In the wake of the 2013 Pew Research Center “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” a significant amount of conversation in the Jewish community has focused on how to strengthen and maintain the vibrancy of our synagogues. In Bergen County, we have seen a decrease in the number of synagogues in the past fifteen years, so the question of synagogue survival in our region is very real indeed.
Parashat Shelach Lecha yields some clever perspective on this subject. Moses sends men to perform reconnaissance on the land of Canaan. Moses sends twelve men on a mission instructing them to “Go up there into the Negev and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some fruit of the land” (Numbers 13:17-20).
A variation on these kinds of questions arises in synagogues all the time. Leadership – both rabbinic and lay — is often focused with quantitative matters. What’s our membership? How many people are attending services, classes, religious school, and programs? Is every demographic in the synagogue being provided with a means for Jewish expression?How are our finances? Are we projecting a surplus or a deficit? Where is it necessary for us to cut costs?
These questions are similar to Moses asking the spies to determine, “whether the people who dwell there are few or numerous.” We need concrete data, specific details, to understand how the business of our synagogue is functioning, or in some cases, not functioning.
But 16th century Italian commentator Ovadiah Sforno offers a different perspective. He writes that the spies have another purpose in their journey. They should examine the land, “To know (determine) if the living conditions are good, as the wise men of medicine have taught regarding the choice of residence, that one should observe the inhabitants of the Land as to whether they are many or a few, for a great number of people and their well-being (literally “strength”) indicates whether the climate and produce of the Land are good, while the opposite denotes the reverse” (Sforno to Numbers 13:18, trans. Pelcovitz). Sforno’s interpretation suggests that reconnaissance, leadership, and guiding the people toward the Promised Land is about going deeper, learning more, and gathering more information to understand what the people are truly like.
Sforno’s teaching can be applied, in a qualitative way, to synagogue life today. Synagogue leadership is not just about counting numbers, or people in the pews, but is about understanding and appreciating the well-being of those in attendance, or even the well-being of those who are not regularly in attendance.
Leadership is not about engaging in a reconnaissance mission from afar. Leadership requires countless, painstaking hours of work on the ground, tremendous effort, and a combination of thoughtful activities and visioning from the sacred partnership of rabbis and lay leaders who are willing to be the eyes and ears of the congregation.
Leadership requires that we ask deeper questions of ourselves and our communities, and that we continually listen to and respond to the needs of the people we represent and are called to serve. We cannot merely ask, “Where does our membership stand?” Rather, we should ask, in line with Sforno’s thinking, “How many people are on our roster and in our membership that we don’t yet know, and how do we create opportunities for us to become acquainted and familiar with them, while we work to integrate them further into the fabric of congregational life?”
Torah doesn’t tell us that this task will be easy. In fact, just the opposite. Moses tells the spies “take pains to bring back some fruit of the land,” but the Hebrew renders this sentiment differently, using the word v’hitchazaktem — meaning, “strengthen yourselves.” When our synagogues continue to engage deeply in the “hard work” of knowing the “well-being” of all of our constituents, then we will strengthen ourselves, and then, our synagogues will help guide us on our journey toward the elusive Promised Land.