There is a corollary to the Yiddish proverb “Little children don’t let you sleep; grown children don’t let you live”. I would suggest that it read: “little children run their parents’ lives; grown children run their own lives”. As a parent, who adjusted to this corollary decades ago, I was served a poignant reminder of it last week. Like so many others, I read about the decision of Harry and Meghan to leave the “family business” and strike it out on their own. Unlike so many others, I am neither supportive nor opposed to their choice. As I rabbi, I cannot help but see their choice in terms of Judaism and its leaders.

Some 70 years ago, as those who somehow managed to survive Hitler’s “hell on earth” were rebuilding their lives, an American Jew paid a visit to the Satmar Rebbe who had recently arrived in New York. The visitor to the Satmar Rebbe was beside himself. His son had strayed from the path of Torah Judaism. Rather than rising early to go to synagogue to satiate himself with the spiritual, he was now staying up late to go to the tavern to satiate himself with spirits. Whereas once, his reputation was such, that any number of rabbis knew him by name, now his reputation was such, that any number of women knew him by name. The Poker Table had replaced the Shabbos Table. In short, he was a bum. The father wanted to disown his wayward son, and he was seeking the advice of the Satmar Rebbe on how to go about doing so. “Heaven forfend” exclaimed the Satmar Rebbe to the disconsolate father. A child, you don’t disown! A child is a gift from HaShem. How can you despise a gift from HaShem? Children do not come with guarantees.

Down the street from where we lived in New Jersey, there was a nice, quiet Jewish couple. If they did attend synagogue services, it must have been at another congregation, because never in the 20 years I served as rabbi at that pulpit, did I ever see them at services. Once and only once, did they turn to me for help. There had been a death in the family, and they asked if I would officiate at the funeral. I was there for them and did what I could to help them through their loss. In gathering information, I asked my neighbor what his father did for a living. Without blinking an eye, he told me that his father was a Lieutenant for Abner (Longy) Zwillman, a Jewish Mafioso of renown. Thinking back to this neighbor, serves as a reminder of a different nature, that children do not come with a guarantee. There are good, decent law-abiding citizens who were brought into this world by parents of ill repute. On a totally different level, we are constantly reminded by the Jewish world of today, “this is not your father’s Judaism”.  There is a growth of congregations and kosher restaurants opening in newly established observant communities, where two generations ago, neither Shabbat nor a kosher kitchen played a role in their families. Nowhere is it etched in stone, nor should we assume that children retain the values and beliefs of their parents.
There is a fable found in the writing of Gluckel of Hameln. It tells of a mother bird and her three little fledglings. There was a river to cross which was simply beyond the flying capability of the young birds. The only solution was for the mother bird to take one of her offspring in her claws and carry it across the river and safely deposit it in dry land and then circle back to transport the next offspring. As the mother bird was halfway across with the fledgling in her claws, she remarked to her child, “look how I am struggling and risking my life on your behalf.  When you are grown up, will you do as much for me and provide for me in my old age?”  The fledgling replied, “Only bring me to safety, and when you are old, I shall do everything you ask of me.”
Immediately, the mother bird dropped the fledgling, leaving it to fall to its death. Swooping back, the mother bird transported her second child. Again, she asked “will you do for me and provide for me in my old age?  The second child gave the same answer only to meet the same fate. Carrying the third child in its claws, the mother posed the very same question. “Mother,” answered the third fledgling. “The best I can tell you is that just as you have been there for me, so too will I be there for my children”. And with that, the mother bird carried her third child to safety.

The latest news out of Britain should serve as a reminder, that contrary to Jewish teaching and tradition, it is not always true that “Ma’asei Avot Siman L’Vanim”  or the actions of the parents impact upon the children. Children do not make the dreams parents have for them come true, nor do they necessarily meet their parent’s expectations. There are honorable parents who have children who are embarrassments to society and there are honorable children who have parents who are embarrassments to society. Above all, the obligation of parents is toward their children; the obligation of children is toward their children.                                              

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?