Kol Nidre Sermon 2018

The Changing Nature of Community
“Tell me, Rabbi, how would re-joining the synagogue make my life better?”

That question was addressed to Rabbi Paul Kipnes of Congregation Kol Ami in California after he approached a former congregant about rejoining his synagogue. I don’t think that question would would have occurred to anyone a generation or two ago. That was a time when Americans had a much stronger belief in G-d.  A time when a young person was expected to marry early, have children, join their  parent’s church or synagogue and stay a member for life. Today, joining a church or a synagogue is no longer a family tradition or a communal expectation — it is an individual choice. People no longer feel an obligation to support or affiliate with a religious community out of family tradition or loyalty. Rabbi Harold Kushner calls this change the shift from “we” to “me”. People want to know what’s in it for them!
Perhaps some of us here today have also asked that question. Rabbi Kipnis admitted that he struggled with this woman’s question. He thought about it a great deal before he responded.

“It depends on what you mean, better,” he wrote. “Joining a synagogue won’t make you physically healthier — for that you should join a gym. It won’t make you wealthier — for that you should get a new job. But being part of a synagogue means promulgating the values that you, and your tradition, hold dear. It means always having a place to go to pray. It means that you can have a community that is there for you when you are in need. It means that you can be there for others when they are in need. It means that you have a community with whom you can celebrate the joys of life, and with whom you can share the burden of the sorrows.  It means that you have a spiritual home, a place where you can seek and perhaps find G-d, and find others who will help you along that path. It means having a place to learn about Judaism and about yourself. In joining a synagogue you assume the responsibility to raise the next generation, as the previous generation did for yours.”

Extolling the virtues of joining a synagogue may not prove to be enough to insure its future. The very word “synagogue” is from the ancient Greek meaning “to bring together”. The fact that it is ancient Greek can tell us how long this institution has been around. Two thousand years later, it may need a re-imagining for the 21rst century. The need for community is there, the need for a spiritual connection is there, the need for moral education is there, the need to pass one’s heritage on to the next generation is there as well. Yet it is no secret that our model of synagogue community, established in the post-World War II years, is fraying at the edges. Sociologist Steven M. Cohen notes that there are four times the number of synagogue members in the over 55 year old age group as there are in the 35-44 year old age group. The implications are clear. He writes, “Unless we see a massive influx into the synagogue [of younger people] …… the total number of congregational members in both [Conservative and Reform synagogues] will decline dramatically in the years ahead.” The synagogue of the future, therefore,  may need to reach out to Jews and organize itself differently than it does today.

Rabbi Noa Kushner is a 48 year old Reform Rabbi. Seven years ago she founded  , an independent Jewish community in San Francisco called “The Kitchen”. “The Kitchen” is what is known as an “emergent community” which is defined as a community that is developed in order to address new problems or articulate new solutions. Rabbi Kushner seeks to translate the traditional Jewish values of G-d, Torah and Israel for a new generation of young men and women in their twenties and thirties in the Bay area.  In order to reach these young adults, they borrow their “business model” from the “start-up” culture for which San Francisco is famous. Rabbi Kushner explains, “It’s all about rolling things out quickly, getting customer feedback, meeting the needs of the market, making changes based on the feedback you get.” Just like a start-up would do, “The Kitchen” seeks advice from consulting firms that advise organizations on design and branding. These consulting firms help “The Kitchen” to articulate its mission and refine its approach to the young Jews they are trying to reach. They market themselves, therefore, as a “religious community” and not a “synagogue”, and call themselves “The Kitchen” instead of Congregation such and such. The name itself evokes a hands on experience, a place that is open to experimentation, a place where everyone is welcome,  a place where you can sample hor d’oeuvres or sit down to a complete meal. “The Kitchen” is trying to involve people in “doing Jewish”, as they say,  in a way that fits the lifestyle and self-understanding of this younger generation of Jewish adults.

The term “doing Jewish” represents a shift in how young Jews in these emergent communities see themselves. A generation ago the focus was on “being Jewish” — an identity that one had that would hopefully lead one to join a synagogue and otherwise affiliate with Jewish institutions. Today, many people have multiple identities — their parents may have different religions, they may have mixed ancestry, they may draw their value system from different beliefs. Labeling oneself with one exclusive identity has become less attractive to young Jewish adults. Therefore, the idea of “doing Jewish” — just as you don’t have to “be Chinese” to “do Chinese”, or be Hindu to “do Yoga” so you can “do Jewish” without having the traditional beliefs, obligations, or ancestry that has defined who is a Jew in the past.

Instead of a permanent home, with its mortgage and maintenance costs,“The Kitchen” uses various spaces in and around San Francisco. Instead of a gift shop, “The Kitchen” has developed  a Shabbat pop-up store that sells white tablecloths, Judaica, and Shabbat reading material. Instead of meeting the rabbi in her office,  a food truck travels around the city from which the rabbi dispenses advice to passersby on anything from cooking to whom to marry. The idea, says Rabbi Kushner is “that, once upon a time, if you lived in a small, tight-knit Jewish community, there were people to call upon when you had a question, when you had a problem, when you needed guidance.  Just because Jews may no longer live in tight-knit communities doesn’t mean those questions no longer exist or that they should go unanswered.”

However, like traditional synagogues, “The Kitchen” needs to pay its bills. It raises money from the Jewish Federation, various well known foundations and a number of wealthy individuals. Others can be, what they call, “subscribers”. A “subscription” entitles you to all of the benefits of what we call “membership”. There are five subscriptions levels described by edgy names ranging from the family “Swagger Wagon” level for $1,889.88 a year to the “Starving Artist” level at $499.36 a year. If you are not ready to subscribe, you can “shop” — that is the word they use — you can shop a-la-carte. And note the “tongue-in-cheek” nod to our commercial culture. “Getting Hitched” will cost you 999 dollars and 99 cents. Purchasing “The Big One Three” — a bar mitzvah — will cost you 2,999 dollars and 99 cents. A baby-naming goes for $360.00 and a meeting with the rabbi costs anywhere from nothing for a 15 minute chat to $250 for two hours of the rabbi’s time. Of course, there is a button on their website that you push to “buy” which takes you to your “cart” where you can “check out”. It is almost as if they are saying, “If you can’t beat our consumer culture — join it! Make it work for you!” 

“The Kitchen” is both new and old — as old as the Jewish people themselves. Going back to the time of Abraham, whatever new conditions we have met, we have always responded with creative and innovative ideas that addressed the changing needs and circumstances of our communities. Our ability to adapt to new realities and new ways of living is one of the secrets of our survival as a people. I don’t know if “The Kitchen” is a model for the future, whether it will work outside of the San Francisco Bay Area. I do know that fifty years from now, synagogues will need to find creative ways to flourish in an changing social environment which we cannot foresee. 

I close with the words of Rabbi Steven M. Rosman who reminds us of the importance of the synagogue whatever it may call itself, whatever form it may take, whether it is one building or multiple locations, whether we are called customers or congregants, whether we are “members” or “subscribers” whether we “are Jewish” or “do Jewish”.  “Everything I learned I learned in synagogue,” writes Rabbi Rosman,

“At synagogue I learned not to kill, not to lie, not to steal, not to envy that which belongs to others.  Here I learned to honor my parents to honor my teachers, to honor those who devote their lives to simple, unheralded mitzvot.  I learned that the reason our world turns is not because of oil or nuclear energy, but because of “children in the schoolhouse” whose every breath sustains our world.  I learned to sanctify time and not space, to revere wisdom and not wealth, and to esteem humility and not hubris.  I learned that the world is sustained “not by might and not by Power”. but by “Torah, worship, and acts of loving kindness.
“I learned not to think in global terms, but rather to think in individual human terms; that I do not have to try and save the world, but if I save one life it is as if I had.  I learned not to separate myself from the Community, not stand by indifferently while a neighbor (Somalian, Ethiopian, Bosnian, Floridian, Palestinian) [Darfur] bleeds, not to place obstacles before the blind, and not to curse the deaf.  Instead, I was taught that everyone whether old or young, whether black or white, whether from here or from there, whether literate or illiterate, whether rich or poor, whether this shape or that, whether thinking like me or not, whether praying like me or not, all share a common spark of divinity, a common Parent, and a common destiny.  Here I was taught to remember that I, too, was once a stranger, an alien, an outsider.  So were my parents.  So were my grandparents.  Here I was taught that to love others I first had to love myself.  But to be “only for myself” was not enough.
“It was in synagogue that I learned days begin in darkness and move to light, and life flows from darkness to light and light to darkness.  Here I learned that Adonai called the darkness “good”, too.  I learned that choice is mine, and so is responsibility for my choices.  I learned that change is possible and that the “gates of repentance are always open.”

Gmar Chatimah Tovah — May We All be Sealed in the Book of Life for the Coming Year