How to Succeed at Congregational Life: Ten Tips

January 14, 2014
Everyone wants to feel they have a place at the table.

Everyone wants to feel they have a place at the table.

So, you’ve decided to dive in to Jewish life and find yourself a congregation. You find one not too far from home, and it looks like it might be a fit. Or maybe you’ve found the only synagogue in 100 miles, and whether it’s a fit or not, that’s what you’ve got.  A synagogue community over about 150 people is often a community of communities: an umbrella under which several different groups get together for smaller things, and then all come together for big stuff like High Holiday services. If you only go to the big stuff, you’ll never get to know anyone. These tips can help you integrate into your own synagogue community (and it’s never too late to try them.)

ATTEND. The single most important thing you can do to succeed at synagogue life is to show up!  Find one regular event at the synagogue and commit yourself to being there regularly – say, 75% of the time – for a decent block of time. If it’s a weekly event, give yourself three months.  It could be Friday night services, or Torah study, or an affinity group like Seniors, morning minyan or choir – but if you are a regular, you will make your own circle of friends and feel “at home.”

BE FLEXIBLE. Connecting with people different from yourself but with whom you have shared values can be fun and useful. Be open to connection with people outside your age bracket / income bracket / level of education / profession / marital status. Those friends will broaden your point of view, and they know stuff you don’t. If you don’t know what to talk about at first, talk about the activity at hand: Torah study, the speaker, Scrabble, etc.

ASK FOR ADVICE. The rabbi, the administrator (if there is one) and people on the temple board are good sources of information about finding a likely group to help you settle in. If they don’t have a group for “single thirty-somethings who love to cook” (or whatever your demographic) ask, “What’s the friendliest group around here?”

MAKE AN APPOINTMENT. It’s a great idea to make a “getting to know you” appointment with temple staff or clergy. Trying to build a relationship with them at the coffee hour after services is like trying to play cards in the middle of a tornado.

VOLUNTEER.  I have made some of my firmest friends around shul when I volunteered to be part of the group to clean up after an event. Set up for events often brings out anxieties, but at clean up time, everyone is glad  you are there.

BE PROACTIVE. If I am at a temple event and I feel like a wallflower, I look for other wallflowers and chat them up. I have met some wonderful people that way, and gotten to know people from all parts of the synagogue.

BE POSITIVE. We’re Jews, and Jews kvetch. But unless you want to be someone people avoid, try to balance your complaints with compliments. Longtime members are proud of their synagogue. Staff work hard. If someone messes up, of course you let them know. But if you also tell them  what they did right, they will be more able to hear  your excellent observations.

DON’T BE INTIMIDATED. As a fat disabled lesbian with a Southern accent, I have had people say plenty of dumb and/or annoying things to me at synagogue. Out of town, in an environment where I will never see those people again, I generally roll my eyes and move along. But in my congregation, I find that what works best for me is to be willing to do a little education.  I let people know what my limits are: “I don’t like to discuss my health with anyone but my doctor, thanks,” or “You know, Abe, I like you a lot, but I really hate it when anyone imitates my accent.” I tell people what I need: “I can’t take the stairs. Join me in the elevator?” When someone drags out the old saw, “My, you don’t look Jewish!” I just smile pleasantly and say, “This is what Jewish looks like in the 21st century.” When all else fails, my default line is, “Can we talk about something else?”

GIVE EVERYONE THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT. If someone says something stupid, odds are they didn’t stay up all night trying to figure out the best way to insult you.  If on the other hand, someone is consistently offensive or annoying, maybe you’re just oil and water. In any community of size, there are going to be a few people with whom you just don’t mix easily.  Whatever you do, beware the temptation to bond with others via gossip and mean talk about others. That stuff will leave you more isolated, not less.

BE A MEMBER, NOT A CONSUMER. After you’ve decided this is the shul for you, let “Be a member, not a consumer” be your guide. Keep your commitments to other synagogue members and staff. Treat people like you are going to see them again. If there’s a program or service you want, ask for it, but be willing to contribute to making it happen.

The staff are not the synagogue. The building is not the synagogue. The synagogue is You.

Image: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by FoodMayhem.com


Choosing Synagogue Membership

December 22, 2013
A synagogue is not just a building.

A synagogue is not just a building.

I have to be honest about my bias on this topic.  One of the fixed items in our household budget is synagogue membership. Our children are grown. We don’t need religious school. No one is studying for a bar mitzvah. But to borrow a phrase from Moses – excuse me, Charlton Heston! – I’ll let go of my synagogue membership when they take it out of my cold, dead hands.

Why is synagogue membership important to me? Let me count the pros:

1. I have a rabbi (actually, two rabbis) on call should we need them. I like knowing that if I have a big decision to make, there’s someone grounded in the tradition with whom I can talk it through. I like knowing that if something bad happens, all members of my family will be free to call on the rabbi for support and guidance.  I don’t want to be looking for a rabbi at a crisis in my life.

2. I have a community. I don’t love everything about that community, or everyone in that community, but it is my community, people who know who I am and with whom I navigate life. If I am looking for a plumber, or a doctor, or a real estate agent, everyone has a recommendation. If I have something to celebrate, they will care. If something bad happens, they’ll care. I am not anonymous there.

3. I benefit from the Caring Community, or Committee, or whatever it is we’re calling it now. When my kids were still in school, and I fell and smashed my knee, someone picked up my kids from the bus, someone brought dinner, and someone was on the other end of the phone to help me figure out how I was going to deal with life while my leg was immobilized. As an aging woman with some disabilities, this is not a small thing.

4. I have somewhere to develop and use my talents as a volunteer. This goes for small stuff, like bringing food to potlucks, and to larger things as well. Currently I don’t work for a congregation, but I volunteer some of my professional skills for my congregation. If I had the time, I could sing in the choir (I wish I had the time.) I get appreciation for the things I do from time to time, and that’s nice too. I also learn about social justice action opportunities, and have a ready-made group of people with whom to pursue those.

5. I have a minyan with whom to pray. Jews engage in private prayer, but there are some kinds of prayer for which we need a minyan of at least ten Jewish adults.

6. I have people with whom to learn. There is no substitute for a community when doing Jewish learning: it just does not work alone. And even though I went to rabbinical school, I still have lots to learn: learning is a lifelong activity for a Jew.

7. When there is truly a crisis, I have a community and a rabbi. Much of my work is with unaffiliated Jews, and I have to tell you that that more than anything has convinced me of the benefits of belonging. I do my best for families who are grieving, but they’ve turned to me because someone gave them my name after disaster struck. I’m essentially a nice stranger with a set of skills they need. How much better it would be for them to have a rabbi they know, that they can call the minute trouble looms, and who already knows their story? That is what I want for myself and my family.

8. I know that by supporting this synagogue, I am contributing to the future of Judaism in my area. Even after my kids are grown, children will be learning about Judaism at that synagogue. Couples will get married. Funerals will be held. Celebrations will happen, holidays and fasts will be observed. By being a part of a synagogue, I keep Judaism going.

Now for the “cons” of synagogue membership:

1. Yes, it costs money. Having that rabbi on call, and a secretary and whatever else (a building, a janitor, teachers, etc) costs a lot of money. If money is tight, then you have two options: talk with the synagogue about reduced rates, or opt not to belong for now.

2. As I said above, not everyone at my congregation is my best friend. Sometimes there is conflict. There are some people who drive me a little nuts. I probably drive them a little nuts, too. Comes with the territory. As the old joke goes, sometimes it is easier to love Judaism than it is to love real live Jews.

3. Yes, they bug me to give and to do stuff. Linda and I get periodic appeals for financial and volunteer participation. I also feel free to say “no” when I really can’t or don’t want to do something.

4. I don’t agree with the way everything is done by the synagogue. Policy is up to the board, and they call those shots. I get to state my opinion, but I am not the boss. If it’s the only synagogue in town and the disagreement is about something serious, then maybe it isn’t worth it. For example, I am not sure I could be a happy member of a congregation that wanted me to be closeted, or that did not count women for a minyan.

5. Paying dues is just the beginning. To really get the benefits of synagogue membership, you have to invest time and heart.

Synagogue membership is not cheap. It costs money, time, and heart. Sometimes it is aggravating. But for me, it’s worth it.


A Beginner’s Guide to the Torah Scroll

December 12, 2013
Hakhnasat Sefer Torah

(Photo credit: Avital Pinnick)

Ten facts about Torah scrolls:

1. The proper Hebrew name for a Torah scroll is Sefer Torah, a book of Torah. It’s pronounced “SAY-fehr toe-RAH,” or in the Yiddish/Ashkenazic pronunciation, “SAY-fehr TOE-rah.” It means “book of Torah.”

2. A sefer Torah contains exactly 304,805 Hebrew letters in a special script. There are no vowels and no punctuation. One must study in order to be able to read or chant from the sefer Torah.

English: Hebrew Bible text as written in a Jew...

Numbers 10:35 in a sefer Torah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3. It takes a sofer (SOH-fehr) (specially trained scribe) approximately 18 months to produce a sefer Torah. It takes so long because every letter is written by hand, every detail has to be checked and rechecked, and there are special rules for writing the name of God. As a result of this care, the text has been preserved over the centuries.

4. The sofer writes the text in a special ink on parchment produced from the skin of a kosher animal. If he or she makes a mistake on an ordinary word, they scrape the word off the parchment with a knife and continue. If they make a mistake writing the name of God, that entire panel must be cut from the scroll and a new panel sewn in in its place.

5. A typical sefer Torah weighs 20-25 pounds, although some are as heavy as 50 pounds. A sefer Torah is both massive and fragile.

6. Reading from a sefer Torah is a public act, normally performed on Monday mornings, Thursday mornings, Shabbat and holidays. The text may be read or chanted to a traditional melody called trop. It is always translated, or a translation is provided, for all who do not understand the Biblical Hebrew.

7. We carry the sefer Torah around during the Torah reading service in a ceremony called Hakafah, (hah-kah-FAH). You may see people reaching out to touch the torah with the fringes on their prayer shawls, or with their prayer books, and then kissing the object that touched the Torah. We do this out of reverence for what the Torah represents, thousands of years of tradition, learning, and revelation. We do not worship the Torah scroll.

8. During the Torah service, and at other times, we stand when the sefer Torah is out of its cabinet, often referred to as the Ark or the Aron. We always face the sefer Torah if possible, so during Hakafah we turn to follow its path around the room.

9. On Simchat Torah, (“Joy of the Torah”) a fall holiday, we celebrate finishing and restarting the yearly reading of the Torah with singing and dancing, often with the sefer Torah itself.

10. Every synagogue has customs and rules about who may handle a sefer Torah. Generally speaking, only a person who qualifies as a member of a minyan may hold a sefer Torah. When in doubt about the custom of a particular synagogue, ask the rabbi.


Shabbat Isn’t Just Friday Night

November 8, 2013

Kiddush Lunch

Kiddush Lunch (Photo credit: jordansmall)

From the articles you see for beginners about “Keeping Shabbat,” you might get the idea that Friday night is the whole shooting match.  Not true!

Friday night is “Shabbat dinner,” true, and in many Reform synagogues, Friday night is the most-attended service, but Shabbat goes on until sundown on Saturday, and for me, Saturday can be the best part. Some things I love about Saturday and Shabbat:

  • Yes, the Saturday morning Torah service is long. It’s also beautiful, and we get to take the Torah out and march around with it and handle it and read from it. There are few more powerful ways to connect with our ancient past (more about Torah scrolls in a future post, I promise.)
  • Saturday kiddush lunch is the meal after the Saturday morning service. It might be at synagogue, or it might be at home. It starts with the kiddush (a toast to Shabbat, basically) and involves tasty food eaten in a leisurely fashion, preferably with friends. Yum.
  • Saturday afternoon is full of possibilities. For starters, there is Napping. Napping on Shabbat is glorious and decadent: it perhaps says better than anything that we are not slaves.
  • Saturday “naps” can also be put in quotations. If there is a time during the week when it is the accepted routine for the entire family to nap, that frees parents for affection and lovemaking. 
  • Saturday afternoon can also be a time for hanging out and chatting. Before electronics took over every nanosecond of our lives, when the world was young… you remember. Or not. But that world can come back for a little while on Saturday afternoon.
  • And then – let’s be real here – maybe your world is set up in such a way that Friday evening Shabbat, services or dinner, simply can’t be observed properly. If that is the case, then don’t despair – find some Shabbat on Saturday.

Maybe you have your own ideas for Shabbat afternoons – I invite you to share them in the comments section.  But whatever you do, don’t let anyone tell you that Shabbat is only Friday night, because Friday night is only the beginning!


The Hospitality Challenge: I Dare You!

August 28, 2013
Welcome

Photo credit: alborzshawn

There’s a lot of kerfluffle in the Jewish press lately over the perceived shortcomings of the synagogue. “Services are boring!” wails one writer. “Millennials can’t relate!” writes another. “How do we attract the young people?” “We’re putting too much emphasis on youth!” “Remake the bar mitzvah!” “Get rid of the bar mitzvah!” and of course, “Did you see that video on YouTube?”

Feh!

I am not a congregational rabbi. I am a member of a congregation, and I believe that congregational membership is one of the greatest deals on the planet. I learned that not from a rabbi, but from other congregants. I love the feeling of extended family. I love knowing that if my life suddenly goes up in smoke, the Caring Community will be on the job. I love going to shul and seeing my friends. But what got me there was not an official program. What got me there was other people performing a mitzvah: hachnasat orchim, hospitality.

The Snyder-Kepler family invited me to dinner. Then they invited me to holidays at their home. I met other people there, who invited me to their homes. We ate together. We did dishes together. We hung out together. Friendships were born. Kids grew up.

I am in the process of moving into a new home. I’m organizing it with two goals in mind.  First, it needs to be accessible enough that my honey and I can get old in it, and disabled friends can come to visit with dignity. Secondly, it needs to be set up like the Tent of Abraham: we are going to welcome friends and strangers (soon to be new friends) for Shabbat dinners, for lazy Shabbat afternoons, for holidays, and for study. And the house is going to be set up so that people’s children will be welcome, too.

I am a teaching rabbi, and I admit, part of it is that I need to do more of my teaching in an environment that gentler on my own disabilities. But more of it is that I know this works, because it worked on me. Our home will not be a synagogue or a substitute for a synagogue. It will be a Jewish home, hospitably open to other people.  We’ll find them at synagogue, we’ll find them in class, we’ll find them when they wander into our lives. And they will be welcome. And then we will teach them: you can do this. Invite someone over.

Linda and I are both introverts. This is going to require some stretching. That’s why I’m writing about it under the #BlogElul topic “Dare.”

Because committing to serious hospitality requires daring from my introverted soul.  I worry that I’m an awful housekeeper, I’m not a very good cook, I tend to run around barefoot at home, the dogs will misbehave, what will we do if they don’t leave? what will I do if they criticize me? what if what if what if … and it simply doesn’t matter. I’m going to give this mitzvah a go.

Because I know that it works. It worked on me.

Now: to any other Jews that are reading this: I dare YOU. When was the last time you invited another Jew over? I’m not talking to the congregational rabbis, I’m talking to the folks like me, Jews-in-the-pew.  You don’t have to commit to it as a way of life – not now – just commit to doing it once. Then again. Invite someone over for dinner and Scrabble. Or lunch and the ballgame on TV. Or gardening. Or making brownies. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you have them over. What matters is that you practice the mitzvah of hospitality. If you have a home, however humble, it’s fine.

I believe that this can transform our congregations, if enough of us do it. Because we will then not be a group of people consuming services, we will be a real community, people who have eaten together and washed dishes together, who have maybe even seen each other at not-at-our-best times. We will have compassion for one another. We will have bright ideas. We will show up.

I dare you.

This post is part of the series #BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommers. Participants mark the passage of time during the month of Elul with social media meditations on topics connected with the High Holy Days and the month of Elul.


Tip the Rabbi?

June 11, 2013

English: A basic, Sharp-brand solar calculator.

I love perusing the Google searches that bring people to my blog, because it tells me what people want to know. Today someone typed, “How much to tip the rabbi.” I’m going to expand that a bit, to include the various ways rabbis are paid for their work.

- If you are a member of a congregation with a full time rabbi, the rabbi’s salary is part of the congregational budget.

- If you are using the services of a rabbi who is employed by a congregation and you are not a member, you may be asked to pay the synagogue  for his or her time. That “honorarium” or fee will be mentioned when you set up the service (say, a funeral.)

- If you wish to express your thanks, you can always contribute to the rabbi’s discretionary fund. That money is set aside for charitable purposes (not the rabbi’s car payment). Your rabbi will use it to relieve immediate suffering (for instance, by purchasing “gift cards” to a grocery store for a hungry person) or to support the work of a nonprofit organization.

- Freelance or community rabbis (those not employed by congregations) may or may not perform weddings, baby namings, etc. The way to find out is to ask. Generally they have a set fee for these things, but the exact rate will depend on local custom.

- It is a Jewish tradition to give tzedakah [a charitable contribution] to celebrate happy occasions, to memorialize the dead, and at holidays. That money might go to a rabbi’s discretionary fund, or to a synagogue fund, or to a nonprofit that serves the needy.

- No respectable rabbi charges for conversion to Judaism. There may be a charge to take an “Intro” class, or to use the community mikveh, but conversion itself is not for sale. If someone quotes you a fee “for conversion” it’s time to look for a different rabbi.

- It is not rude or crass to ask up front about fees. If you cannot afford the fee as quoted, say so. The rabbi may be able to help you access assistance for  low-income individuals, especially for a funeral.

This information is geared for the United States. However, the last point holds true everywhere: as Hillel said, the shy will not learn. Ask questions!


Jewish Bible Study, Part Two: Why Learners Need Community

June 7, 2013
A Jewish group studying text together

A Jewish group studying text together

In Part One of this series of posts, I talked about the traditional schedules upon which Jews read from the Bible.

If you are interested in reading the Bible as a Jew, then you need to find Jews with whom to study. Those Jews might be a real live study group, such as you can find in any synagogue, or they might be Jews in books, any of the many writers of commentaries on the Bible. We read the books of the Bible together in a Jewish framework. (Christians read in a Christian framework, atheists in an atheist framework, and so on.)

Sometimes I hear people say, “I don’t want interpretation. I just want to know what it says.” My point is that who you are is going to be a factor in “what it says” to you.  To pick a very famous example, Isaiah 7:14:

לָכֵן יִתֵּן אֲדֹנָי הוּא, לָכֶם–אוֹת:  הִנֵּה הָעַלְמָה, הָרָה וְיֹלֶדֶת בֵּן, וְקָרָאת שְׁמוֹ, עִמָּנוּ אֵל.

First, a Jewish translation:  “Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign: behold, the young woman shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

Then, from the King James Christian translation: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

The obvious difference is that they translate the word almah differently, Jews as “young woman” and Christians as “virgin.” But there is a subtler difference, too, which colors the choice of words for translation. Jews understand the Prophets, like Isaiah, to be called to speak for God to the Jews about events at the time of the prophet, who also warns about consequences in the near future. A Jew would say that this line refers to a time when Isaiah the prophet was talking to Ahaz the king of Judah. It foretells the birth of Hezekiah, Ahaz’s heir, who will throw off the Assyrians who are oppressing the Jews under King Ahaz. Many of the things about which the prophets warned the ancient Jews are still very much with us: injustice, inequity, the plight of the poor, hypocrisy, and so on. So even though the events they refer to are long ago, the words of the prophets stay fresh as this morning’s newsfeed.

The Christian reading is quite different. Traditionally, Christians read the Jewish prophets as foretelling the life of Jesus, centuries later. They translated almah as “a virgin” because of a side-trip in translation.  In Matthew 1: 18-25 the origins of Jesus are thus:

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus,for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.”

“Virgin” in the Greek New Testament is parthenos.  The quotation is from Isaiah, filtered through the translation used by many Hellenized Jews and early Christians.  Almah (young woman in Hebrew) became parthenos (virgin in Greek, as in the title Athena Parthenos.) So a “young woman shall conceive” – nothing remarkable, really – became “a virgin shall conceive” – something entirely different.*

One line, two completely different readings of it! The two readings aren’t about the same person (Hezekiah or Jesus?) and the understanding of “prophecy” is completely different. Each tradition has its own point of view on the “correct” reading. This is only one example, one of the simplest to explain in a short article.

If you want to read the Bible as a Jew, find yourself a Jewish teacher or some Jews to learn with.

If you want to read the Bible as a Christian, the same logic follows: find yourself a Christian teacher or study partners.

Reading alone is a good preparation, but to participate in a tradition, you need to take the second step and learn with others.

* My thanks to @DovBear, who reminded me of the Septuagint connection. An earlier form of this article was in error.


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