Ask Not What Your Congregation Can Do for You

“After all, a true patriot, is willing to make some sacrifice, to give up some personal or policy goal, in the national interest.” So wrote a columnist with whom I vehemently disagree on just about everything. By substituting the term “tried and true congregant” for “true patriot,” I realized that the columnist was on to something that has been gnawing at the vast majority of synagogues for decades.

Arriving at a realization, that the three most important components of a synagogue of are congregants, congregants, and congregants, leadership, both religious and lay, miserably misunderstood and misinterpreted this reality. As a result, the typical congregation of this country works under the premise, that congregants must be attracted at all costs. Because of this misunderstanding and misinterpretation, synagogues attempt to be all things to all congregants.

It was less than six decades ago, when a newly elected President of this country exhorted Americans with the following: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”. Just as a new breed of Americans have been raised with a false sense of entitlement when it comes to government, so too has a new breed of American Jews been raised with a sense of entitlement when it comes to the synagogue.

Congregants are the prerequisite of the synagogue… as far as participation. On any given Shabbat morning, I cannot help but feel that looking at those who participate at services at Tiferet, many other congregations in Dallas have every right to be green with envy. The dedication of Tiferet’s faithful is second to none. Unlike other congregations, we at Tiferet do not “suffer” from dog days of summer. Instead, we at Tiferet, implicitly understand that neither Shabbat nor HaShem go on vacation.

Congregants are the lifeblood of the synagogue. A synagogue is in fact a “House of G-d,” yet neither the repairs nor the budget is taken care of by any “divine budget.” No different than all other houses of worship, synagogues operate under the implicit understanding, first put forth in Psalm 115: “The heavens are HaShem’s, but the earth was given to mankind.” As such, the longstanding  partnership between heaven and earth is, that the former is responsible for the spiritual while the latter is responsible for the material. If congregants want to feel proud of their house of worship, if congregants want to feel comfortable – both literally as well as figuratively – about their house of worship, then in addition to membership dues, congregants must be prepared to do their part in absorbing the costs that are inevitably part and parcel of the daily functioning of their religious home.

I am no sociologist. Experience has taught me however, that unless a new synagogue is built in a new housing development, new membership in a longstanding congregation, rarely comes about because of a disaffected member of another congregation. Furthermore, new membership in a longstanding congregation practically never comes about from the non-affiliated. New membership does come about, however, through parents of young children (a good many congregations require five years of Hebrew school, which also translates into five years of membership) or because of friendships. Because of the social aspect of the American synagogue, there are those who will affiliate simply because of the cajoling of friends. If a congregant has reason to believe that the synagogue more than fulfills his/her needs and has so much more to offer, then wouldn’t it make sense for  that congregant to “talk up” his/her synagogue and invite friends to become part of it? After all, congregants are the sine qua non of a synagogue.

With Rosh Hashana soon upon us, let us do our share to strengthen Tiferet,  a congregation worth believing in?