Sunday, April 24, 2011

7th Day Pesah 5771 - Making the Case for Jumping into the Synagogue

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel, Monday, April 25, 2011.)

Hag Sameah.

We read Shirat HaYam this morning - the song of victory that the Israelites sang upon crossing the Sea of Reeds dry-shod. There is a well-known midrash about what happened immediately before they crossed; that the waters had not yet parted, and a brave individual named Nahshon ben Aminadav jumped in, taking the proverbial leap of faith. The water came up to his neck before God parted it. Nahshon, we assume, crossed the dry land with wet clothes. But kudos go to him for jumping in.

A news story crossed my desk this week about a church in suburban Minneapolis that encourages attendance on Easter Sunday by having a lottery drawing for prizes: big screen TVs, video game consoles, and so forth. They spent over $8,000 on these giveaway items. The spiritual leader of this congregation, Pastor Eric Dykstra, claims, “I have no problem bribing people [he apologizes for being crass] with crap in order to meet Christ.” They expected upwards of 5,000 people to attend services yesterday; I did not get a chance to check followup reports to see if they met their goal.

As somebody who spends lots of time thinking about how to bring people into this building, and many hours working hard to make sure that the programming that we have here (services, dinners, schools, adult ed, youth activities, etc.) is appealing to as many people as possible, I was intrigued by this story.

“Really,” thought I. “Maybe we have been overthinking all of this. Maybe all we have to do is give away some ‘crap.’”

You know, to guarantee a minyan every week day, we give away a free iPod. And to make sure that Rabbi Stecker’s upcoming class on Jewish insight into relationships is well-attended, we raffle off a brand-new Blackberry at each session. And think of the possibilities for the Youth House...

Has it really come to this? Not that I buy into Christian theology, but if you’re looking for salvation from the eternal fires of hell by going to church, shouldn’t that be a bigger draw than a Nintendo 3D DS?

Pastor Eric thinks we should get people into shul by any means necessary. I am not sure I agree.

On the other hand, only about 20% of our Religious School students meet the synagogue attendance requirement. I would love to find a way to bring those parents of the other 80% into the synagogue and to help them realize, “Hey, if I do not bring my children to the synagogue to take part in Jewish life, who will?”

Of course, we’re all in a constant struggle for time, and we all continuously wage the battle of investment vs. results. If I buy this 47” LCD TV (for example), will it be worth the money? Will it be better than the TV I have right now? Will it raise my electric bill?

If I send my kid to Syracuse instead of SUNY-Binghamton, will she have a better chance of getting into law school? Will the difference in out-of-pocket expenses allow me to buy a new car?

And, of course, if I go to synagogue, will I get anything out of it? Won’t staying home be a better use of my time? And hey, I could go to the mall and check out big-screen TVs...

Well, what DO we get out of coming to the synagogue? Here are some possibilities:

A few moments in conversation with God
Much more time in conversation with the person next to you
A sense of community
A connection to my people, my past
Hope for the future
Herring in cream sauce (just kidding)

Alas, no TV. But isn’t all that stuff more valuable?

Or maybe I’m living out some kind of curious rabbinic fantasy. Maybe tangible items ARE indeed worth more than the spiritual nourishment that tefillah and communal participation provides. Maybe our spiritual needs are being drowned out by the endless options for consumption. Maybe the qol demamah daqqah (the “still, small voice”) cannot be heard over the din of YouTube videos and the endless clicking of the smartphone keys of texting teenagers.

Meanwhile, I want to contrast the church raffle story with another one: a New York Times article from last week about Kiryas Joel, the village in Orange County whose population consists exclusively of Satmar Hasidim.

By the numbers, here’s a snapshot of Kiryas Joel:
* Lowest per capita income in the US
* Lowest median family income (avg. is about $18K/yr)
* Highest average family size
* Median age is under 12 years old (half the population is not yet bar/bat mitzvah!)

And yet this town shows none of the typical problems that poverty statistics like these would ordinarily show: Virtually no violent crime. No homelessness. No drug use. No malfeasance. And the residents live a fairly spartan, yet committed lifestyle - Dr. William Helmreich, a sociology professor at City College, comments as follows: “They spend whatever discretionary income they have on clothing, food and baby carriages. They don’t belong to country clubs or go to movies or go on trips to Aruba.”

Kiryas Joel represents a kind of idyllic extreme: they have cut themselves off from the larger society, and it works. All (or virtually all) of their children are committed to Jewish life and practice. There is no need to auction off TVs in shul; the very idea would be ridiculous.

Well, OK, so we do not live like the Satmarers do. We are not exclusively immersed in Jewish life and practice, like Nahshon ben Aminadav was in the Sea of Reeds. And frankly, I’m happy about that. We are comfortable living in the modern world with a general affirmation of traditional Jewish practice. That is indeed what we do at Temple Israel, and in the Conservative movement at large.

Ever since the philosopher and traditionally-observant Jew Moses Mendelssohn joined the ranks of the Berlin intellectual elite in the middle of the 18th century, we Jews have lived as part of the fabric of the greater society.

But frankly, we have something to learn from the Haredim in terms of their commitment. Somewhere between Kiryas Joel and the Easter Sunday auction of durable goods, there is a sweet spot of dedication to Judaism without isolation from society; Nahshon’s wet clothes on dry land. And that’s where we need to be.

We are not opting out of gentile America, where the fastest-growing religious identification is “None.” However, as we move forward, we need to make the case for ourselves and particularly our children about why to come to Temple Israel - for school, for services, for youth group activities, and so forth.

Everybody who is here today has made a choice - to put aside all other possible things that you could have done today to come to Temple Israel. You gain something of value, of spiritual value by coming here. We have to take the reasons that we gathered a few minutes ago, and make that case to others.

Two days ago, Shabbat morning services were led by members of the Youth House and other teen members of this community. Many of you told me how happy you were to see teenagers up on the bimah, and at least two parents asked me why we do not do this more often.

Frankly, I too am happy. It was wonderful to see our young adults lead us in tefillah and demonstrate their knowledge and commitment to Jewish life as well as their fine vocal talents.

But later that afternoon, I was left with mixed emotions. The service was months in preparation and promotion. And all told, there were no more than 20 teenagers here in the sanctuary that morning, and I am counting a few that never ascended the bimah. We have over 80 kids enrolled in the Youth House; over 300 teens in this age range (grades 7-12) who are members of Temple Israel and on our email list. Where were they? And this on a Shabbat in the middle of school vacation, with relatively few academic and sports-related activities.

I would love for Temple Israel to put together a task force for discussing what we do during tefillah and creating a vision for synagogue services here, such that our community feels more ownership and connection with what we do on an average Shabbat morning. Such a discussion would, I think, energize our services, and might just bring in a few more attendees, including children and teens. Furthermore, in the coming years we will be re-designing the Youth House program, with an eye toward increasing participation not just among our community, but non-members as well. These are good things.

But the greater need is to bring more children into this room more often. We need to focus on Beth HaGan (the nursery school) and the Religious School to bring those parents here with their children. We need to develop and promote the Tot Shabbat service and the Junior Congregation service to feed into synagogue attendance, and not merely cater to those who voluntarily show up. And really the only way to compete with all the other choices and stresses that families face is to prove to them that there is value in attending.

How do we do that? Simple. We figure it out for ourselves, and then we talk about it. All of us who are here today made the choice; we should be sharing that choice with others. We in this room agree that Judaism is valuable, and I think that most of us would also agree that the Conservative model is also valuable. We need to share it with others, and set the bar higher. We need to dip a bit more than a toe into Jewish life, and model that for our families and friends. I don’t mind walking around in a wet suit and tie on Shabbat; and I hope that you will do so with us.

Hag sameah.

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