“Thank you for visiting our website. We are a vibrant congregation with daily and Shabbat services. We offer young adult programming, empty nesters and seniors groups, adult Jewish learning opportunities and many other exciting programs. Please contact our membership director to schedule a time to visit our congregation.”
This is a fictional welcome message on a synagogue website. However, messages like this can be found all over the Internet. They can be found in introductory pamphlets and can be found printed in weekly and quarterly newsletters. This fictional message expresses WHAT the synagogue does. It offers services and a lot of programming. Yet, it fails to express WHY the synagogue does what it does.
In the well regarded book Start with Why by Simon Sanek (watch a TED talk Simon delivered on the topic) the point is made that all too often our businesses and organizations sell themselves to the wider community with primarily what they do or what they produce. Apple makes excellent computers but that is not why they are the industry leader in personal electronic devices. They don’t market their iPhones as simply great phones or their Macbooks as simply great computers but rather they invite the consumer to “think differently” and to join them in fighting against the status quo. Their first and primary message is why they do what they do and only after conveying “the why” do they tell you “the what” it is they actually produce.
What would it looks like for our synagogues to put forth their why before their what. Why do you exist as a synagogue? What is it that you believe as an institution? Why do you have daily services and adult educational programming and Bnai Mitzvah lessons? Imagine a welcome message that looked something like this:
“Thank you for visiting our website. We are a congregation that believes in the vitality of the Jewish people. We believe in working towards a better world and cultivating personalities that are deep with spiritual intention and Jewish wisdom. We do that by offering daily services and adult educational opportunities. We offer empty nesters and seniors groups because we are committed to building the fabric of community that connects one person to another and breaks down the walls of loneliness and isolation. We would love for you to visit our community. Please stop by or send an email to our staff to schedule a time to come by for a conversation on how you can join us in impassioned Jewish living.”
Jewish communal life organized around the why can be a powerful vehicle for Jewish engagement and revitalization of our synagogue and institutional Jewish world.
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Last week I had the privilege to lead a conversation with 20 or so Jewish young adults in Boston on behalf of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies. The topic that I had came prepared for was an exploration into the philosophy behind the legalism of Judaism: Why does Judaism emphasize commandment? What is the value of mitzvah as commandment in our day and age? I had prepared source sheets outlining various approaches from thinkers such as R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, R. Joseph Soloveitchik and Nachmanides.
As soon as we began the conversation I quickly realized I needed to drastically shift my
priorities for the evening. It became clear that what was pressing on the minds of these intelligent, engaging and thoughtful young Jewish adults was the cost of admission to the Jewish community. Why is it that one of the first things they encounter upon entering a synagogue is a membership request form? Why can they not attend a Rosh Hashanah service without a ticket? One participant described her dismay at having attempted to visit the historic synagogue in a European city and being told to come back later for the official tour and that it would cost $54.
While it was possible to explain the technical ways in which Jewish communities are organized and how they are financed in distinction from religious traditions that have a central organizing body that funds individual meeting places, the emotional strength of their feelings of not being welcomed and embraced remained true. Is it possible to rethink the way we structure charitable giving in our communities or perhaps the way in which it is communicated? These are not simple questions with simple answers.
It was with this backdrop that I read a story in the New York Times entitled “Loans Without Profit Help Relieve Economic Pain.” This story details an age-old Jewish practice that within the context of a depressed economy and a severely hurting middle class, seems radical and counter-cultural. The thought behind this practice might very well be the redemptive force behind constructing a radically embracing community.
Jewish communities in fulfillment of the Biblical command to offer financial assistance to each other (Exodus 22:24) have established free-loan societies in every time and place throughout history. Indeed, some of the first communal organizations established in America were these free-loan organizations, called Gemachs (an abbreviation for the Hebrew “gemilut chasadim,” acts of loving kindness). The oldest one being the Hebrew Free Loan Society of New York established in 1892. People are offered small, interest-free loans with a weekly installment plan for repayment. The idea is simple with tremendous implications.
Imagine a society where when someone is suffering they know they can turn to the community for support. This sounds simple but in our cultural context this is not so simple. Paycheck late this week? Did not get the overtime hours this month you thought you were getting? Unexpected illness or house repairs? Where do you go? You could go to a paycheck loan storefront and be charged interest of anywhere up to 390% of what you borrowed. You could ask friends or family assuming they have the spare money to help you in the moment. No matter how one examines it, your options are limited.
Thus, the brilliance of the Gemach. Coming up short this month? Here is the help you need, with no interest. What do we ask in return from you? Nothing, except when times get better for you, remember to help others who are in need like you were. As the rabbi interviewed for the story in the New York Times said “You help the people who are struggling. And you try to preserve their dignity.”
To help others with no strings attached. To have as your aim the preservation of their inherent dignity. These are the ingredients necessary for the building blocks of creating a radically embracing community.
Welcome to the Rabbis Without Borders Blog on MyJewishLearning.com! Humm, “Rabbis Without Borders” sounds like “Doctors Without Borders,” so this must be blog about rabbis traveling around the world tending to people’s spiritual needs, right?
Well, not exactly. Rabbis Without Borders are rabbis who offer Jewish wisdom, wisdom from the Jewish tradition, in ways that can be helpful to you in your life. As rabbis, we want to use Jewish tradition to help you flourish in your life, to help you live and grow. The “with out borders” part means not that we travel around the world, but that we want to offer you wisdom from a variety of perspectives. There will be 10 different rabbis writing on this blog and each rabbi comes from a different stream in Judaism. Some of the rabbis will answer your questions on the weekly Torah portion. Some will answer your questions about what Judaism has to say about what is going on in the world today. Some will answer your questions about God and spiritual matters. And some will answer your questions about parenting, household issues, and navigating challenges in life. The Jewish tradition has wisdom on each of these subjects and many more. Our goal is to help you access that wisdom and use it in your life.
All of the rabbis writing here are Rabbis Without Borders Fellows at Clal- The National Jewish Center for learning and Leadership. Founded in 1974, Clal (www.clal.org) is a think tank, leadership training institute and resource center. For over thirty years Clal has led the way in building creative, compelling, pluralist Jewish community and life. Rabbis Without Borders is the next phase of this work.
Rabbis Without Borders (www.rabbiswithoutborders.org) Fellows have completed a year long intensive Fellowship which has pushed them to think out side the box. These are rabbis who use our ancient tradition in new and exciting ways. We are networked with each other and continually challenge each other to try new things. We are excited to partner with myjewishlearning.com in sharing our ideas with you.
We hope that you find our thoughts to be meaningful and useful. We look forward to reading your comments and hearing your thoughts on our posts.
Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu
Director, Rabbis Without Borders, Clal