Monthly Archives: March 2014

Big is the new Small

As we re-imagine the synagogue’s place in American Jewish life new ideas and old ideas meld together to create interesting opportunities.  The synagogue remains an important hub of Jewish community.  However, relationships have moved to the forefront in our understanding as a way of creating communities that reach out to those on the outside and nurture those already within its arms.  The implications of a relationship model affect all aspects of synagogue life including the size of the synagogue.

 Traditional wisdom indicates that smaller tends to be better.  A lesser number makes it easier for people, including the rabbi to know one another and hopefully foster deeper relationships within the group.  Smaller is therefore also consistent with our increased emphasis on individuality. Today it is preferable to find a smaller group that shares our beliefs, rather than subsuming our own ideas to the larger and more expansive congregation of times past. When money flowed more freely and joining the synagogue was part of the natural order of things, new congregations were formed, new buildings were built, congregations grew and life was good.

In many ways, life remains good, but the traditional synagogue model is now being challenged.  The drive towards individuality is stronger than ever but the need for community continues. People however, are not flocking to join in the numbers they once did.   This challenge is in fact an opportunity for a new synagogue model to emerge where the ideas of small and large can join synergistically; We can create a large synagogue, which itself is an amalgam of smaller congregations or communities.  Many successful synagogues already practice this concept.  In each traditional area of synagogue life, multiple opportunities or access points exist both within and outside the “synagogue walls.” But the synagogue walls have been expanded to hold many ideas and defray the expenses associated with running an operation.

Traditional services are held parallel to alternative services.  Opportunities to congregate and to learn can be expanded.  Teachers can focus on the things they know well while the larger number of teacher increases the scope of offerings.  There is also the added benefit of programs, including the teaching, being more easily accessible to a broader community. People in this environment are exposed to things they might not have previously considered. Schools likewise can be combined reaping the benefits of size.  The community develops a richness and vibrancy because of the depth and breadth of opportunities to engage Jewishly that historically was limited to only the largest or most well heeled congregations.   This is being done with success around the country.  So if it is already done, what else is there to do?

 The challenge is for existing congregations to see this as an opportunity to remain vibrant rather than as a threat to their existence. Smaller congregations struggle to meet the budget and support the overhead.  Maintaining a physical structure becomes a monumental challenge in its own right, often leaving little time for much else.  The congregational leaders become so busy with the operations of the place they have little time left to build the sacred relationships within its walls.  Joining together creates efficiencies of size in addition to diversity of programming available to a larger community.  A larger physical structure yields space for multiple groups to share.  But there are also the opportunities that arise when the smaller groups join together.

The large synagogue creates a critical mass, a Klal Yisrael.  Such unity within a community becomes a cohesive power, while the individual voice and intimate relationships are preserved and honored. There will be times when everyone will want to gather together.  Then the temporary walls that might separate the smaller sanctuary spaces can be opened up, literally and figuratively speaking, creating a larger space in which everyone can join.

There are distinct and real challenges to putting such a synagogue model in place, but the opportunity to create communities of meaning that thrive is too great to overlook, and the existing pressure many congregations feel cannot be ignored.  Besides, in many places it seems to work.

College Students and Esther – What Purim might teach us about power and our future

Tonight we start the holiday of Purim where we read Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther.  Purim is a Jewish story.  And like so many Jewish Stories, it has multiple levels of meaning.

 Purim is a lovely children’s story- good triumphs over evil, a savior rescues us from the clutches of despair.  Righteous deeds are rewarded and the people rejoice and live happily ever after.

 Purim is also a great adult story, the story of sex, power and palace intrigue.  As gripping as any modern drama on cable; forces vie for control, often ruthless in tactics.  The heroine uses all her skills and wiles to rescue her people. Shonda Rhimes has at least a full season of Scandal right here in our Megillah!

 Purim is also a story with a deeper and darker side, which I believe is the reason why the Book of Esther is included in the Bible; it is a cautionary tale.  Purim admonishes us about the use and abuse of power.

How power can work and how it can corrupt.

What happens when power is not challenged and what happens when it seduces.  What might happen when we move from being drunk with complacency, to being drunk with power.  Megillat Esther portrays when the powerless are subjected to the whims of the powerful- those who are consumed with only their own power driven by the sense of self importance that comes from it.

 Haman plans to destroy the Jews because Mordechai does not bow before him.  Mordechai and Esther work together, conspiring if you will, to overthrow Haman’s power and gain power for themselves.  To achieve these ends they use nothing less than seduction and lies to lure Haman into a trap and inflame the wrath of King Achasverus.    The book of Esther demands us to question, “to what lengths are we willing to go to acheive power?”

 But then Megillat Esther continues to push us and asks,“What do we do with power once it has been acheived?”

 In a kind of  “Perverse Dayenu” we learn that it is not enough that the Jews triumph- Esther is the Queen and Mordechai becomes the King’s Vizier.  Nor is it enough that in an ironic twist of fate that Haman is executed on the very gallows he built to hang Mordechai.  The Jews then demand the execution of all of Haman’s sons and then 50 and then yet another 750 people in Sushan.  But it is still not over; for then there is a wholesale slaughter of 75,000 Persians in retribution.  This is a place where the phrase “Absolute Power corrupts Absolutely” could surely have been coined.   (Lord Acton 1887)

 We go from powerless, to powerful; from innocent to corrupt; from holding the moral high ground to losing all moral authority giving way to the basest of human emotion.

 So how this story resonate for us today?

 We are taught that with power comes responsibility.  That responsibility includes protecting those who are less fortunate and powerless, protecting our system of free expression, and protecting our ability to remain a full and vibrant part of this nation we call home. We have come a long way to achieve our comfortable public place in American society. But like our Purim story it was not always so.

 Esther concealed her identity from the king until Mordechai gave her the strength to step forward.  But what if she did not have the strength?  Who would have spoken for the Jews of Persia?  Mordechai says that if it was not Esther, someone else would step forward, but in the story we know only two, Queen Esther and her Uncle Mordechai.

Our tradition suggests Mordechai placed his hope in a higher power, but he knew his life was actually in Esther’s hands.  And likewise, the future of our next generations is in our hands.

 But ominous signs are on the horizon.  What if we became unable to advocate for ourselves?  It is not as outlandish as it may sound.  Many of you can recall the deafening silence of the American Jewish community in the 1930s and 40s. With only a few exceptions such as Rabbi Stephen Wise, our American community retreated into its fear as the Nazi’s systematically executed the Holocaust.  Today we can hardly imagine such gripping fear.  But this fear is alive as is the hatred.  It lives on our college campuses around the country and the implications are foreboding.

 We have just finished the national Israel Apartheid week.  This is a week of consciousness-raising held on campuses around the country protesting that Israel is no more than an apartheid state dedicated to the oppression of the Palestinians.  The attempt to De-legitimize the State of Israel also finds a voice in the growing organized economic boycott of Israel known as Boycott Divest Sanction or BDS.  This group was responsible for the commotion surrounding the Soda Stream company’s factory in the West Bank.  Students for Justice in Palestine (the SJP) is vehemently anti-Israel and actively protests against the State and its legitimacy on campuses across the country.  Not to be outdone, the academic community has, in real terms, taken up the Anti-Israel cause of the Palestinians by supporting the boycott of Israeli scholars through the American Studies Association, the ASA.

 The groups on campus have used thuggish tactics to bully and intimidate our college students. And as their teachers align with these politics, the classroom becomes a very uncomfortable, threatening place, instead of a place that is supposed to nurture.  The effect on our youth is profound.

 Many kids become turtles.  They withdraw into their shells and hope that it will all blow over.  Many of our kids find themselves fearful.  Unable to express an alternative point of view, students on campus are ostracized.  They are alienated from their Judaism and any relationship they may have to Israel. These young people are scared to think for themselves or express their opinions. And if they are courageous enough to try, they are subjected to public ridicule and humiliation.    If we do not work to support our youth, then we risk raising a whole generation of Jews, our future, unable to withstand the onslaught of hate and bigotry.  We will have completely ceded our power to those who would oppress us.

 So we must heed the lessons of Megillat Esther and embrace our power with respect.  We need to reach out to our youth by giving them a solid understanding of their Jewish identity and Jewish values before they leave for school and begin to explore the world.  But we must also support them in these college years of discovery by continuing to be present.  We can do this by supporting vibrant Hillels on campus, and as Congregations by remaining in contact with them while they are away and by making them feel warmly welcomed back into our temples when they return.  Finally, but so importantly, we must place a Reform Rabbi on every college campus with a significant Jewish population to nurture and care for our children.

The future is theirs, but the power to make that future bright lies with us and what we do now.

Some Purim fun

Take a few moments to enjoy this festive song by the wonderfully talented Michelle Citrin for Purim, this most complex of holidays!  Shake Your Grogger

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