Sign In Forgot Password

Rosh Hashanah - 2007 / 5768

09/01/2007 09:03:32 PM


Rabbi Howard Jaffe

The story is told of a Jewish immigrant walking through Central Park in NY on a Shabbat afternoon, a few days after his arrival in the new country. He spies a man sitting on a park bench, smoking a cigar, reading the Forvarts, the Yiddish daily newspaper. Astounded by this sight, someone reading a Yiddish newspaper, smoking a cigar on Shabbat in broad daylight for all to see, he shakes his head and says to himself, "Isn't America wonderful? Here, even the Gentiles read Yiddish!"
There you have it: the American Jewish immigrant experience summed in a three sentence joke.

Once upon a time - not so long ago - it was clear what it meant to be a Jew and how to behave as a Jew.

Now, bear in mind that there were plenty of people smoking cigars on Shabbat afternoon in the old country - just not in public. They did not dare to do so, for fear of social ostracization, which often meant economic isolation, as well.

As we well know, the boundaries and community standards that marked the Jewish community of the old world are long gone. We are free to behave as we choose in America, and the choices we make are different than those who first came to this country a few generations back.

One of those choices, of course, is to marry whomever we choose. We know that in today's world, more than fifty percent of those who are getting married are marrying non-Jews. And when that phenomenon first caught our attention, we were anxious and frightened, as we believed that it signaled the end of the Jewish people and of the Jewish future.


It turned out that we were wrong. We had good reason to be concerned, but not nearly as much as we once thought.

The statistics do suggest that there is still reason for concern. Some studies predict that the child of an interfaith couple has a 25% chance of identifying as a Jewish adult, whereas for the child of two Jews the figure is close to, though not quite, 100% (there are no guarantees). The generally accepted figure is 33%, which is still depressingly low if you care about a Jewish future.

And then we discovered something. Right here in greater Boston. A population survey completed here not quite two years ago revealed that 60% of children being raised in interfaith households - 60% -- are being raised as Jews.

We know the reason. It does not because of the rarified atmosphere in which we live or anything in the water. It is because CJP, Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, spends more money on Outreach than does any other Jewish community in North America. Not even all that much, mind you. About $300,000, approximately 1% of its budget. That's all it took.   About half of that goes directly to the Reform Movement. And thanks to CJP, Boston is the only Jewish community in the country - in the country - that has a Conservative movement Outreach professional.

The statistics tell us something else that is easily overlooked: if Jews are marrying non-Jews at a rate of about 50% nationally, and we could attain this same figure of 60% of children being raised Jewish in such marriages, then in time, there would actually be MORE Jewish children than if all of those Jews married each other and raised Jewish children.

Which, my friends, is ultimately meaningless if we really care about a Jewish future.

Because a Jewish future is not about numbers. It is about souls.

It is about Jews who are engaged and find meaning in the experience of being Jewish and growing as Jews and living as Jews.

Creating Jews is meaningless if being Jewish is nothing more than the answer to a survey question. The reason that the Boston area Outreach program has worked so well is that it has helped people learn about the beauty, the depth, and the meaning that Judaism can bring to their lives - and they decided that it was right for them and their families.

Consider, if you will, a somewhat different approach to growing the Jewish community.
Maybe you read about it in the news last week.

 A once large Conservative congregation in Miami Beach, whose membership has plummeted in recent years due to a change in demogrpahics, has gone out of its way to gain the attention of the large number of unaffiliated Jews in the neighborhood.  Theirs is a small congregation, around two hundred households, with a large building, including a sanctuary that seats 1400. They have done some terrific and exciting programming, and have had a modicum of success. Last week, they took their boldest, and some would say, most outrageous step yet.  They put up for auction, on ebay, a pair of seats in their sanctuary. The winning bidder would, according to the listing, receive membership for life, free parking, and the exclusive use of those seats for all Shabbat and holiday service, in perpetuity - the seats are, according to the listing, transferable within the family (some restrictions apply), and the family name would be engraved on the back. They were advertised as great seats - in the front row, right in front of the rabbi. With all due respect to those sitting in those seats right now, this must be the only synagogue in the world where those seats are the most desirable.

The auction ended Monday morning, with no one having entered the minimum bid of $1.8 Million.  1.8 Million. 100,000 times Chai.

The rabbi of the congregation freely admits that they expected no takers, and were doing it for the publicity.  On that score, they were clearly successful - the story was picked up by news outlets around the world, and I was one of more than 11,000 curiosity seekers who went to the website to see for myself that it really was true. As of Tuesday evening, the auction, though closed, could still be viewed (Item # 140154280814).

Not to worry. I didn't get any ideas. At least none I would want to emulate.

But it raises an important question: what if that congregation focused on its mission instead of its profile? What if, for example, instead of selling seats as a publicity stunt, they opened up their High Holiday services to the community without charge? They certainly have the room for it. What if one person, one person came away from those high holidays ready to be a more active part of the Jewish community? Wouldn't that do more for the Jewish people, and for that synagogue, than that ridiculous auction?

What if every synagogue could do something like that?  What if every synagogue was able to focus on its core mission, and be as expansive as possible in the process?

Why, you might ask, would a synagogue do that? Why would that synagogue, for instance, offer free High Holiday seats? If they did, they would probably lose a lot of members - after all, if people can show up for free on the High Holidays, why would they bother to be members?

All I can say is, if that is the only reason to be a member of that synagogue, they have much bigger problems to worry about.

I know. You've heard me on this particular soapbox before.

Four years ago, I shared my dream with you that we would find a way to fund this synagogue without requiring the kind of substantial financial commitment that is the norm in North American Jewish life. I even suggested that if we were successful, we could nearly eliminate dues as we know them. I told you how we could, one day, raise the necessary funds from freewill offerings and endowment that would allow us to radically restructure how we finance the enterprise that is Tempe Isaiah, and how it would allow us to focus more and more of our energy on the core of our mission, bringing Judaism to Jews and bringing Jews to Judaism.

And today, my friends, I am delighted to tell you that we are well on our way.

Over the past few months, we have received two extraordinary gifts from members of this community that share my vision, and the time has come to make public the nature of those gifts, though at their request, not the names of the donors.

The first is a gift of $1 Million, to be used for purposes yet to be finalized - with the understanding that it is to be used in whatever way will do the most good.  There are numerous possibilities, all of them exciting, all of them good, all of them a blessing.

And the second gift is even more substantial: a five year pledge to our endowment fund of one million dollars per year, for a total of five million dollars.

And what is most remarkable is that neither of these families asked for a single thing in return - not even a parking spot - let alone two engraved seats. They are making these gifts because they believe in what we are and what we can yet be. And with that kind of financial ballast, we are in a position to turn some of our dreams into reality.

Bear in mind that earlier this spring, our entire endowment was just about one million dollars. We are looking at an entirely new equation.

The possibilities are endless, but I suggest we start with dues. We already have a policy that turns no one away because of genuine financial challenges. Now we can go further.

Ask yourself this question: how many adults between the ages of 22 and 35, with no school age children, do you know, who are members of this or any other congregation?

Do you know why the numbers are so small?

It is because the norm in American Jewish life is to join a synagogue when the oldest child is ready for religious school.

We have some members in that cohort, but not nearly as many as we would if the cost of affiliation was not a barrier.  We know - without any doubt - that Jews who belong to synagogues are far more engaged in Jewish life than those who are not members. It is almost axiomatic. And when it comes to interfaith couples and families, it is even more the case by orders of magnitude.  Interfaith couples and families who belong to a synagogue are many times more likely to engage in Jewish life, identify as Jewish households, and raise Jewish children. If concerns about money were keeping us from inviting them to be part of Temple Isaiah for a minimum financial commitment, those concerns have been obviated.

And we know that they are out there.  Not just interfaith couples and families, but young Jewish couples and singles who would not even think about joining a synagogue for the kind of money they would be expected to lay out. Arlington alone has enough unaffiliated Jews to fill Town Hall on the High Holidays  -- and maybe, just maybe, that is something we ought to do. At the very least, it is something we need to talk about and do something about, not just for the Jews of Arlington but the Jews of Bedford and Waltham and wherever else they live, including Lexington.

This is the message we need to send to every member of this congregation, and to every Jew within twenty miles who is not already part of a vibrant, dynamic Jewish community. And for perhaps the first time in our congregation's history, we can do so and not have to ask, "can we afford it?" - because we can.   And yes, there is no reason that dues cannot be kept down for everyone - especially if those who are in a position to increase them just a little bit each year keep doing so voluntarily.

But Outreach alone is too small a dream for us, and will not succeed, if, to quote Gertrude Stein, "there is no there, there." Getting people excited about Judaism, and then not having enough meaningful opportunities for them to grow as Jews, live as Jews, and connect with other Jews and Jewish families would be a hollow effort.  We need to expand and rethink not so much what we do, but how we do it.  Learning and community building opportunities for everyone in the congregation based on where they are in life needs to become the basis for more and more of what we do.  We need to bring Jewish wisdom and Jewish community to those who are caring for aging parents, widows and widowers, those who are parenting adult children, first-time parents, the newly divorced, the newly Jewish, the never Jewish, the newly married, and the recently or about to be retired.  And we have to start with the recent and about to become empty-nesters, because their connection to the synagogue and in turn, to their Judaism is the most precarious of all.

Perhaps, now that we will have more financial resources, we will be able to offer Shabbat worship experiences for our grade school kids every week, instead of once a month. Maybe we can even afford to spring for bagels so they and their families will stick around a little longer and bond with each other and with the synagogue. Heck, we might even be able to throw in some lox every once in while. Maybe, just maybe, we will also be able to hire, even on a part-time basis, another staff person or two - a program director? A social worker? An adult education coordinator? 

I want to invite you to dream with me. Tell me what you wish Temple Isaiah can offer or can provide or facilitate that would make a difference to you and to the people you care about. In four years, the gifts of which we spoke earlier will be fully funded - and if my dream continues to be fulfilled, there will be additional gifts in the years to come. Four years to determine how we are going to use an abundance of resources to transform lives and do our part to secure a meaningful Jewish future.

Our new dreams begin today.

May they be worthy of the Jewish people and the Jewish future.

Sat, December 4 2021 30 Kislev 5782