We Don’t Count People… Because All People Count

Every few months, I receive a tentative “cold call” from a congregation interested in using the services of the ISJL Rabbinic Department. I start by going over the basics: how our program works, what a typical visit looks like, and how we plan our schedule.

Inevitably at this point in the conversation the person on the other end of the phone will say the phrase I’ve come to associate with these first conversations: “Now, rabbi, I need to tell you something. We really are a pretty small community…”

That’s okay. That’s great.

The truth is, I’ve worked in 500-family synagogues that say the same thing. But “small” means something different when there are 500 Jewish families in the entire state. So after reassuring the caller that it’s just fine, I always ask what they mean by “small.”

Sometimes they say 100 families. Sometimes they say 10 people, total.

Rabbi Jeremy Simons with 76-year-old Bar Mitzvah Steve Koppman in Vicksburg, MS
Rabbi Jeremy Simons with 76-year-old Bar Mitzvah Steve Koppman in Vicksburg, MS

No matter the answer there’s the same nervous hesitation as they wait for me to respond, fearful I’m going to turn them away. I get the sense many of them have been turned away before. And then I get to my favorite part of the call.

I get to tell them that the numbers don’t matter. I talk about my time in rural Oklahoma spending a weekend engaging in meaningful Jewish conversations with four Jews. I talk about the ISJL’s Education Department working with religious schools with one student. And then I tell them the strangest line of all: I’d rather there only be a handful of people – because that’s the whole point of my job.

As Director of Rabbinic Services for the ISJL, my mission is to serve Jewish communities with no full-time rabbi of their own. Communities that really are small, under-resourced, and often geographically isolated. That’s the heart of the job. Occasionally I will visit a community with hundreds of families, but honestly that’s not the purpose of my department. A congregation bursting at the seams has many opportunities for rabbinic support—they don’t really need me. A congregation of 10 does.

And that’s what the job is all about:  serving these communities that otherwise would not have access to Jewish resources.

The prophet Hosea teaches that Jews are not to be counted. In our ever accountable world, there’s more pressure than ever to ignore his advice. Perhaps this is why people are so nervous when they tell me about their membership — they’re afraid I’ll tell them the benefits don’t outweigh the costs. How could it possibly be worth my time, they wonder, to travel 10 hours round-trip in order to lead 10 Jews in Torah study? I can feel their relief when I tell them it doesn’t matter how few their numbers are.

That’s when they’ll tell me that “10” is probably closer to “six.” I’ll tell them I figured as much.

But most importantly, I’ll tell them again and again, and in all sincerity — the numbers don’t matter. The ISJL focuses on individual people. Yes, we have to track our numbers, but that’s for reporting and funders and gauging collective impact– it’s not to determine whether or not it’s “worth it” to go to a community whose numbers are few. Not every organization can afford to take that approach, which is what makes this job so satisfying: It’s the chance to be a rabbi for the people that otherwise would never have one.

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