Tag Archives: United Synagogue


Kehilah is a term the Conservative Movement’s United Synagogue began using a couple of years ago to describe congregations.  The sense of the word is ‘sacred community,’ going back to the Torah’s use of the word as meaning a ‘gathering-together’ for religious celebration.  But the idea of a sacred community is more than that.  Sacred communities  support their members, sometimes during difficult times, sometimes during moments of joy.  In sacred communities people show up for one another.  Being part of a sacred community means that your phone might ring if you haven’t been in shul.  It means that you feel safe in a class environment to ask questions or make comments.  It means that you feel respected, valued, and cared for.  It means that you have a home away from home, and it also means that you feel part of something that is greater than you.

Over the last months I have been privileged to witness the ideal of kehilah at work over and over again.  I’ve also discovered that when I see sacred community in action I feel enormously proud of the congregation I serve.  During those moments Judaism becomes a living entity, a binding force between people with a common goal and vision – to bring God’s presence into their lives, their synagogue, and their world.  Let me give you just a few examples.

A beloved member of our Shabbat morning minyan lost his wife and life partner at a young age.  They lived some distance away, a drive of 30 minutes or so, much of it over back roads.  It was important to the family to complete a traditional seven days of shiva, but they knew it would be difficult to make the minyan because of where they lived.  But members of the kehilah – the congregation, the sacred community – showed up each night, making sure that the requisite ten were there for the bereaved husband to recite kaddish for his wife.

Here is another example of kehilah at work.  I received a note from a woman who had lost her husband.  She was not initially a member of our congregation, but after her loss began coming to our morning minyan.  The note she sent expressed how touched she was at the welcome she received.  People greeted her each day, sat with her, helped her follow the service, made a spot for her at the breakfast.  Many shared with her their own experiences of loss, and talked with her about how helpful the minyan had been in terms of navigating that terribly difficult moment of their lives.  She knew each morning she had a community with which to share her burden.  She knew she would be greeted by a smile (really multiple smiles!) every day, and that people would ask how she was and if she needed anything.  She knew she was not alone in her grief, and that she could honor her husband’s memory through the structure of our tradition.

There are countless other examples.  Dozens of congregants ‘schlepping’ to Washington to honor our Associate Rabbi, who was receiving a significant national award.  The pride our Friday night regulars feel each week when the bar or bat mitzvah of that Shabbat chants the kiddush.  The work our members to do give back to the community in meaningful ways, whether through in-house blood drives or participating in food delivery for a local food band on Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Congregants who help to lead shiva minyanim, or host congregational events, or come in to affix labels to prayer books.  In each case there is a sense of mitzvah, of the performance of a sacred deed, and in each case there is connection to kehilah, to sacred community, and through the kehilah to tradition, to history, to faith, and to God.


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How to Create a Sports Fan

This the text of my Shabbat sermon from 5/16/15. One brief note. I decided just before I spoke to change the beginning of the sermon, switching what I had written for a few remarks about the recent Pew Study results on America’s religious landscape and how the new data indicates that ‘millennials’ are far less likely to be involved in or connected to congregational life.

We often talk about the idea of ‘l’dor vador’ in congregational life, the sense that the tradition is transmitted from one generation to the next. Just this morning we celebrated together two baby namings, and a bar mitzvah, and these are generation to generation moments, expressions of our hope that Judaism will play an important role in the lives of the young people in our community. So you give a Hebrew name to a child as a way of setting her on a Jewish path at an early stage of her life, you ask teens to prepare for bar or bat mitzvah, in part to give them a formative, hopefully positive, Jewish experience when they are young, that they will carry for the rest of their lives.

Of course the idea of generation to generation doesn’t only apply in a religious sense. There are many traditions that are maintained in families that are passed from grandparents to parents to children. It might be an annual summer family vacation in a particular spot, where year after year everyone comes together as the family. Food can actually play this role – sometimes there is a recipe, a particular dish that is passed down that everyone in the family knows and loves. And another thing that is passed down from one generation to the next is a love of sports. And I would like to think about that with you this morning for a few minutes. How do you take a child, and as he or she grows, create a Ravens fan, or an Orioles fan, a young person who grows to love sports in the course of their young life?

I actually suspect that if we opened the floor and talked about that question for a few minutes we would be able to come up with a pretty clearly defined plan, one that had a good chance of working well. In fact many of us in the room have probably already done this, taken a son or a daughter, a grandson or granddaughter, and given them the tools that they needed to be a serious fan of a particular sport and a particular team. But how exactly does this happen? What are the particulars, the details, the necessary elements that will one day magically come together to create a devoted, knowledgeable, passionate, connected, Ravens fan?

One crucial element, it seems to me, is that you have to start them young, and we do! Most of the babies born here in Baltimore are wearing Ravens or Orioles gear within the first week of their lives. When they get a bit older they play with their friends in front of the TV on gameday, and by the time they are 6 or 7 years old they are watching the games themselves.

And that leads to crucial element number two, which is that they are knowledgeable about the games. They know the rules, how to keep score, what the difference is between a touchdown and an extra point, how many yards it takes to get a first down, and how many balls and strikes it takes in baseball to send someone to first base or to send them back to the dugout. As they get older their knowledge increases, until by the time they are young teens they know more about football or baseball than they know about anything else. Each player, the statistics, the team’s schedules, you name it and they know it. And why are they so interested in it? Initially, because their parents are interested in it. They see how passionate their parents are about it, how important it is to their parents, they see how much time, effort, energy, blood, sweat, and tears their parents put into this stuff. And it rubs off. It makes a difference.

And then you begin to bring the kids to the games. I bet you just about everyone in this room can remember the first time their father brought them to a Colts game, or Ravens game, or the first time they sat in a seat at the ballpark next to their father or grandfather and watched the Orioles jog out onto the field at Memorial Stadium or Camden Yards. And I think you mix all of that stuff together, and it is pretty straight forward at the end of the day. You make a passionate sports fan by starting them young, by sharing with them the knowledge they need to understand and appreciate the game, and most importantly of all, you let them know how important it is to you, how passionate you are about it, how much you care about it. That formula works so well that I feel confident in saying that for the rest of my career in the rabbinate, during the fall people will be showing up here in shul on Saturday mornings wearing purple ties and purple sweaters, shirts, blouses, skirts, socks, you get the picture.

But what I am wondering more and more these days is this: will those future purple wearing folks in the pews be able to daven, to participate in the service, while they are sitting there? Will they care enough to be here in the first place? Will they want to be part of a Jewish community, will they feel that Judaism brings meaning into their lives, will they be as passionate about their Judaism as they are about their Ravens or Orioles? Are we making young Jews as successfully as we are making young sports fans? Let me ask the question I asked a moment ago, but I’ll change the last word. What are the particulars, the details, the necessary elements that will one day magically come together to create a devoted, knowledgable, passionate, connected Jew?

Well, you’ve got to start them when they are young. That includes a baby naming or a bris, it includes a Jewish pre-school, it includes bringing children to synagogue for holidays and programs so the shul is a natural and familiar part of their lives. Then, just like with sports, you have to give them the knowledge. A fundamental understanding of our sacred stories, of the flow of Jewish history, the ability to read Hebrew, familiarity with the service and the most significant prayers. But most importantly of all, you need to let your children and grandchildren know how important Judaism is to you, how passionate you feel about it, how much you care about it.

Two things about that last piece: first, that is something that is very difficult to communicate in a conversation. Because you can tell your children and grandchildren Judaism is important to you, but unless you show them it is important, I don’t think the message will get across. You have to do things – using the sports analogy, you have to watch the games with them, take them to the games, talk with them about the team, show them you feel passionate about it, that it is one of the most important things in your life. If you said to your child ‘I love the Ravens’ but you never watched a game with them, never took them to a game, never talked about the Ravens at home, your child is not going to be a Ravens fan! Why would we imagine that Judaism is different? So bring them to shul – and come with them! Make Shabbat at home, say the blessings, light the candles, have dinner together. Talk with them about what they’ve learned in Hebrew school, read Jewish books, take Jewish courses, so that they can see Jewish learning is an important part of your life, go to Israel and bring them along.

Which leads me to the second thing. It is not a synagogue that makes a child Jewish. It is not a rabbi, or a cantor, or a Hebrew school teacher. We can help. We can give them some of the tools they’ll need. We can provide programs that will give them the chance to immerse in Jewish life, to learn about their heritage and history, to see Judaism as something that is meaningful and powerful. But at the end of the day their sense of being Jewish has to come from you, their parents and grandparents. A child’s Jewish identity isn’t formed in a synagogue, it is formed in a home. So lets make our homes the kinds of places that foster Jewish life and identity, and lets make our lives models for the kinds of Jewish lives we hope our children and grandchildren will one day live themselves. If we can do that, then a decade from now during football season our pews will be filled with purple wearing Jews who will be just as excited about Jewish life as they will about the prospect of the Ravens winning another Super Bowl. And folks, that is pretty excited. Just imagine that.

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Find Your iPod

With the news coming out over the last couple of weeks that two major arms of the Conservative Movement are selling significant land parcels in New York the sense of a Conservative Judaism on the wane is again in the air.  A number of the movement’s most difficult challenges continue unabated, with little or no end in sight, including funding for the United Synagogue and JTS and the dwindling number of Jews who formally affiliate with Conservative Judaism.  Although the movement initially seemed to have a ‘come to Moses’ moment when the Pew study results were released, not much has been done since to directly address these problems.  One recommendation that I would make is the Conservative Movement has to find its own version of the iPod.  Let me explain.

When we moved to Baltimore, now some 17 years ago (!), Apple Computer stock was selling for about 14 dollars a share.  I remember looking at the stock quotes in the newspaper one day (in the days when newspapers had stock pages) and saying something to my wife about it.  “If we only had a few extra bucks, we should buy some Apple stock!”  Of course we had almost no money to speak of, and the thought of actually using some of the money we did have to buy shares of stock in a sinking computer company was ludicrous.  Yes, I loved my Mac, but I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I would within  a year or so be doing my computing on a dreaded PC.  I was about to be forced over to the ‘dark side,’ and there was nothing I could do about it.  That was 1998.

Apple hung on for another two years.  Steve Jobs came back to the company, and they released the first iMac, and then a gorgeous laptop, the Powerbook G3.  But things were tenuous at best.  Pundits were still predicting that Apple Computer would go the way of the dodo bird.  It wasn’t, they said, a question of if, it was a question of when.

Then in the fall of 2001 something remarkable happened.  Apple released a pocket sized digital music player.  They called it the iPod.  It looked cool, worked easily, and enabled you to store 1,000 songs in your pocket for anytime listening.  The rest of the story we know.  The iPod exploded in popularity.  The iPhone followed a few years later.  Then the iPad.  Apple Computer became Apple Inc., now the most valuable company on the planet, long ago surpassing Microsoft, something that 17 years ago would have seemed as impossible as traveling in time.  In the last quarter, Apple sold 38,000 iPhone 6 models an hour.  Seven days a week.  For three straight months.  38,000 an hour.  Talk about hard to imagine.

The point is this.  Apple wasn’t an iPod company.  It was a computer company.  The iPod was a music player.  But Apple found a product that it felt it could do something with, even if it wasn’t the company’s bread and butter.  And it was that product that enabled Apple to survive and thrive.  And it was that product – the iPod – that gave Apple the chance to keep doing what it originally set out to do, namely to make and sell computers.  The iPod saved the Mac.  It was Apple Inc. that ensured the survival of Apple Computer.

The synagogue world in general and the Conservative Movement in particular needs to find its iPod.  Something that we can do, and do well, that might not have much to do with what we’ve done for the last 75 years, but that will speak to people, get them interested, entice them to come through our doors.  Maybe it is adult education.  Or yoga.  Or ice cream, or coffee, or infant-toddler care.  Maybe scotch tastings, kayaking or hiking, social action.  Healing centers.  Maybe some combination of those things.  If we can find our iPod, its success will enable us to continue to be a synagogue in the traditional sense of the word.  Somewhere out there is a synagogue version of the iPod.  We are looking like crazy for it here.  How about you?

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2020 A Synagogue Odyssey

this a text version of the talk I gave at my synagogue’s annual meeting, trying to peer into the future of synagogue life – what will we be like in the next 5 – 10 years??

     Believe it or not it was 46 years ago when Stanley Kubrick released his visionary movie 2001 A Space Odyssey, a science fiction film which was in reality an exploration of human evolution, and the idea that we are traveling together into an unknown future.  Some of the more memorable moments of the film include the image of the mysterious monolith as it shifts through various eras and places, of course the theme music, and who can forget the cold and calculating voice of Hal, the super computer that controls the space ship the astronauts travel on.

     I will confess to you it is always a problem when I am asked for the title of a talk 2 months or so before I actually give it, because the truth is I rarely if ever know that far in advance what I will be speaking on.  But when I gave the title 2020 A Synagogue Odyssey to Gil as the title for this evening’s reflections I thought it had two things going for it – one, it was general enough that I could pretty much do anything I wanted to with it, and two, I do actually believe that the Jewish community in general and the synagogue community in particular share a couple of important similarities with the Kubrick film.  The first is that we know for certain our future will be dramatically influenced by technology, although I hope we don’t have a Hal controlling our shul – Hal Hackerman, maybe, but not Hal the computer.  But more importantly, we in the Jewish community today are in a way like the astronauts in the Kubrick film, standing in a very familiar place, but looking out into an unknown, somewhat scary, and very mysterious future for Jewish life.  In the next few minutes I hope to explore with you a little bit what that future might be like – what will a Conservative Synagogue, and by extension, what will Beth El, look like in 10 years time?

     There is one simple and short answer to that question, namely that any shul that is successful, vibrant, and growing 10 years from now will look very different than shuls look today.  I don’t mean physically different, but rather different in how it will function, what its infrastructure will be, how membership will work, how Hebrew schools will operate, what worship services will look like, and how a family will experience bar and bat mitzvah.  If you think for a moment about that list, these are the core elements of synagogue life.  These are the fundamental building blocks that make up what a synagogue is.  This is our bread and butter.  This is what we do.  It has worked the same way now for a long time – probably close to 100 years.  The synagogue creates a dues structure which will cover most of its budget, and if you are a member you pay those dues.  The Hebrew school gives your child a classroom oriented Jewish education, and prepares your child for bar or bat mitzvah.  The Cantor and Rabbi Saroken and I were talking the other day, and we figure the Saturday morning service at Beth El hasn’t changed in at least 30 years – not one bit!  

     In our minds these things are a given.  This is the synagogue we have lived with, for some of us, all of our lives, and it has always worked pretty well.  The dues come in.  The kids show up at Hebrew school.  The b’nai mitzvah happen week by week.  The services are run, and what is more people come.  But as the great sage Yogi Berra once famously said, it ain’t over until its over – and it is over.  My guess would be that many of those building blocks will be dramatically different in as little as 5 years, and there is no question in my mind they will all be different within a decade.  

    Lets think about membership.  There are may different conversations in the community today about what membership should look like, and there are a variety of models that people are proposing.  Here is one of the more radical ideas, but that being said I also think it is one of the more probable possibilities:  shul membership in 5 to 10 years could be almost entirely a la carte.  Each use of the shul and its services is paid for on a case by case basis – you have a baby naming, you pay for that.  A funeral, you pay for that.  You want HHD services, you pay for that.  Take a class, a separate fee.  I can even imagine a scenario where people choose to have their baby naming at Oheb Shalom, have the child enrolled in Hebrew school at Beth Israel, and have the bat mitzvah at Beth El.  The bottom line is that it is entirely possible that moving forward it will be pay as you go, choosing off the menu, and of course in today’s world it will be purchasing the service online, and without question paying with a credit card.

     Next on our list is the b’nai mitzvah experience.  If there has been a true bread and butter of synagogue life in the liberal Jewish community, it has been bar and bat mitzvah.  In a way, it is what drives everything.  People join the shul because they want to enroll their children in Hebrew school so their child can have a bar or bat mitzvah in the sanctuary of the synagogue – that has been our E = mc2 equation.  Membership and the Hebrew school, the two major income generating segments of synagogue life, are both predicated on the b’nai mitzvah experience.   Now let me ask you a question, and please be honest.  How many of you have been to a bar or bat mitzvah outside of the synagogue in the last year?  At a country club, or hotel, or function hall, or Ravens Stadium, for that matter?  Just raise your hands.  Your response proves this point – people don’t need synagogues, sanctuaries, or Hebrew schools to have b’nai mitzvah anymore!  Wow!  Now what do we do!

     One thing we know we need to do is to be flexible.  That is why almost two years ago at this point our board decided to open up the Saturday evening havdalah slot for b’nai mitzvah.  That is why we now have close to 1/3 of our Hebrew school students in satellite schools.  That is why we are beginning to think about using Skype technology for b’nai mitzvah lessons.  And there are many other questions that still need to be resolved – what do we do when families want to have a bar or bat mitzvah off site, outside of the building?  Our current policy is that we do not do it, but that could change.   What about one day a week Hebrew school?  The Reform shuls already do it, and we are feeling the pressure.  What about experiential learning versus class room learning?  Do we want our students to ‘feel good’ about being Jewish, or do we want them to know prayers and the stories of the Torah?  10 years ago these questions weren’t on the table.  5 years ago they were peripheral.  Today they are front and center, and we need to answer them within the next couple of years.  

     And last, but certainly not least, synagogue services.  Holding services is the raison d’être of a synagogue.  A child can get a Jewish education at a day school.  You can do Jewish things socially at the JCC, or even through the Associated.  But a shul has a Torah and a sanctuary, and if you are not conducting services, I don’t know what you are, but I know you aren’t a shul anymore.  Here is our challenge – we ask people to come in for our services, and we say this to them:  please sit quietly during the next 2 plus hours (at many shuls it is 3!!) to listen to prayers in a language you don’t understand and which many of you can’t read.  If we pause to think about this structure, it just doesn’t make sense in a fundamental way.  So services have got to change.  Whether it is the use of technology, video screens, twitter feeds, whether it is shorter, more participatory, more study and discussion oriented.  Something has to give, and changes need to be made.

     So I think you can see, or I hope you can see, that we are truly living through a time of significant transition in synagogue life, I think the most significant in the last century.  Shuls that keep doing business the way they’ve always done it will not be around 10 years from now.  That is the bad news.  The good news is that I have great confidence that with our lay leadership, and our professional staff, with the creative thinkers and talented people we have at Beth El, we will meet the challenges that are ahead.  We will be a very different kind of place ten years from now than we’ve been for the last 65 years.  But we’ll be stronger and better able to meet the needs of our members and the Jewish community.  That being said, we do have a lot of work to do – lets roll up our sleeves and get started – 


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