I read with interest and appreciation Ben Greenberg’s recent post “Synagogues: Begin with Why.” Lately, I’ve been thinking about the same phrase, but substituting the “Why” with “How.”
I’m currently serving on the rabbinic search committee for my small Jewish congregation in Jackson, Mississippi. This process has compelled us to take a critical look at ourselves. The membership and leadership of the congregation has been asking a lot of questions. We are reflecting about what our congregation is, why our congregation exists, and how everything we do gets accomplished. What are the qualities we think are most important for our rabbi, as spiritual leader and perhaps executive director, to lead the one synagogue in our Bible Belt town? And what will make a rabbi want to bring his or her life into our community?
We are the only congregation in Jackson. Being the only game in town means there is no “shul shopping” to find the perfect fit for one’s family. The congregation must be the one-size-fits-all answer to everyone who lives here. This leads me back to the “how”. How can one congregation, with a very small staff, serve the needs of a diverse membership of 215 family units?
The answer does not begin or end with finding the right rabbinic candidate. The “how” has to involve everyone – all of our congregants who make this temple their home congregation.
All of our members must contribute, and I’m not just talking about money (although that’s vital to keeping the lights on). All must contribute time. All must invest in the feeling of community. Whether welcoming those who come to worship, teaching a class, planning a program, visiting the sick, answering phones, helping with office work, landscaping, preparing a holiday meal, organizing meaningful activities with the larger community… the list goes on and on. No one will do this for us, and no one should. We get out of synagogue life what we put into it. Without us, there is no “how.”
And then I think about some of the challenges of the smallest synagogues—those with 50 members or fewer. There are congregations where every member has a key to the building—because they are all responsible; members take turns ensuring there is wine and grape juice for Kiddush, and even purchasing the toilet tissue for the restroom. Many of these communities can no longer afford to have a full time rabbi, so their “how” is that everyone must contribute resources, expertise and time to make their synagogue a spiritual home, a place where everyone is welcome.
That is the challenge for us in smaller communities, but it is also our strength. It is what will make the right rabbinic candidate feel at home here, because they will be welcomed and meaningfully put to work—as are all our active members.
Synagogues: Begin with “why,” yes, absolutely. But we will only continue and be sustained, year after year, by all of us asking (and answering) “how.”
On Yom Kippur this year, the few remaining families of the 161-year old congregation of B’nai El in St. Louis, Missouri, entered the large sanctuary of Shaare Emeth. All of the members representing Shaare Emeth’s 1600-plus households simultaneously rose to their feet in honor of the Torahs held in the arms of B’nai El’s remaining few members. They, along with the Torahs, were being welcomed into their new spiritual home.
For those who may not know, B’nai El (established circa 1852) was the first Jewish congregation to build its sacred dwelling west of the Mississippi River. After a brief period of existence as an Orthodox congregation, B’nai El joined the Reform Movement, and in 1874 was among the founding congregations of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now known as the Union for Reform Judaism.
B’nai El was also my hometown congregation.
I say, “was,” because – as of this year – B’nai El closed its doors, due to a great decline in membership over recent decades. Facing this moment has not been easy for any of us. Yet, thanks to a dedicated board and a compassionate interim rabbi, the congregation of B’nai El made thoughtful, though difficult, decisions that brought great honor to its history, ensuring its lasting legacy.
These brave acts included offering me (as a son of the congregation) the complete contents of their Sisterhood Judaica Shop. As their Sisterhood president Maryellen McSweeny told me: “Just because we are closing doesn’t mean that we can’t still make a difference, an impact in the Jewish world. Please take these items to impact your work with small congregations in the South.”
In B’nai El’s name, I have done just that. During a Bat Mitzvah service in the Mississippi Delta, a brilliant young lady received a beautiful B’nai El tallit. Every time she wraps herself in it, the generations of B’nai El embrace her. During a funeral in Alabama, the mourners received a special yahrzeit candle holder. Every year they light it, memories of both their loved one and the congregation will be illuminated.
And, during a Shabbat service with the small college town congregation of Am Shalom in Bowling Green, Kentucky, I noticed that the Torah was without a yad for reading. Upon my return to the office, I went to the ISJL closet filled with B’nai El’s generous donations. From it, I pulled out a yad. I sent it to Am Shalom with the message, “May it continue to point y’all forward with God’s loving touch in this coming year.”
Am Shalom’s president, Laura Jacobs, wrote the following to Maryellen McSweeny in response:
We very much appreciate you sending us your yad. We are a very small congregation of about 15 families. We meet about one time per month for social and religious events. We are lay-led and so appreciate Rabbi Klaven and all he brings to our small congregation. As you know, he is a special person, making Judaism come alive for the young and old. We are blessed he chose to share your yad with us. Know that we will put it to good use. I’ve attached the pictures of some of our members on Yom Kippur with the yad on our Torah. L’shana tovah to you!
What I have come to appreciate even more through connecting some of the remaining items from my hometown congregation of B’nai El to other Jewish communities in need is that our story does not end when we find a place to call home. Rather, just as it was for our ancestors, coming home marks the next chapter of our development, as we continue to honor our history and live our legacy.
Image above: B’nai El’s Yad brings new blessings to its new home at Am Shalom.
Today’s post is from Education Fellow Elaine Barenblat.
As a young girl, I was very involved in my home congregation, as many children with active parents tend to be. I embraced the role of active young member; it never crossed my mind that I had a choice to not be as active as I was. Everyone in my congregation knew me as someone who, at a very young age, was unafraid to lead her congregation in prayer, was a devoted member of the youth choral, and was also known to be a staunch supporter of the annual rabbi versus cantor capture-the-flag game. Since I was surrounded with Judaism in most aspects of my life, I always felt like ours was a robust community; I knew my congregation was amazing!
Now, as an adult, I have a little more perspective, and have learned that all things are relative. My home congregation is in San Antonio, Texas; compared to many other southern Jewish communities, ours is sizable. We have a full-time rabbi and cantor, a beautiful building, and my graduating Hebrew School class had about 15 students.
It is an amazing congregation, but it’s not as big as I thought it was when I was little.
On one of my first fledgling journeys outside of San Antonio, I found myself in Boston, Massachusetts. It was there that I began to suspect that my circumstances were not at all as enormous as I thought they were. I realized that what made my congregation seem so big and vibrant was not the actual size of the building or the number of people on our roster, but the connections I made.
I have since moved back to the South, and have had the wonderful opportunity to work with various communities across a 13-state region, where my new theory about congregational life has been reinforced time and time again: it’s not about the size of a congregation, it’s about the connections we find there.
The students with whom I work seem to feel the same connection to their communities that I felt to mine, particularly if, like me, they are active members at a young age. Children do not often think to compare their situation to others unless the connection is made for them by those who have had outside experiences. My takeaway is that while each community is bound to have its struggles, it is also uniquely attuned to helping their children make important lifelong connections.
In other words, no matter how large or small a congregation, the sense of community and the belief that “my congregation is amazing!” is something we can help instill and nurture in every child – and, yes, in every adult.
What makes your congregation amazing? Tell us in the comments below!