I am often asked what led me to the rabbinate, and my stock answer is that I was not happy working as an engineer, and wanted to work with people instead of things. That is true. But there is more to the story. The inclination to become a rabbi had been within me for many years. But there was some sort of obstacle – something prevented me from acting on it.
When I was 28, I was living in Houston, and I belonged to a Conservative synagogue (not many 20-something single men do, of course). After having sat anonymously in the back for a while, I was invited by one of the gabbaim to sing in the synagogue choir. I soon became close with Hazzan Stephen Berke, who invited me to learn how to lead High Holiday Shaharit / the morning service on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Not long after I led my first Rosh Hashanah service, Hazzan Berke invited me to have dinner in his sukkah, during which he recommended going to cantorial school, something which had really never occurred to me.
I needed that series of invitations. I needed to be welcomed. It was that personal connection that enabled me to get around the roadblock that had prevented me from continuing my Jewish path. Thirteen years later (this Rosh Hashanah will be a kind of Bar Mitzvah for me), and here I am.
Everybody in this room has a Jewish story. Most of them do not involve rabbinical school. But we are all here because of the invitations we have received and the obstacles that we have circumvented. And that's what connects us all to Judaism, to God, and to each other.
Perhaps you noticed that I was sitting in back today for much of the service. Maybe I greeted you when you came in. I hope you don't mind that I was conducting a sort of experiment, inspired by lectures that I heard this week.
I spent two days at an institute hosted by the Jewish Education Project, an organization that provides training and resources to synagogues and religious schools in the metro area. I was there with our Religious School director Rabbi Klirs, our nursery school director Rachel Mathless, and educator Jennifer Khoda. This seminar was under the auspices of LOMED, a project that is helping synagogue schools move forward with new, “high-impact” models; Temple Israel has participated in LOMED for two years. The keynote speaker was Dr. Ron Wolfson, who is a professor of education at the American Jewish University in LA, and an uber-educator who has made it his business to help synagogues improve their educational offerings and everything else that they do. In particular, he has spent the last several years working on helping synagogues become more welcoming, and studying what makes houses of worship successful.
The essential mantra of Wolfson's presentations (I listened to him for nearly 6 hours over two days) was the following:
Many synagogues spend much of their time and energy preparing great programs and hoping that people show up. They should instead re-orient their priorities such that the bottom line is not, “How many people came to our fabulous program,” but rather, “Did our program build relationships?”
Because, let's face it: a faith community (synagogue, church, mosque, ashram, whatever) is about relationships. Why do most people join synagogues? Maybe it's because they want High Holiday tickets, or because they want their children to become bar or bat mitzvah, or because they want some kind of satisfying Jewish experience that they cannot get for free from Chabad.
But what makes them stay and become involved? That they have bonds with other members. That they make friends. That they feel like part of a community of like-minded people.
Why do people leave synagogues? Because they have nothing to connect them any more. Why do most members of Temple Israel deactivate? It's because their last kid completed bar or bat mitzvah.
In the four years that I have been here, our membership has remained about the same – that is, about the same number have left Temple Israel as have joined. That's good, I suppose, in one sense.
But it's not just about membership. It's not just about making our finances work. On the contrary – a synagogue exists to give people opportunities to get in touch with God. And study after study has shown that the vast majority of people, even skeptical, cosmopolitan Jews, want that. And we should be unapologetic about that goal. But we need to connect people first with each other, before we can connect them with God. If we succeed in doing that, the inflow of new members might stay the same, but the outflow might just decrease.
So how do we build these relationships? Ron Wolfson has spent years studying two models that are thriving right now: Chabad and the so-called “mega-churches.” What makes these models work, in a nutshell, is that they have mastered the art of making connections with people. How does Saddleback Church in southern California draw 30,000 people for services on a Sunday morning? By making personal connections with each and every one of them.
You see, one reason that many synagogues are not good at building community is because they are committed to a top-down style of management that is traditionally associated with, well, the 10 commandments, which we read this morning. God dictated the aseret ha-dibberot to Moshe on Mt. Sinai, and Moshe reported them to the people, and expected them to follow. Leaders and followers – that is how it has always been. The rabbi, the president, the board – they run the synagogue.
Whose pictures adorn the walls of the hallway outside the chapel? The past presidents of the congregation, and of course Rabbi Waxman (zikhrono livrakha). And of course we are grateful for their service. But what is missing is the photos of families enjoying a meal in the Temple Israel sukkah. Where are the pictures of the Adult Bat/Bar Mitzvah classes? Or the Youth House kids playing ga-ga at a “shul-in”? Where are the people?
My friends, the world has changed. The tools of social media have enabled the sharing of ideas and collective social interaction that was never possible before. The governments of Tunisia and Egypt were felled by calls to action on Facebook. Maybe Syria is next. There are thousands of people sleeping in tents all over Israel, precipitated by movements on Facebook and Twitter. The people of Iran and the whole world know about the killing of Neda Agha-Soltan because of the Internet - you can even watch her death on YouTube. I heard on NPR yesterday morning that Great Britain is seeking to limit the power of social media sites to help quell the riots of the past week.
The world is changing. Powerful social innovations now come from everybody, not merely from Mt. Sinai. Traditional, top-down organizational structures are being bypassed. And certainly for just about everybody younger than I am, this is how we are all beginning to think.
All of us in this room today are the insiders of this congregation. And we want others to join us. But they will not do that unless they feel like they have a certain connection to Temple Israel, to others in the room, to the clergy, to the teaching staff, to the office staff, and so forth. Most of us in this room have those connections already.
Dr. Wolfson told us that studies conducted by Saddleback Church indicate that new members won't stick around until they have made strong bonds with 5-7 people. That might not sound like a lot in a congregation of 930 families. But it's actually quite a high number. Especially when most new adult members belong so they can send their children to the schools that we have, and might only rarely get out of the car during their 5 or so years of membership here.
The goal of every person in this room is to make sure that they DO get out of their cars, and that they are welcomed into the building, and that they hang around and talk and make friends. Everybody here is an ambassador, and we are going to call on your talents in the coming years. My role at Temple Israel is changing, and I hope to be focused on finding ways to engage people so that we might build the congregation that we want.
Now, Rabbi Stecker, Cantor Frieder and I can stand up here on the bimah, week after week, and parcel out the 10 Commandments from on high, as has happened at synagogues for 2000 years. I can give sermons that teach the the literary and grammatical nuances in the Torah or Haftarah or siddur. We might be able to impress you with fiery oratory or magnificent vocal acrobatics. But the question that we should all be asking is, do these things build relationships? Because in today's climate, that is all that counts. Yes, once people are engaged, then we can hit ‘em with Rashi and Ibn Ezra. But the first step is to invite them in.
One thing that we, the ambassadors, can do is to train ourselves to follow all the guidelines on this handout on how to make this congregation a place that people will want to come to.
We have to be the inviters, the ones that remove the obstacles to the Jewish journeys of others. Let them complete their journeys here. With us. Let’s not send them to Chabad, which will surely be waiting with open arms.
And that’s why I am sitting in the back today, welcoming people and making everybody feel comfortable to share their stories. We can’t all sit in the back, but we can all welcome, and we can all listen.
I want to thank you for being such good sports and sharing your Jewish stories. I look forward to hearing more of them from you and from everybody else, and I hope that all of you give the opportunity to others in this community to do the same.
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel, Shabbat morning, 8/13/2011.)