Synagogue or sin-agog?

Synagogue or sin-agog?

Four words leaped out at me in studying this Shabbat’s Torah reading: Lo tasig g’vul rei-achah – Do not move your neighbor’s boundary marker.

Nearly 20 years ago, I used a mailing list I had to invite people to join a start-up congregation. On that list, however, were members of other synagogues. I was guilty, albeit unintentionally, of hasagat g’vul, moving my neighbor’s boundary marker. When this was called to my attention, I sent a personal letter of apology to all of that congregation’s members.

Hasagat g’vul is not a throwaway phrase. It is a very serious proscription.

It is theft, pure and simple, but of a subtle kind. Imagine two poorly arable fields existing side by side. On one side, the owner invests in improving irrigation and nourishing the soil. The crops on that side are plentiful and lush. On the other side, the owner refuses to make such an investment. Instead, he plants his crops near the edge of his neighbor’s field in such a way that the roots travel under the boundary marker into the richer soil on the other side. In essence, he is stealing his neighbor’s livelihood.

Over the years since I have been with my synagogue, Temple Israel Community Center | Congregation Heichal Yisrael in Cliffside Park, we have sent out similar mass mailings, but with two essential modifications. First, we eliminated addresses in towns already served by a Conservative synagogue, and we began our letters with this sentence: “If you already belong to a synagogue, please ignore this letter” – any synagogue, not just a Conservative one.

This is the season when people look for a synagogue to join, and when synagogues send out similar mass mailings. There is nothing wrong with that, unless they include people who live in towns already served by a synagogue of the same stream.

Recently, a Conservative synagogue in a town bordering ours sent similar invitations to my congregants, even though they lived in communities we directly serve, especially Cliffside Park itself. It would be easy to dismiss this hasagat g’vul violation as unintentional, but not for one thing: The synagogue has done this several times in the past.

It is not the only one. Over the years, there has been an unseemly development in synagogues generally. Lay leaders want their shuls to run the way businesses run. This is a good thing if it means the shul’s financial affairs and office must be run in a businesslike way. If it means the shul should engage in the same cutthroat competitive practices common in the business world, there is something terribly wrong. This is not Stop ‘n’ Shop vs. ShopRite. This is one k’hillah k’doshah (holy congregation) vs. another k’hillah k’doshah – and it is a sin.

Shuls never should be in competition with each other. They never should be engaged in trying to cut the ground out from under another shul. If we are one people, one community, we should be engaged in helping each other stay alive, and even thrive.

Two years ago, a distressed synagogue in a community to the south of Cliffside Park hired a new rabbi. The Friday night that he assumed the pulpit, members of my synagogue and I attended services, as a show of solidarity and friendship.

In the months that followed, and with the rabbi’s enthusiastic blessing, we offered help when needed. When the rabbi was planning to be away, for example, he would ask us to send one of our prayer leaders to help run services that Shabbat. We held some events jointly, such as a Yom Hashoah service and S’lichot. Last year, when Rosh Hashanah fell in the waning days of an unusually hot summer, and the shul’s air conditioning system was not working, we suggested that it come to us for the High Holy Days, keeping the income from seats it sold for itself. It did not take us up on that offer, but it was appreciated.

We were not vultures circling overhead, but fellow Jews wanting to help a sister synagogue survive in its own building, with its history and culture intact. It did not even bother us to learn that the synagogue was reaching out to other synagogues much nearer than ours looking for a merger. We saw it as a way for that synagogue to continue to serve its community.

As it happened, there were no serious merger possibilities nearer to home, and the synagogue, Temple Beth El of North Bergen, eventually came to us. From the start, we approached our discussions with the mantra “a merger of equals.” We have proceeded on that basis since then, despite huge disparities in membership units and bank accounts, and despite the fact that a merger will require us to expend funds to maintain two buildings for an undeterminable amount of time, which could put us at risk down the line.

Businesses do not run that way (although Jewish-owned businesses should). Synagogues, which at their core are the symbols of Jewish life and Jewish values in their communities, must run that way.

There are hordes of unaffiliated Jews out there. Rather than trying to shut shuls down by attracting away people who are members, we should be pooling our resources to find better ways to fill them up by attracting those who are not.