Parasha Ki Tetze

Enlarging our TentLast week I attended a fascinating Webinar hosted by an organization called “Jumpstart.” This was a webinar held exclusively for rabbis across the United States to share the findings of a comprehensive survey done this past year on Jewish giving to charitable causes. Previous surveys have found that  people in the United States give more to  charitable causes than any other national group in the world. This survey found that of all the different ethnic and religious groups in the United States, Jews are the most generous.  Seventy six per cent of Jews say they gave to a charity last year. Sixty three percent of the general population said they donated to charity during the same time period. Moreover, Jews gave an average of $1200/year to charity, twice the amount given by the general population of the United States. Rather significant numbers, I think. The survey found that the more Jewishly engaged we are, that is the more Jewish friends we have, the more times we attended religious services, the more we volunteer at our synagogues, the more Jewish organizations we belong to, and so forth  – the more likely we were to give and the more we gave both  to Jewish and non-Jewish causes.  The survey broke Jewish people into denominations.  Orthodox synagogue members were the most generous; Conservative synagogue members were the second most generous; Reform synagogue members were the third most generous. Jewish people who did not belong to a synagogue at all were by far the least generous of all the Jewish groups.    The seminar the moved on to research findings on fundraising to support synagogues – the charitable organization of most interest to the rabbis who were invited to this webinar. This is a topic of vital concern to all of us.   The survey found that the more authentically engaged we are with our synagogues the more we give to our synagogues financially. The sense of Social connection and the sense of “ownership” of the synagogue is directly correlated with the amount we contribute financially to our synagogue.  The Social Scientist Steven Cohen, who was present at the Webinar and was one of the survey’s chief investigators, put it this way to the rabbis in attendance. “The best way to get people to give is to get people socially engaged and then they will give to an institution that we all care about!” Perhaps the most surprising finding for us rabbis pertained to the language we use when we ask members to support their synagogues financially.  In this survey, congregants who were approached to give money to their synagogue reported that using Jewish terms like “tsedaka” and “mitzvah” or “Tikun Olam” when making a fundraising appeal was off-putting.  Many congregants reported that when Jewish words were used to raise funds they felt like outsiders. Sometimes they were not sure what a Jewsih word meant, but were embarrassed to ask.  The use of these words made them feel excluded from some inner synagogue circle that they imagined at least, was comfortable speaking in Hebrew.   In reporting these findings to our Board earlier this week we gradually became aware of something that had not occurred to any of us previously – certainly not to me!  We became aware of the large number of Jewish words that our congregation uses to describe the wide range of activities that we offer to our congregants. Might these Jewish words, indavertantly, cement uninvolvement? In other words have we been putting up barriers, unbeknownst to us, for your engaging more in Jewish life?  For example, in our membership package we have something called an Oneg Sign-Up Sheet. It is extremely well done and very informative. It tells me that hosting an oneg is a great way to support the congregation.  It takes a minimum of time. It is easy to host. I should host at least one.  I might want to host one when my child’s class participates in religious school.  As I looked at it through my new eyes, the eyes of a person who is brand new to synagogue life, I am left with one vexing question – What’s an Oneg?? We ask people if they want to be on the Avodah committee, the Tikun Olam committee, the Chesed committee, or if they want to be a Darshan. For those of us comfortable with the terms, they are second nature.  I ask you, how might they sound to a person who is taking his or her first tentative steps back to Judaism in adult life? How would it feel to a person making their way from the margins of Jewish life to be asked to join a chavurah, if their children would be interested in Kibbutz Katan, or their daughters could benefit from our Rosh Chodesh group or their sons from Shevet Achim?    We need to remember that many of the people we are trying to attract to our synagogue are curious, and eager to learn about Jewish traditions. Often what keeps some of those individuals away is precisely their self consciousness that “I am   not knowledgeable about Judaism”.  Yet, it is not our fault if we did not get a good Jewish education or if Judaism was not observed in our family of origin. Also and most importantly the people we want to welcome, to include, to engage in our community are not Jewish at all — they  are the spouses, partners, parents, grandparents, of many of our Jewish members. In our prophetic reading for this Sabbath, Isaiah proclaims that Zion will welcome her children back. “Enlarge the site of your tent/ extend the size of your dwelling, do not hold back/Lengthen the ropes and drive the pegs firm.”  We are a synagogue that wants to embrace those who may have strayed far from Jewish life and make sure they know that here, at CBS they have the opportunity to be welcomed home.  We are a synagogue that wants to help non-Jewish family members feel comfortable and included in our community. We want to be a big tent.  May G-d open our eyes to remove the stumbling blocks we put in the way.