Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Right Questions

During a tasty middle-eastern lunch with my colleagues recently, we found ourselves settling back into the age-old (or at least as old as those of us around the table have been obsessing) question of what we as clergy will or won’t, should or should not do outside synagogue walls for our members. It related to a frustration with those (albeit few) members of our congregations who were using an independent worship space to hold their family’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah services and celebrations. We bemoaned the fact that some of our member families, often because of convenience (“Why can’t we have the ceremony at the country club before the party, it saves us schlepping in a bus?”) or because the date assigned for the simcha at the congregation is “inconvenient”, take their community celebration outside our community. And that we as clergy will surely not officiate those requests, though we may tutor and support the student along the way.

So here’s my conundrum: If individuals in our community do not feel the tug, the connection, the draw to that community strongly enough to worship and celebrate within its walls and among its members, aren’t we partially to blame?

I have found myself these past few years moving from one who always looked with suspicion upon and criticized those who don't see the value, the imperative of engaging fully and with dedication to synagogue life, to one who is searching for more diverse, creative, possibly scary, and yet more open-minded ways of engaging our members.

The slippery-slope arguments are good (I’d know, I’ve used‘em): Yes, we can’t let any family just go wherever they want for a “private” ceremony. Becoming Bar/Bat Mitzvah happens automatically at 13, and the ceremony simply acknowledges and celebrates that fact in and amongst the “community” – so yes, it stands to reason that the transition must occur within the community. And congregations are places of learning, of connection, of deepening one’s own search for fullness, and of sharing that with others.

But, I asked my colleagues, what if we have failed to create an environment in which that family, that 13 year old, really sees and feels the value of this synagogue community?

Why are we shocked when some Bar/Bat Mitzvah families consider taking their ceremonies outside the synagogue? Many of these families are fulfilling the commandment of celebrating in front of their community; it’s just not the synagogue community. We can’t just insist that they celebrate their transformational moments within our walls, if those walls do not hold for them moments of meeting, of conversation, of laughter, of comfort.

When we learn about a family taking their Bar Mitzvah outside of the synagogue, the question we should ask shouldn’t be about their specific act of treachery; we should instead be asking are we, as leaders of our Jewish community, doing enough?

Isn’t it possible that our members don't come to worship on Saturday mornings with our B’nei Mitzvah families not because of the quality of the service, but rather because they have no relationship with that child, with that family? Is it possible that some of our families question the cost of tutoring, of afternoon Hebrew school hoops through which to jump, of the rules and regulations of becoming a Bar and Bat Mitzvah in a synagogue, because they are NOT receiving precisely what it is we are INSISTING they should want from synagogue, which is a sense of community? If I am a parent who has only a few friends in the congregation, and my child has a few pals but is not known by any other adults in the community, is not celebrated by more than just the Rabbi, Cantor and tutor – what’s this “community?” Is “community” simply the obligation of all Jews who happen to have the same DNA, or an historical sense of “this is what it means to become Bar/Bat Mitzvah?” If it ever did, it certainly doesn’t mean that anymore. The members of many congregations are craving connection, a place to belong; their children tell us in every way they know how, that they want meaningful engagement, to be valued, to feel safe. For many, this is already happening, and for the rest, I know as community leaders we can provide it.

Most of our families are delighted to celebrate in our congregations; those who leave or who are looking for what we could call a “personalized” ceremony are perhaps a small minority. But I challenge the view that those few are by their nature somehow difficult, or selfish, or inconsiderate. I could be na├»ve – but I’d like to think that if they felt as connected to the community as others do, if they felt that they wanted to be surrounded by the people, the echoes, the sense of belonging they could only find in their synagogue, that they would be more inclined to accept their inconvenient date, and rent an extra bus to drive to the party.

I don’t have all of the answers…What I do know is that synagogues matter, communities of relationship and connection matter, and everyone wants to belong to something, to care and be cared for. Congregations and leadership, me and mine included, must begin to do this better, to show why synagogues matter, and ask ourselves different kinds of questions when we learn that some are looking for their “true community” (of family and friends who know and care about their stories) outside our walls.


  1. Rosalie:

    Semantics and words choices matter. Though you probably didn't mean it as pejorative, even using the words "specific act of treachery" belies and underlying attitude that needs to be erased from the mindset of all synagogue professionals (myself included.) By even permitting the use of this language, even in passing or in jest, we allow it to continue to exist. We do this at our own peril.

    That being said, your comments are insightful and valuable. Welcome to the Jewish blogosphere. I look forward to future posts from you.

  2. One good story deserves another: I recently volunteered to be contact for everyone who calls our congregation asking about membership. We don’t get many calls, but last week we got a nibble. Someone called, asking about a Bar Mitzvah for his 11-year old son. The office manager told him that someone would contact him, and mentioned that if he wanted a Bar Mitzvah, he would have to join the congregation.

    For a moment, I thought: Wow! The face of the enemy. But then I realized that for the man who called, it was probably an act of courage, and an act of affirming his Jewish identity. I called him that night. “The office told me that you’re interested in a Bar Mitzvah for your son. Mazel Tov”, I told him. From the first moment, our call was about a celebration of the future Bar Mitzvah.

    Within moments, the father’s story came tumbling out. He had grown up in a small Jewish community, 300 miles from the nearest congregation. In his community, there was no thought of joining a congregation – it was impossible. When your kids turned eleven, you would schlepp them 300 miles for a little training with the rabbi. And when the time came, you would either have an informal service in your community, or you would schlepp 300 miles to have a ceremony in front of strangers.

    As I listened to his story, I was struck by his parent’s commitment and by his own commitment to travel all that way. And I, in turn, shared some stories of our congregation – of the time when a post-Bat Mitzvah student went through a family tragedy, and how she told me that the only reason she got through it was because her class mates put together a healing service for her. And I told him about the Bar/Bat Mitzvah parents who had formed lifelong friendships with others in the congregation. Little by little, I was able to open up a world that this man had never imagined. He began to understand that there’s a gift that he can give to his children – the gift of seeing their parents who are actively involved in sacred community.

    The family is meeting with our educator this week. It’s too early to know whether this family will join our congregation or what lies ahead in their journey. But it was a wonderful conversation. Nachman of Breslov teaches that there are two kinds of Yirat Shamyim. There is the awe we feel for heaven itself and for those who taught us Torah. But what’s more important, he says, is the awe we feel for those who are just beginning their journeys, for the unique holiness inside them. Our role as teachers, he says, is to find that holiness within them and to help them find it themselves.

    The face of the enemy? Not at all. It was the face of God.