This past week we observed Veterans’ Day, which, I think, is just behind Memorial Day in the list of Most Unappreciated American Holidays. NPR played stories of recent veterans - one man who served in Afghanistan and is recovering from horrible burns, vets who are finding work and community by becoming firefighters, older vets recalling their experiences in WWII as their numbers dwindle. The stories were touching indeed, but my sense is that most Americans were not reflecting too seriously on Monday about those who have served in the nation’s armed forces.
What Veterans’ Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving do for us as Americans is to help maintain our shared story. This is who we are; this is our history; these are the memories and principles that sustain us as we move forward.
Problem is, I don’t think we have a shared story any more. Maybe we never did, but in any case, the texture of American society is too varied, and our willingness to spend time reflecting about anything is too scarce. We are more likely to spend these days shopping than celebrating our American-ness or recalling those who served and died for this nation. Furthermore, the heterogeneity of our society has, I think, yielded multiple Americas: Consider how we are failing to speak to one another in the public sphere - our politics, issues of education or race or even religion.
And, thanks to the magical information-sorting mechanism known as the Internet, we are moving to a place where we are all living in our own little echo chambers. As print media and even broadcast journalism (is anything actually “broadcast” today?) continue their slow decline, we are gradually growing more isolated due to the search engines that make choices for us regarding what we want to read or watch, all in the name of the advertising dollars that sustain Google and Facebook by getting us to click on more and more links.
Abetted by the binary thinking that underlies computer technology (everything boils down to ones and zeros; you either “Like” something on Facebook or you don’t), there are two mutually-exclusive narratives on climate change, two narratives on health care, multiple narratives on Israel, and on and on. These binary echo chambers are, in some ways, limiting our abilities to see the complexity in difficult issues and ancient religious traditions.
In this environment, it is very hard for us to have a shared story.
However, ladies and gentlemen, shared stories are the vehicle that binds us to each other. And no matter how talented our electronic devices become, they will never bring us together in the ways that our ancestors bonded, first over communal meals by the fire, then in the foundational myths that held ancient societies together, then in the common ideals and dogma of the great religions, and in contemporary times, the modern tales of war, revolution, and technological advancement that have shaped our world.
So, while shared stories have always been the glue of societies ancient and modern, consider for a moment the following. In the last month, I have been to four different gatherings of Jews discussing the Jewish future:
- the United Synagogue Centennial Convention,
- a seminar on the future of the rabbinate with Long Island colleagues, hosted by UJA-Federation’s Synergy program,
- a workshop on using the model of community organizing for synagogues hosted by the Rabbinical Assembly (Clergy 2.0), and
- a training session for congregational facilitators of United Synagogue’s Sulam for Emerging Leaders, a leadership-development program that we are launching here at Temple Israel next month.
At three out of four of these gatherings, significant attention was paid to the need to build relationships between people by sharing stories. In the seminar on community organizing, I and 43 other Conservative rabbis spent a day and a half learning techniques for eliciting stories from members of our communities, individually and in small groups. It seems that the idea of sharing stories is one of the foundational principles of the brave, new world of reimagining faith communities.
But here’s the irony: we know that! In particular, we, the Jews, the People of the Book - we know that stories bind us to one another. We are the keepers of the greatest contribution of storytelling to Western society: the Torah!
In fact, we read this morning what I have long felt is the most essential, foundational story in the Torah related to Jewish peoplehood. It’s Yaaqov’s one-on-one encounter with an angel, where he wrestles all night long, but before the angel departs, he bestows upon Yaaqov a new name: Yisrael.
What does Yisrael mean? The Torah tells us:
כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל.For you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.
We are Benei Yisrael, the children of Israel. Our very name says everything you need to know about the Israelite people. We are the people who struggle with God. We ask questions. We argue. We disagree. That is an essential quality of the Jewish character. I could rattle off any number of relevant jokes here, but what I am saying is actually quite serious: our theological struggle, our willingness to wrestle with the words of the Torah and Jewish tradition and yes, with God, defines our peoplehood.
And this story of who we are is just one of literally hundreds in the Tanakh, the entire Hebrew Bible. Why do we read the Torah in its entirety every year? Yes, because we continue to learn from it. Yes, because God has commanded us to meditate on these words day and night (c.f. Joshua 1:8). But all the more so, because these are the stories that unite us. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, even the Secular Humanists have to admit that the Torah is our collective, national story.
Here is the challenge that we face as the 21st century picks up speed: the Torah may not be enough. Why are all these Jewish organizations exhorting their rabbis and lay leaders to focus on building relationships through shared stories? Because we have lost sight of our heritage. Because we no longer have one narrative.
How many of us are hear the Torah read regularly? How many of us are meditating on it night and day? I can tell you that in my weekly parashah discussion, Dor HaBa, we usually have about 12 very eager participants. It’s always a great discussion, but can we seriously say that this community is engaged with the Torah?
The recent study by the Pew Research Center indicates that only 11% of American Jews attend synagogue once per week or more, and another 12% once or twice a month. Most of the people in those two categories are Orthodox. That means that ¾ of American Jews, and the vast majority of the non-Orthodox, are not engaged in the time-honored tradition of hearing our Jewish story on a regular basis. And furthermore, even of the ones who are there week after week, how many of us are actually listening, reading, and actively engaged?
We have to work harder to find our contemporary shared stories, so that we can maintain our ancient story, the Torah.
And that will require cultural change. What made big synagogues like this one function through the middle of the 20th century until recent years is the common narrative of its members. Not just the Torah, but the immigrant experience in the New World, the common foods and musical tastes and cultural pursuits, the struggles provoked by anti-Semitism here and abroad, the wake of the Shoah and the establishment and building of the State of Israel.
But we don’t have that anymore. We are far more diverse today, with an ethnic mix far more varied than that of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, with different tales and origins and foods and music. Israel is not struggling for survival. 73% of Jews in the Pew study indicated that “Remembering the Holocaust” is an essential part of being Jewish, but as the survivors among us dwindle and World War II recedes further into our national memory, this will also figure less as a uniter of Jewish peoplehood. (BTW, only 19% that “Observing Jewish law” is essential to being Jewish, although this, of course, is material for another sermon entirely.)
What this institution, and all the institutions of American Jewish life need, at this point, is cultural change. We are going to need a change that is akin to Yaaqov’s name change, from the one who aspired at birth by grasping the heel of his older twin brother, to the father of the nation that struggles with God. That kind of change.
And that change will have to come from within. It will emerge through a range of conversations: individual conversations one-on-one with members of the clergy and senior staff or lay volunteers, larger conversations in group meetings, and so forth. The primary question that we will be asking, ladies and gentlemen, paraphrases that most famously asked by President John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address. The question is not, “What can Temple Israel do for you?” but rather, “What are you willing to do with Temple Israel? What might you do to make this a more engaging place for more members of this community?”
We will need to move this congregation from a transactional relationship with its members (i.e. you pay your dues, we provide you with services) to that based on personal engagement and participation. And we can build that personal institution. Yes, there are some among us who will always prefer to write out a check than participate in a hands-on way, and there are many of us who feel like we simply do not have time for a more active role in Jewish communal life, and we need all of those people too. But it is upon us as a community to seek ways that we can reconnect, to make this a place of shared stories, to make this institution less, well, institutional.
We are all searching for personal meaning, and we as a community have to get to a place where meaning can be found in our relationships with members of this synagogue, where our stories bind us to each other and to God. And to find those entry points, to create the environment in which we can share those stories, we, the clergy and the laity of Temple Israel will need your help. So we hope that you will step forward when asked.
Until that framework is created, however, here is an easy suggestion: When you are in the building, don’t just talk and greet your friends. After today’s service is over, at the kiddush, find somebody you have never met before and get to know them. Ask: What’s your story? What brought you here today? Tell me about yourself. What makes you want to be involved with a community? What are the things about Judaism that appeal to you? If you had the time, the energy, and the resources, what great idea might you initiate in this community?
We have to continue to struggle with God. We have to continue to engage. If we stop doing so, then we will no longer be Yisrael, the ones who struggle with God. Look for those opportunities to elicit the stories of others, and to share your own. It’s an ancient idea whose time has come again.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, November 16, 2013.)