward how they can do a better job of being relationship-based communities. Today I fly to San Diego for the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial Conference. Always vibrant and energetic gatherings, this one is bound to be no exception. And, while there will be many useful sessions designed for information and idea sharing on all kinds of topics that will enable communities to reach toward greater excellence on many fronts, these conferences are, ultimately, all about relationship-building themselves. I almost always get more from the individual conversations I have with old friends, with strangers sitting next to me, and with colleagues, re-invigorating me in my work and inspiring me with the things they’ve already thought of and tried in their communities. Understanding this, the conference organizers this year have provided times and places—forums—simply to meet with others who show up around a common area of interest to share ideas and learn from each other, in addition to the more formally organized workshops.
We used to hear a lot of “build it and they will come.” Today, perhaps the more appropriate adage should be “connect, and together we will create.”
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