As I become president of Temple Beth Sholom, I find myself focused on the importance of continuity and “community”.
Temple Beth Sholom describes itself as “a caring community.” Historically, this building itself was once known as the Hamden Jewish Community Center. Over the years, TBS has earned its legacy as a caring community, and is well known for its excellent Hebrew School, unmatched Adult Education Programs, and young family programming that is emulated throughout the area. Likewise, our nursery school has developed a fantastic reputation.
Even with all these positives, there is still much work to be done. We must reach out to gain new members. We must ensure that there are enough people for our daily minyans so that people can say Kaddish. We must make difficult decisions for the best interests of our shul. We must identify new leaders who will take our shul to new heights in the years to come.
We have built a beautiful new building for our community. “If you build it, they will come.”
Many have said that about our renovated building. I think that’s wishful thinking, and without hard work, will remain just that.
There was a recent article in the New York Times about a thriving synagogue in Benton County, Arkansas. It seems that a growing number of Jewish families have moved to Bentonville and its surrounding towns, as employees of Wal-Mart at its corporate headquarters, or for one of its many suppliers. In 2004, the Jews of Benton County bought an old church & established a shul called Etz Chaim.
Here’s a snapshot of Etz Chaim: The Rabbi & Cantor are a husband & wife team who come in from Tulsa, OK once a month and for bar / bat mitzvahs to lead Shabbat services. Members of the congregation come from every denomination of Judaism that we have – reform, conservative, orthodox & reconstructionist. They have debated questions ranging from which branch to affiliate with to whether or not congregants can take pictures in the shul on Shabbos. But they find a way to listen to each other, to learn from each other, and to reach consensus — because that is how you create a community.
The members of Etz Chaim also face the curious and formidable task of explaining who and what they are to their non-Jewish neighbors. They have done so, and with great success. They compelled school principals to change the name of Christmas Vacation to “winter break.” They convinced the mayor to put up a menorah on the town green. They broadcasted the shul’s first bar mitzvah reception on a local radio station. One congregant even opened a restaurant that serves knishes, latkes and matzoh ball soup.
After reading this article, I reflected on what is happening here at TBS and in the greater New Haven Jewish community. At TBS, we have an honorable and impressive history as a caring community and now we have a brand new building which should only enhance what we have. But still we face challenges. Our greater Jewish community faces similar challenges. We have close to a dozen synagogues in the greater New Haven community, several of them affiliated with the conservative movement. Each and every one of them faces the same challenges that we do. Our membership numbers remain steady, at best. Other shuls struggle to meet their budgets; and some are failing. A major business serving the Jewish community just closed its doors.
So what can we learn from the members of Etz Chaim? A couple of things. First, maybe we are spoiled by the prevalence of Jews and Jewish institutions in our community. We should never take that for granted. Complacency breeds apathy. The Jews in Benton County have channeled their energy towards a common mission, creating a Jewish community – building something for themselves and for their children. To do so, they had to set aside politics, pettiness and personal desires. They could only achieve their goals through compromise.
We also learn from Etz Chaim that it is true . . . if you build it, they will come. But not simply because you build it. You need to make them want to come, to feel as if they need to come, that the community within the shul is one which they must be a part of – that they want to be a part of.
That is what I want for TBS; what we should all want for TBS. We want our “caring community” to thrive. And for it to thrive, we must commit ourselves to make it happen. The success of TBS is as much dependent upon what we do within these walls as it is upon how the greater New Haven Jewish community moves forward. We must tap resources both within this congregation and within our larger community. We will all benefit from such efforts. What do I mean by this?
First, get in the game. Our shul is made up of all of us. If we don’t involve ourselves, we can’t be part of it. The same goes for the greater Jewish community. It has a lot to offer to each of us personally, and a lot to offer to this shul. Talk to your friends at other shuls and find out what’s going on there, how they are meeting similar challenges. Bring the information back to us. Share our ideas with them. Attend programs sponsored by other Jewish organizations. We are all in this together and should want to broaden our horizons. It will undoubtedly benefit each of us and strengthen our community. We cannot rely on others to do this work for us. Find the time to be involved. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Do as much as you can and then just a little more.”
As we learn from the members of Etz Chaim, many miles from here, your community is not just where you live, it is how you live. When it comes right down to it, the members of Etz Chaim are just trying to do the same thing that we are… build a Jewish community for their kids, so they can grow up with a strong sense of how important the concept of community – of a caring community – really is.
Let me take this opportunity to wish everyone a happy and healthy New Year. May we together continue to go from strength to strength.
(Adapted from Installation Remarks – June 30, 2006)