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The Challenge Before Us – Shabbat HaHodesh 5778

I hope that, by now, you have heard about the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s 2017 Community Study. (Beth Shalom members Evan Indianer and Bruce and Jane Rollman served on the committee that brought it to fruition, and most likely some of you were contacted in the survey.)

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There are some very important numbers in this study. Some of them might make some of us anxious. But I am actually inclined to read this study optimistically. There is a lot here to try to absorb. First, the challenges:

  1. There is a “hole” in our community.

The percentage of Jews in the 35-49 range, to some extent what would be the most active core of synagogue membership, is smaller than other age brackets. Only 17% of all Jews in the area fall into that category, which is less than the national average for age distribution. This may have something to do with people who moved away when the economy was weak, and never returned. (By comparison, 24% are in the 18-34 bracket, 31% are 50-64, and 28% are 65+.)

  1. A smaller percentage of Jews are living in Squirrel Hill.

Only 30% of Jewish individuals in the area live in Squirrel Hill and Shadyside combined. Almost as many live within the city limits of Pittsburgh (26%) but outside of these two neighborhoods. The challenge here is that most of the Jewish institutions and services are here. The overall population has grown, and Squirrel Hill’s Jewish population has grown as well. But while a plurality of Jews surely live in or near Squirrel Hill, fewer of the newcomers are moving into the traditionally Jewish neighborhoods.

  1. Only 19% of respondents pay dues to a “brick-and-mortar” institution like this one.

In 2002, about half (53%) of respondents said they belonged to a synagogue. In 2017, 35% said they did, although only 19% said they paid dues to synagogues like Beth Shalom. The others are affiliated with Chabad or other independent congregations, or claim membership in a synagogue but do not pay dues. In 2002 they did not subdivide that 53% number, so it’s impossible to know how many were dues-paying members of brick-and-mortar synagogues 15 years ago. But regardless, the number has to be significantly lower. This is certainly a challenge to our membership model.

So here is the good news:

  1. When asked about movement affiliation, more 18-34-year-olds (27%) identify as Conservative than any other group. That’s higher than Reform (24%), higher than Orthodox (12%). Higher even (and this is important) than “Just Jewish” or “Secular.” Based on the numbers, the Conservative movement seems to be doing better than everybody else among younger Jews.

    Pop study data

  2. In terms of involvement in Jewish life (participation in Jewish life: rituals, services, cultural activities, belonging to, donating to or volunteering for Jewish organizations), those who identify as Conservative have a fairly high rate of participation and commitment. About one-third of those in the “Immersed” category (that is, they are immersed in Jewish life on a daily/weekly basis) identify as Conservative (cf. 46% Orthodox, 15%  Reform). That is, I think, a relatively healthy statement regarding what we stand for.
  3. And here’s my favorite number, because it sings with opportunity. While 80% of “Immersed” Jews are studying Jewish text on a regular basis, very few outside of that category are learning anything from the Jewish bookshelf. (OK, so you might not consider that “good news.” It is, however, an indicator that the vast majority of Jews are alienated from the benefits that come from studying Jewish text. So all we have to do is somehow get their attention. This is an opportunity.)
  4. On a related note, only 44% of Conservative Jews have attended a Shabbat meal over the last year. For those of us who know and savor the Shabbat dining experience, this number too speaks of opportunity.

Now that I have assaulted you with data, the question that emerges is, “How does this information help us move forward?”

Well, I have some very good news.

First, this study comes at precisely the right time for Beth Shalom, because we are about to begin the process of strategic planning to come up with a vision for the next 3-5 years. The last time that we pursued such a process was ten years ago, and so now that we are on a healthy trajectory and with the centennial celebration behind us, it is time to consider how we move forward from this point. The process will be guided by the United Synagogue’s Sulam for Strategic Planners program, which is a systematic approach that includes data gathering, analysis, communicating various things to the community and producing a report, followed by an implementation phase. We will receive regular guidance from a United Synagogue Transformation Specialist, Aimee Close.

These data points will be extraordinarily helpful in the initial phase of the process, and will help us with getting a sense of the situation on the ground in preparation for making strategic decisions.

The other way that these numbers help us is that it looks like (א) the Conservative movement’s star may be on the rise, particularly among younger people, and (ב) there is plenty of room for growth in the Jewish learning department. Yes, regular tefillot / prayer services will continue to be an essential part of what we do. But we have to continue to expand our range of offerings beyond tefillah, to continue to re-envision what it means to be a synagogue. Aimee Close was positively impressed with the work we have already done with Derekh. Now we need to continue that work by trying to penetrate more deeply into those who think that synagogues are ONLY for services and benei mitzvah. These numbers are in some sense a validation of the direction in which we are moving, that is, to re-frame the Jewish conversation such that we focus on meaning, on connecting what we learn with how we live today, on fostering spiritual growth.

One final observation about the data.

A recent New York Times article on nutrition cited a study that seems to reveal that weight loss is dependent not on the quantity of calories consumed, but rather on the quality of those calories. The study found that

“…people who cut back on added sugar, refined grains and highly processed foods while concentrating on eating plenty of vegetables and whole foods — without worrying about counting calories or limiting portion sizes — lost significant amounts of weight over the course of a year.”

That is, what you eat matters more than how much.

While this study is in itself quite interesting, it also has, I think, an interesting parallel in Jewish life. We all know that our tradition has 613 mitzvot. It’s a big number, and hard for many of us to wrap our brains around, let alone our lives.

We all know that there is a continuum among people in our community about what we practice – some of us are hitting a lot of those mitzvot, some fewer. Nonetheless, I hope that we should all be able to understand and appreciate that it is the quality of engagement with Jewish life that matters, not the quantity. Today, personal meaning matters more than merely doing for the sake of doing.

Less than a quarter (22%) of Conservative Jews feel that their “spiritual needs are met.” (That’s lower than Reform, BTW, and dramatically lower than Orthodox.) Getting more members of the community to a Friday night dinner or to a good, relevant study session may not lead more people to keep kosher or not use their smartphones on Shabbat. But it may help meet the spiritual needs of more of us by reinforcing:

  • The value of community
  • The value of a framework rooted in Jewish traditional practice and learning
  • The meaning that one can glean from that framework

If we can bring more of us to the Shabbat table, and more of us to the beit midrash, and do a better job of connecting those experiences to real Jewish learning, then I think we may have a better shot at meeting the spiritual needs of everybody. Quality over quantity.

In reading these data, I am not frustrated, but hopeful. Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/17/2018.)

* The Jewish obsession with counting ourselves dates back to the late 19th century. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations published a study of American Jews in 1880 (thanks to historian and Beth Shalom member Tammy Hepps for bringing this to my attention). A group of Russian-Jewish scholars created the Jewish Society for History and Ethnography, under the leadership of historian Simon Dubnow in 1908. This group pioneered the documentation of the Jews of Russia, their history and cultural contributions, and even sent the writer S. Ansky on an expedition throughout the Ukraine to collect information on the Jews of all the little towns therein. Since Dubnow and Ansky, and in particularly after the Shoah, we have been captivated by information about ourselves: how many of us there are, of course, but also what we are doing: our Jewish practices, our salaries, our ages, our membership in Jewish institutions, how many kids we’re having, etc.*

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4 Whys #3: Why Do We Need Congregation Beth Shalom? – Kol Nidrei 5777

This is the third installment in a four-part series, “The Whys of Judaism.” On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we discussed “Why do we need Judaism?” On the second day, it was “Why do we need the holy opportunities known as mitzvot?” It might be a good idea to read those posts before reading this one.

***

Today’s why: Why do we need Congregation Beth Shalom?

How many of us in this room grew up as members of the Beth Shalom community? Raise your hands.

This congregation has had an impact on many, many people, and has been an anchor of Squirrel Hill for just shy of a century. 2017 promises to be a very exciting year for Beth Shalom, and we are all fortunate to be a part of it. Judy and I feel extraordinarily lucky and grateful to be here with you at this time, and looking back over the past year, over 5776, we have seen wonderful growth and excitement. We are very happy to be with Beth Shalom as we begin the next hundred years.

Actually, some of us in the room may not appreciate what it means to be a part of a thriving community; not all synagogues are thriving. Yes, I know that some of us here look back to a time when the membership of this congregation was twice what it is today. But unlike most synagogues, this one is growing. We gained over 50 new member families over the past year, which is truly outstanding. And I’m confident that we will continue to grow and I will share with you why.

beth-shalom-exterior

But let’s face it: times are tough for membership-based organizations of any kind, and even tougher for religious institutions. People are wary of institutions. We are less loyal today. We are less likely to pay for things that do not necessarily give us some kind of immediate gratification. And of course, secularism is on the rise; you may be aware that the fastest-growing religious group in America is “None.”

And so the synagogue, if it is going to sustain its membership model, must demonstrate its immediate value.

Just a week and a half ago, there was a story on the front page of the NY Times Business section about a new development in Japan for what we Jews might call “unaffiliated” Buddhists. It’s a service provided by Amazon to order a Buddhist priest for rituals. You point and click, and the priest comes to you. Not bad, eh?  You know, Rent-a-Rabbi / Buy-a-Buddha.

The problem is that nobody is a Buddhist for just a half-hour once a year when they need a memorial service on the anniversary of the death of a departed loved one (which, BTW, is called in Japanese, “yahrzeit”).

Similarly, you cannot really be Jewish for a few hours a year either. And that is one primary reason for the existence of synagogues. We are not part-time Jews, flipping on the Jewish switch when you are saying qaddish or standing under the wedding huppah; we are Jewish throughout our lives.

And that’s why we need synagogues. The synagogue is not just valuable, it’s vital, and not just for the reasons that immediately come to mind:

  1. We offer a sense of qehillah, community. I spoke about this extensively last year, so I’ll just briefly remind you that our society has very few gathering places today. The synagogue is one place where you can rub elbows with other members of your community in real time, where you can belong. And that’s not only rare, but also priceless.
  2. We are a full-service organization for the entire Jewish lifecycle. We are here for you from, as they say, cradle to grave. We are here not only to offer support in times of need, but we offer resources to help you be Jewish and to be a better person at every stage of your life.
  3. Something that Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in LA said, which I find quite striking, which is that the synagogue is the only place that teaches you how to be a family. We are all about relationships. We are multi-generational, and we offer a rare framework in which it is possible to spend time together as a family, to learn together, and to discuss together our relationships in the context of holidays, lifecycle events, learning, services, and so forth. We create a space for true inter-connectedness in a way that few other organizations can.And here are just a few ways we do that: our Early Learning Center; our children’s services; Shababababa, which attracts 100 or more people once a month for a Friday night service; the Kiddush Club creates a space on Shabbat after services where families can hang out together; the pre-Benei Mitzvah Retreat, which we will be an annual event; and on and on.

But here is the reason that we really need Beth Shalom: that this congregation is the laboratory where we will strive to create the Jewish Future with a capital F here in Squirrel Hill.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah I made the case for why we need Judaism, that is, because it can enrich your life, heighten your ability to understand yourself, improve your relationships, and make this a better world. And we need a place where we can do those things; that place is Beth Shalom.

Yes, there are other synagogues nearby, but I am absolutely certain at this point that Beth Shalom is poised to become the center of traditional, and yet fully contemporary Jewish life and learning in Western Pennsylvania.  I know this is a lofty statement. Please bear with me as I explain.

****

Some of you have heard me reference many times the Pew Research Center’s study of American Jews from 2013. That data has been a goldmine. Among the valuable revelations that the study gave us were that virtually all of us (94%) are proud to be Jewish. That may not have been historically true, in days when garden-variety anti-Semitism and the stigma of being an immigrant pressured our parents and grandparents to assimilate as quickly as possible.

Another fascinating piece of data is that most of us, around 72% believe in God, however we might understand what it means to “believe in God.”

These two data points alone suggest the need for synagogues, wherein Jews can gather to exercise their pride in Judaism and their relationship with qedushah / holiness.

I was recently struck by an idea, promoted by Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie on a podcast of Judaism Unbound (http://www.judaismunbound.com, Episode 29), that the synagogue can be not only a laboratory for spirituality, but should be infused with creativity somewhat like an art studio.

Beth Shalom has the potential to become that creative studio for Judaism in this neighborhood.

I have a vision to entirely re-think what it means to be a synagogue. To make that vision a reality will require change, and a bit of risk, and a vote of confidence from you, the congregation.

I have said before in this space: the Beth Shalom of the future cannot be the Beth Shalom of the past. We have to change our model.

Here’s why: What motivated our parents and grandparents to build huge edifices like this was intimately tied to a specific point in time, in the middle of the 20th century, when Jews were finally “making it” in America, gradually being welcomed into the wider society. The Jews were movin’ on up.

And in the wake of the Shoah, the Holocaust, and the creation of the State of Israel, there was a certain pride that American Jews took in boldly identifying with Jewish national struggles and aspirations. So they paid their dues to institutions, many institutions, built big buildings, and assimilated into American culture. For the most part, they relegated their Judaism to Friday night or Saturday morning, expected the rabbi and cantor to live Jewishly on their behalf, and from Saturday afternoon until the next Friday dispensed with many of the old-world trappings that Jewish practice demands.

Our children have none of these motivations. They have nothing to prove about their Jewishness. They live in a world where identity is fluid, which is at the same time as liberating as it is lonely and bewildering. They feel that they have little need for or interest in institutions. They did not grow up trying to “fit in” as Americans, because there is no question on that front. They have never known a world without Israel, and I am saddened that many of them have learned to squelch their Jewishness on college campuses, lest they be tagged as pro-Zionist, a dirty word in some quarters.

Whereas in the past, synagogues could depend on hooks like High Holiday tickets and the bar/bat mitzvah process to prop up our membership rolls, that  model is mostly gone. So we have to do something to make a positive change. We have to give our children a legacy that they will rise to meet. To recall the challenge of today that I identified on Rosh Hashanah, we have to find a way to make them care.

The vision of Beth Shalom’s future will be to cultivate within all who enter a sense of what it means to be positively Jewish. Not reflexively Jewish, as most of us have historically been.   In other words, when you can be anything you want, we have to convince you of the value of wanting to do Jewish and to do it here.

To demonstrate that our tradition enriches your life, and that the synagogue is the place where you can share it with others, where you can learn to act, collectively and as individuals on  Jewish values. That is what we need to do.

How do we do this? By creating positive Jewish experiences. Jewish involvement that is meaningful. Jewish experiences that are contemporary. That are thoughtful and multi-layered. That include women and men and gay and straight and transgender as equals. That acknowledge that not all Jews are white, or know some Yiddish. That face the reality that many of us are now married to people who are not yet Jewish, and that we must reach out to all people in our midst. That open new doors, new portals to all.

The future of this congregation will be built on the framework of the past, but with a commitment to reach people that the current model is not reaching.

How do we reach all of those people? We have to create a set of programming that is awesome, that is so well-done, presented by a top-shelf lineup of speakers and artists and presenters of all sorts, people who will show us the richness of what Judaism has to offer.

So we are embarking at this very moment on a great challenge indeed, one that will, in fact, re-envision the synagogue for this century. A team of members of this congregation, plus our Executive Director Rob Menes and I have crafted a road map for the future of Beth Shalom. It’s called Derekh, literally, the way. (Derakheha darkhei noam, vekhol netivoteha shalom. The Torah’s ways are of pleasantness, and all of its paths are peace.)

Derekh will feature five portals of entry, five ways in which people can become involved in Jewish life:

  1. Jewish learning.
  2. Hesed / Acts of lovingkindness
  3. Israel
  4. Culture
  5. Mindfulness

The cornerstone of the operation, the first portal of Jewish learning will be the Open Community Beit Midrash, which will be a new twist on an ancient Jewish place. As you may recall from when I described this last year at this time, the synagogue was classically a beit tefillah, a house of prayer, and also a beit midrash, a house of study.

Today, the beit midrash is a place for the handful of Jews who are  highly Jewishly knowledgeable: rabbis, rabbinical students, Talmud scholars and the like. But I want to create, here at Beth Shalom, a new kind of beit midrash: one that is open and flexible and accessible to all. It will also be designed to reach not just members of Beth Shalom, but to bring in people from across the Pittsburgh community. This Open Community Beit Midrash will feature programming for a range of skill levels and interests from the curious- but-intimidated to the insatiable scholar.  And it will feature guest speakers and visiting scholars that are on the avant-garde of Jewish learning from across the spectrum.

Believe it or not, text-based Jewish learning is now fashionable in Israel, and not just for men in black hats. Former Member of Knesset Dr. Ruth Calderon founded one such house of study in Tel Aviv called Alma, and it has brought many Israelis, people who may otherwise have no connection to what we think of as Jewish life, to study Talmud and other Jewish texts.

And there is something of a renaissance in this area going on in America too. Mechon Hadar, founded by one of my rabbinical school classmates, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, is a center of contemporary Jewish learning in New York that has produced a wonderful range of classes and workshops and podcasts, with people coming from all over to study there, and others (like me) taking advantage of their materials online. Sefaria is a web-based platform that enables people to share Jewish resources – texts, translations, study materials – so that anybody with a computer has easy access to our tradition.

And we can be the contemporary center for Jewish life and learning right here.

But while the center of Derekh will be the Open Community Beit Midrash, there will be so much more:

The Hesed portal, through which we will step up our commitment to deeds of lovingkindness, featuring a range of social action activities, including awareness-raising, partnering with the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry and Repair the World, for example.

The Israel portal, including regular trips, greater involvement with the Carmiel-Misgav partnership, Skype sessions between our teens and theirs.

The Culture portal: artists, films, musicians, maybe a studio space in this building for an artist-in-residence.  Just as nations are strengthened by arts and culture, so too will this portal strengthen us.

And the Mindfulness portal: Yoga, meditation, new approaches to the Jewish spiritual experience.

The goal is for Beth Shalom to be the primary resource for spiritual growth in the community, the lynchpin in generating a renaissance in Jewish life in our little shtetl. We need an infusion of exciting, meaningful programming here, and Derekh will provide that and more.

That’s our vision. That’s what will guarantee our future as a congregation.

We will need new staff to do what I’d like us to do. We’ll need to reconfigure spaces. And of course we will need to raise funds. This project, which will be significant and transformative not only for Beth Shalom, but also for the whole community, will depend on raising our endowment significantly.

So along those lines, please know that we will be in touch with you – by mail, but hopefully also in person – about contributing to Beth Shalom’s future.

We hope – we urge you to take hold of this opportunity to participate in this campaign, to consider a meaningful gift that will ensure that the Beth Shalom of the next 100 years will be more meaningful, more connective, more essential than the last 100. Beth Shalom has been here for you for nearly a century; now Beth Shalom needs you.

Why do we need this congregation? Because it will guarantee a strong, traditional, yet egalitarian and progressive Jewish anchor in this community for the next century. Because it will continue to support and nourish our subsequent generations. Because it will continue to enrich your life through community, lifelong Jewish learning, and spiritual growth. Because our lives need more qedushah, more holiness.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Kol Nidrei, October 11, 2016.)

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