This year’s Rosh Hashanah services are over. I indicated in my last post that the most meaningful part of the service for me is the sermon, and so I thought I would share with you some thoughts on the sermons I heard. More important, I think, I what I did not hear, or what I heard between the lines. A lot of this was heard through the filter I’ve been doing recently for $mens_club.
Erev RH. The Erev (evening) Rosh Hashanah sermon talked about the efforts at $current_congregation to create a caring community — and more importantly, how people tend to refuse any offered help out of a fear of appearing weak or less than. The point being made was that it is just as important to accept offered helped as it is to offer help. This was a good subject to talk about. It demonstrated that the congregation was one that cared about its members.
But to my ears, I was hearing something a little different. After all, caring communities exist in other forms of Judaism. In particular, within Orthodox, the caring community just shows up when needed — no questions asked, and “no” is not an acceptable answer. So, just as the Rabbi related in her personal story, not only do we need to teach people that it is OK to ask for help, we need to go out and give help when it is needed, with no opportunity for refusal. If you look at the community building in the mega-church community, this is what is done, and this is the goal.
The other thing I did not hear was how we go about finding out that people need help. After all, you can’t get to the point where they can refuse the help if you don’t know they need help in the first place. There needs to be a proactive relationship with the members of the congregation where we are reaching out and helping each other, and some mechanism where people needing help can be identified, even if they are too proud to ask for it themselves. This requires some sensitivity — it requires knowing people well enough to tell when something is off — to read between the lines.
RH Morning (Rabbi). This morning, the Rabbi did a whole talk about what Reform Judaism is, and why it isn’t ReformED Judaism. I agreed with him 100%, although I did wonder why he didn’t draw the distinction between Reform and Orthodox, and Reform and Christianity (perhaps the latter might have offended?). If you are not familiar with the difference: Orthodox believes that Torah is the literal word of God — and therefore it must be followed as written. Reform believes that it is Divinely Inspired, and must be reinterpreted in the context of the times. This is a critical distinction, and why you can have someone who is Orthopractic and Reform, and someone non-practicing who is Orthodox. As for Christianity, Christians just have a different conception of the nature of God and Messiah than Judaism. That doesn’t make it bad; it just makes it not-Jewish.
What I didn’t hear, however, was why we were getting this particular message? Are we seeing a movement of people out of Reform to non-denominational Judaism? To Orthodoxy? It didn’t answer the question of why it is important to be involved with the official denomination, especially as there is a growing number of congregations that are no longer affiliated with URJ. Useful questions to ask, but unanswered.
One thing I did hear was an emphasis on how Reform Judaism was “authentic”. I believe this was an attempt to reach out to the GenXers. If you recall, in my last $mens_club post I indicated how GenX is believed to be searching for more authenticity. They could be jumping to Orthodoxy or other approaches believing them to be more authentic. This could have been an attempt to combat that flow.
RH Morning (Congregational President). This was a pretty good talk about how the congregation is a sacred community, and how it builds relationships. I was pleased to hear a number of key words that fit with what Ron Wolfson and Synagogue 3000 folks are doing. However, there were two things that caught my ear for not being present.
First, both on RH Morning and the previous evening, the congregational board speakers emphasized how their relationships came out of the bonds from Religious School. The school brought them in, and they built relationships from there. That works for many. But it doesn’t reach out to the underserved communities — the empty nesters, the intentionally childless, the singles? For those not growing up in the religious school, how do we build the relationships? How do we reach out to those, and how is community created for those people? That’s a good question, and one that needs to be answered. [I believe that one answer is to build those relationships through various affinity auxiliaries. $mens_club and $sisterhood are a great starting point. I remember the days of Couples Clubs, and there can be other groups that build the relationships other than the schools. Of course, to do this, you need to know your members and their passions.]
The other thing I didn’t hear related to building those relationships. $Congregational_president encouraged people to join committees, to get involved, and to suggest programs and events. I heard that as being the wrong direction. To build the relationships, the congregation needs to take the action. Call members on a regular basis to see what is happening with them, and to see how they might get involved (this addresses the Erev RH call to find people that need help). It also shows the congregation as caring, and doesn’t depend on the people on the margins to take action. Telephone trees were important for a reason — they are a person to person outreach that overcomes inertia on the margins. Secondly, the emphasis on programming and events is the old model of limited liability — it emphasizes that the value (read dues-paying-value) of a congregation is measured by its programs, not the community it creates. Create the community, the programs will come from there. One other thing that wasn’t said: The congregation also needs to ensure that once these new people come to these programs / committees / events, they are welcomed without question. That hasn’t always happened in the past, and just as one must overcome margin inertia, there’s an equal (and opposite?) clique inertia, where people only want to deal with those they like and who don’t welcome and almost push away those not in their circles. Welcoming must be universal, and that takes training.
In any case, that’s what I heard over the last two days. If you attended services, what did you hear?