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A community, not a commodity

04/25/2021 03:40:59 PM


Newly ordained as a rabbi, the first wedding I officiated was on the island of Maui.  The couple planned their ceremony in a location that rarely received significant rainfall.   Yet on the day of the wedding – it rained! The wedding had to be moved inside.  Everyone was upset. 

Sensing the tension, my husband David encouraged me to begin the ceremony with a joke:
“A rabbi arrived for an elaborate outdoor wedding. However, as the time for the ceremony drew near, a huge rainstorm moved into their area. ‘Rabbi, can’t you do anything about this?’ the father of the bride demanded. The rabbi replied, ‘Sorry, but I’m in sales, not management.’”  

The joke worked.  People chuckled and the tension broke.

Since then, I have told this joke whenever people asked me to guarantee good weather for an outdoor important event. 
But lately I have been thinking that I will stop telling it.

I do not like the punchline about the rabbi “being in sales.”

Too many times, I have heard the language of the marketplace used about membership in a synagogue. For example, people might say: “I’m shopping for a synagogue – can you tell me what you can offer my family and me?”
I hear “shopping for a synagogue” with some regularity, as if a synagogue is a commodity, and the rabbi is indeed “in sales.” 

 This idea of shopping for a synagogue is an entirely modern idea. In the middle ages in Europe, prior to political emancipation, if you were born in a Jewish community, you were a member of that community whether you wanted to be or not.

Since the emancipation, and certainly in the United States, membership in a Jewish community has always been optional.  Just because you are born Jewish does not mean that you must belong to a Jewish community. 
Joining a synagogue becomes another choice in life, like choosing a gym or a beach club. Convenience, comfort, price, and quality of services all become factors when one decides about which synagogue to join, or even whether to join a synagogue.

Today, we are in a “buyer’s market.” There are more membership spaces open in synagogues across the country than there are people looking to fill them.

Temple Israel needs members to have a future, and so it is natural to feel as if we do not want to do anything to discourage people from membership. The lower the barrier to entry, the better. We want to get people inside our doors.

Yet we should not position ourselves as a product. Commodities are things that can be used and then discarded.
A synagogue is a community, composed of people in relationship with each other and with our ancestors, whose struggles and hopes and aspirations are reflected in our sacred texts. 

From the earliest days of our people, we have been a people with a mission. Our Torah reflects a lofty mission: Kedoshim ti’hiyu.  You shall be holy.  

In the language of our ancestors, to be kadosh, holy, meant to be separate and apart, to be extraordinary.
For our ancestors, ritual practice, dress, and diet all served to distinguish them from their neighbors. But to be holy meant so much more.

To be holy meant to be upright in our actions towards others: To treat the stranger in our midst with the same respect as the citizen; to provide for the hungry and protect the vulnerable; to respect our elders; to be honest in weights and measures; to love our neighbors as ourselves. 

These are the actions of holiness that our Reform movement long embraced, even as many of us rejected the differences in dress or diet that would keep us distinct from our neighbors.

Roughly 2500 years after our ancestors created our mission to be holy, to be extraordinary, we are still reading these words today. Perhaps the fact that we stand for something important has to do with the reason that we are still here. 
We can uplift each other, inspire each other, with our extraordinary actions of justice and kindness. This can only happen in a sacred community.

So even as we welcome people who say to us that they are “shopping for a synagogue,” we should remember that we are not a commodity. We are a community with an ancient, ongoing mission:  to be holy, to be extraordinary.

 We want prospective members to know that we stand for something important. One of my teachers, Rabbi Sidney Greenberg captured it beautifully: “May this synagogue be, for all who enter, the doorway to a richer and more meaningful life.” 

Wed, January 26 2022 24 Sh'vat 5782