I recently had lunch with a local Christian minster, who reminded me of the first time he and I met, some 16 years ago. He and a Catholic colleague came by to pick me up at my temple and heard me talking to someone about High Holy Day tickets. At that 1998 lunch, my new friend asked if it weren’t awkward to require tickets to enter a synagogue on the holiest days in the Jewish year. At our 2014 lunch, my friend reminded me that my instant retort was: “If you were forbidden by your tradition to pass a collection plate on Christmas and Easter, what would you do?” The minister had answered: ‘I guess I would sell tickets too”
This month, our conversation centered on the need for churches and synagogues to rethink how we raise funds, and how we provide for the spiritual, social welfare, and educational needs of both the people within our congregations and the ever-growing number of people who choose to not affiliate but still turn to us in times of need.
For a rabbi, the Days of Awe are truly awesome in multiple ways. The task I am most grateful to have had lifted from me is dealing with the issue of membership and finances. Yet in the spirit of teshuvah, which calls upon us to take responsibility for both our actions and our inactions, perhaps, now that I am retired, it is my task this year to raise questions about how our synagogues can be houses of prayer, study, and social service for all who enter, and even for those of our community who choose to stand on the outside until events in their lives, or the lives of loved ones, cause them to seek communal support.
Returning to my lunch conversation with my Christian colleague, we agree that since so many of our houses of worship are aging, the cost of maintaining and updating them for the 21st century is taking away from funding our members’ programmatic demands. Our institutions and those of our sister faith communities are, like public schools and other town-based services, very much tied to our counties’ political and geographic boundary lines. Those lines were designed by new immigrants to suburban Bergen and Passaic counties at the end of WWII, and I question whether they speak to the demographic and sociological realities of the 21st century.
Unlike the Catholic church, whose local institutions are governed by the diocese, in the Jewish community, every synagogue, community center, school, and social service agency is governed independently and the buildings are owned individually. Therefore, during these days of reflection and introspection I wish to raise the question: Can we in northern New Jersey commit ourselves this year to begin a real conversation on how we can share our resources and work together to plan for the future of Jewish life in our community?
I admit that the question of whether suburban synagogues, JCCs, and the federation and its agencies can respond to the needs of the next generation of diverse and diffuse American Jews is not merely a local question. It is a national issue. However, I believe that with resources such as the Taub and Berrie foundations and the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Synagogue Leadership Initiative, whose commitments to Jewish continuity are exemplary, and with the crises that many of our institutions are facing in financing the repairs of our communal structures and funding the salaries of Jewish communal workers, including rabbis and teachers, makes our community a great candidate to model what I would call a year of “communal heshbon hanefesh,” an introspective critical self- evaluation.
Northern New Jersey is a diverse Jewish community, with strong congregations in all streams as well as a large contingent of Jews born in both Israel and the FSU, who have added themselves to the mosaic first formed by the American-born Jews whose roots go back to the 19th and early 20th centuries. Moreover, there is a disproportionate number of Jewish academics and professionals who live in our community. We can and should call upon their expertise to guide us in this adventure.
My intent in writing this column is to open up a discussion. I hope that many of you will use both the online and the print resources of our Jewish Standard to respond to this challenge, and that we will inscribe ourselves in the Book of Life for a year of communal reflection and introspection that will lead us to innovative ways to perpetuate our eternal heritage.
The Torah portion this week is called Ha-azinu. The Sabbath is called Shabbat Shuvah, which can translate as the Sabbath of Return, the Sabbath of Repentance, or the Sabbath of Turning. Pete Seeger, who died this year, brought the words of Kohelet into the popular culture of the mid 20th century when he wrote “To everything/Turn turn turn/There is a season/Turn turn turn.” May 5775 be a time when we turn our attention to how we must turn our community into a more effective vehicle for helping each of us find a personal path to teshuvah.