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?

KEYS

The Talmud records a powerful Tisha B’Av story about what took place in Jerusalem as the first Beit Hamikdash or Holy Temple was ablaze, courtesy of the Babylonians. Groups of young Kohanim ascended to the roof of the building that housed the Holy of Holies. In their hands, they held keys to the various buildings located on Har HaBayit, or the Temle Mount. Turning their faces heavenward, they exclaimed: “Ribbono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe! We failed You miserably! You designated us to be the custodians of Your House. Instead of serving You with all our hearts and all our souls, we served ourselves. We were corrupt and deceitful. Of what use are these keys we hold in our hands? Neither the doors nor the chambers that comprise the Beit HaMikdash exist. And even if those doors were not being consumed by flames, we have shown ourselves to be unworthy to have been entrusted with these keys. We therefore return these keys to You.” They then threw the keys towards Heaven, from which a hand-like form extended and received them. The groups of young Kohanim then threw themselves into the flames below.

To be sure, Kohanim are still extant. The function that they once filled went the way of the Beit Hamikdash. What about the keys?

The keys did not remain up in heaven. After a brief period of time, HaShem once again directed the keys to earth. Only instead of once again entrusting those keys to the Kohanim, HaShem entrusted those keys to us.  As such, it is we – synagogue leadership and laity – who hold those keys. And because we have been entrusted with those keys, it is fair to say that we hold the key to the well-being of the synagogue. Thankfully, in most cases, we need not be troubled by corruption and deceit on the part of those who hold the keys. Nevertheless, there is cause for concern, particularly for those of us at Tiferet.

We, at Tiferet, hold the key to self-confidence. Having recently returned from Chicago, where I attended Shabbat synagogue services during the week of Shivah, only to hear a talk from the rabbi which was at best tepid, as well as a weekday morning service (prior to heading to the airport to catch a flight back to Dallas) at a different synagogue, where I was utterly ignored, I cannot help but feel that we sell our synagogue woefully short.

We hold the key to our success. As such, we need to constantly remind ourselves that Tiferet has more to offer than many other synagogues. Last week, I was at Shacharit services at a synagogue in Chicago before heading for the airport on my way back to Dallas. No one so much as said “welcome” or “Boker Tov” to me. Such incognizance would never occur at Tiferet! Aside from our nationally renowned Chili Cook Off, Tiferet provides phenomenal programs (despite the fact that the last two Sunday evening events drew a paucity of Tiferet members at best). Our education programming, such as our weekly Torah class prior to Shabbat services is stimulating, our weekly Yiddish class is entertaining, and our adult evening classes are thought-provoking. But few are aware of what we offer, because we refuse to make use of the keys we hold, to open our “public address” system. It would be interesting to find out, how many synagogues our size, continue to attract the amount of congregants who assemble at Shabbat morning services – especially during these summer months!

Many of us do not hesitate to share the latest and greatest about our grandchildren as far as how bright and what a delight they are. Why then do we hesitate, to blow our own horn when it comes to telling others about your synagogue? After all, there are those who are at Tiferet more often than they are with their families! When has self-effacement which seems to be so pervasive replaced pride?

The groups of young Kohanim of the Beit Hamikdash realized that they had no future. They surrendered their keys. We at Tiferet have every reason to build a bright future, provided we remember that the keys are in our hands.