Imagine that it’s Rosh ha-Shanah and you’re about to give your sermon. You and your board have been working hard on fundamentally rethinking what it means to be a congregational community in the 21st century. And, now you have the ideal opportunity to share it.
You look confidently at the congregation, and in a tone that reflects your excitement (but masks your nervousness), speak from your heart and say:
I don’t need to spend much time outlining the issues confronting our society. They are many and serious. And one of the most frustrating challenges is that people on one side of an issue always seems more interested in proving that the other side is wrong than finding common ground. Maybe we can’t heal the world, but we can start with our congregational community and learn how to work together and make progress on some of these issues. And after much work, as professional staff and board members, here’s our vision for our congregational community:
Our community aspires to become a model of a perfected world. Drawing upon the Jewish tradition’s optimistic belief in the power of individuals and communities to change the world, every member of our congregation is invited to participate on his or her own terms with others who want to turn this aspiration into a reality. Our congregation is always open to ways to involve young and old, Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and secular, learned and just learning, committed and seeking to use their unique gifts to make our community and our world more perfect. By engaging in this work, always guided by our Jewish tradition, we create rewarding, purposeful relationships that remind us why the power of many is so much greater than the power of any one of us alone.
In order to work seriously on this mission, you and the board have concluded that the typical descriptions that apply to a congregation’s missions are inadequate. Worship, study, acts of kindness–tefilah, avodah and gemilut chasadim–these are all essential functions that will happen. After all, you are a synagogue! It’s just that they need to be reinterpreted and refocused in a way that aligns with what is both meaningful for people and still authentic to the Jewish tradition.
You lay out four centers around which your congregation will be reorganized:
- Healthy Living, which includes issues like diet, exercise, sustainable food production and cultivating a spiritual dimension to life;
- Rich Interpersonal Relationships, which includes teaching people to rediscover the difference between a Facebook connection and a face-to-face friendship, and engaging in learning and work that help deepen relationships with family, friends and fellow congregants;
- My Relationship to My Local Community, which focuses on working together to ameliorate significant local issues through the congregation; and,
- My Relationship to My Global Community, which encourages a cross-fertilization of learning on how Jewish communities in Israel and across the globe deal with a range of issues like care for the elderly, social justice and Jewish education. These are the kinds of issues that lend themselves to shared learning exchanges and potential joint action.
Without going into great detail, you also explain how, over time, board members, committee and staff will be reorganizing the congregation around these four centers of life. But, you emphasize that everyone has a role and a stake in this new enterprise, because it takes everyone’s talents and time to create a just, compassionate, caring world.
The work that you and the board have done is a bold effort to create a model for re-conceptualizing the purpose of a congregation today. And you, as the rabbi, have shaped the vision from your own theology. God gave us a world that was inherently good and that goodness is now at risk. But you believe in your core self that we have the power and responsibility to act as a community to begin restoring and investing in positive action in the world. We are charged as a Jewish community to use our influence for good and it’s time to step up and act more intentionally on this commandment.
You’ve concluded your sermon and one thing is clear – no one is napping during the sermon. You can almost visualize the thought bubbles above different congregants’ heads. One says, “What’s Jewish about this?” Then there was another one floating nearby that says, “Well, this makes me want to be Jewish so much!” Another one says, “Time to send the rabbi on a permanent vacation,” while the one next to it says, “Better extend the rabbi’s contract for a long time. We can’t afford to lose her!”
At this point, you’re unsure if you should discuss how this re-envisioning the community will affect how the work of the congregation is done. You decide to leave that for another time, but provide a hint: the congregation is no longer just a building. It’s a platform that supports the rapid mobilization of people to organize, explore and express how to claim their Jewish selves within these four centers of Jewish life.
Register for “Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today” Webinar
A new conversation about the intersection of theology, organizational structure, mission and vision for the 21st century congregation are some of the issues that I explore in my recently published book, Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today: Creating Vibrant Centers of Jewish Life. You are invited to join me and other colleagues on a webinar where you can explore these issues on Wednesday, August 29 at 10:00a Pacific, 11:00a Mountain, 12:00p Central, 1:00p Eastern. Space is limited, so register early.
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