Wandering Toward a Promised Land

January 3, 2013
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Menachem Creditor

One of my favorite quotes about evolving communities comes from writer and Unitarian Universalist minister Dan Hotchkiss: “A real problem with democracy in congregations is that future members do not vote. If they did, at every meeting they would make up a majority.”

I serve as rabbi in an ever-evolving, burgeoning community. The founders shepherded their baby, their shul, from its early meetings in members’ kitchens, to congregating in rented spaces, to purchasing and renovating a building. Many of the original members remain quite active, and some are now experiencing new challenges that emerged from their own success. We have grown considerably as individuals and families explore the possibility of making our shul their spiritual home. Most celebrations overstuff our seating capacity; the building, with its ample mortgage, is already just a bit too small to hold us.

Here is the problem: From the birth of our community 23 years ago, when a small circle of like-minded adults began to pursue their vision for an intimate spiritual home, we have become a multigenerational, pluralistic, mid-sized synagogue where it is difficult to know even the names of all of the congregants.

While these are exactly the types of “problems” a community should desire, they are still problems. Alienation is the most common experience members of any group feel. Whereas each affinity group is theoretically thrilled at the diversity of the community, each “group” can be aware of the barriers between groups and resent the emphasis on other groups. For example, singles are often acutely aware of family-oriented programing; seniors worry about being displaced by so many young faces; preschool families typically wish communal events were more child-friendly; veteran members are wary of change; and volunteers resent the lack of shared commitment. (This list doesn’t even begin to address the burdens staff members bear in thriving participatory communities, where passionate volunteers and shoestring budgets call for the careful dance of too many good ideas, collaborative execution, and accountability.)

Additionally, once a growing community obtains its own permanent home, another stress is added immediately: a mortgage. Much changes when a flexible, dynamic group of people become identified with bricks and mortar; the inspiring act of building a home of one’s own is diluted by plumbing headaches and capital campaigns.   When energy moves from building community to sustaining it, the deliberations also begin to transition from a “wandering” mentality to the maintenance of a “promised land.” Perhaps the most important shift involves a gradual reallocation of tasks from the original coalition of entrepreneurial volunteers to an empowered group of professionals and the pursuant communication of core values. Leaders are then responsible for establishing trusting relationships with professionals tasked with implementing the group’s mission as the scope of the work increases. These are difficult tasks, and they touch upon the emotional nerves of the founders, among others. But, if handled well, they can serve as the connective tissue between the community’s future and its own past.

My father, also a pulpit rabbi, asked me a question the first time he visited my community. It was a “normal” Shabbat without a special event, and yet most seats in the sanctuary were filled. “Menachem, what are you planning to do if you succeed?” By “success” he pointed to the challenge of membership growth and limited physical capacity. But the growth of membership tests other limits as well. I remember my first few months as a rabbi, where I would scan the sanctuary and quiz myself regarding everyone’s name. Today, that task is simply impossible. I celebrate the new faces every Shabbat, but I also crave the ability to “succeed” by knowing each person, and by seeing them truly befriend each other. Managing this kind of “success” is a profound, holy, relational task.

Hotchkiss presumes a community’s future. But the future is, in talmudic terms, a davar she’lo ba le’olam, something that does not yet exist. Jewish law instructs one never to make a commitment based on something that has not yet come to be, and so, when communal leaders are tasked with strengthening the present in support of an unknowable future, they are being asked to make difficult and perhaps impossible commitments.

We change; our synagogues and what we want them to be changes. The cathedral-like synagogues of the mid-20th century are largely fading, along with their sanctuaries designed for Yom Kippur crowds. But the demise of these cavernous buildings is not necessarily a bad thing. While the losses and demographic shifts are difficult to endure, successful communities are being built today. Dynamic communities are being established that are intimate and personal (author Malcolm Gladwell suggests that an interconnected group be limited to 150 members). The simple truth, that Jews (and many others) are seeking meaningful connection and  deep social intimacy, is neither radical nor new. Community builders in every generation have much in common, as do those who nurture the founders’ dreams into their next phases, as do those who struggle when new generations begin to actualize their own dreams.

What is most true about the “ever-evolving community” is that precisely nothing has changed. Each generation rejects the model it inherited and then — with some moderate or radical changes — becomes a version of that model. Our ancestors’ traditions are in our hands. Once again, we will create new, sacred Jewish models based on inherited models; we will modify and protect what feels essential; we will employ the best tools at our disposal to service today’s Jewish communities. And we must acknowledge that each generation will (and should!) one day find these new communities inadequate. And the sacred cycle will begin again.

Healthy communities have always been — and will always be — in the process of becoming. Today, instead of mimeographed newsletters, we use viral social media. Instead of building a tall bima in the front of a sanctuary, we experiment with “flatter,” participatory synagogue designs. And when we speak about these “radical innovations,” we might be overheard saying, “This is not your grandfather’s synagogue.” But every Jewish leader should hope to have someone say the very same thing two generations later. After all, their votes are the ones that matter most.

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Rabbi Menachem Creditor is the spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Calif., editor of the transliterated Siddur Tov leHodot, and author of Rabbi Rebecca and the Thanksgiving Leftovers. His latest music recording, “Within,” is available on iTunes. His website is menachemcreditor.org.

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