Building Community Is Most Essential

A lay leader of the synagogue community that I serve — Society Hill Synagogue, an independent, 57-year-old synagogue with 340-plus households in the Society Hill neighborhood of Center City Philadelphia, whose rabbis have always had ties to the Reconstructionist movement — recently observed to me that my tenure as senior rabbi of the congregation, which began in 2020, had been defined almost entirely by pandemic and war. How did I feel about that, he wondered?

To be honest, I rejected the premise of the question, at least as framed in this way.

It’s true that arguably, two of the biggest earthquakes in the experience of Jewish community in the last 75 years — certainly since the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and perhaps since the Holocaust and the foundation of the State of Israel — have taken place in the last five years.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which began to spread throughout the world in early 2020, shut down Jewish communal gatherings as we knew them. I performed weddings that had been planned for hundreds of people in empty sanctuaries with just the wedding couple and two witnesses. Funerals of beloved public figures, outdoors in the cold and on Zoom. B’nai mitzvah that were postponed for a year or more. If the heart of the Jewish experience is to gather, then COVID-19 at the very least threw a wrench in the heart of that experience.

With and through Jewish community, we can serve the Divine, thereby living lives of meaning and holiness, doing our part to repair this broken world.

And the Oct. 7, 2023 massacre not only saw the most Jews murdered on a single day since the Holocaust, it rent an already fraying fabric within the Jewish community, as well as between Jewish community and other constituencies with whom the Jewish community had been allied.

In other words, as the dust from the attack on Oct. 7 settled, and as Israel launched its counteroffensive aimed at rooting out Hamas from the Gaza Strip, which led to a large Palestinian death toll, factions within the Jewish community with different answers to core questions felt antagonized by one another even further. Questions like Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself, and whether or not the subsequent war was a just war being pursued justly. These same questions plagued society at large, with large factions of society calling what Israel was doing genocide, questioning the very foundation of the state; others seeing sometimes latent and sometimes explicit antisemitism present in these movements, finding their conclusions divorced from an awareness of antisemitism’s noxious generational effects.

Still, despite — or perhaps more accurately, within — these seismic occurrences (the pandemic and the war), the need for the ongoing rhythms of Jewish community remained pronounced.

Which is why, tongue perhaps partially in cheek, I rejected the premise of the question: Even with these two major events, the fundamental goal of building Jewish community remains the same in 2024 as it did in 1954, in 1494 and in 94 C.E. — a goal that I articulate (and which lends itself to a myriad of articulations) as being about recognizing that with and through Jewish community, we can serve the Divine, thereby living lives of meaning and holiness, doing our part to repair the broken world in which we find ourselves.

In other words, Jewish community — the humility that accompanies living our lives in concert with others not only within one generation but across the generations — is an act of sacred living. It recognizes that we do not forge a trail on our own, but that the platform from which we live. In the Jewish case, the Jewish platform — composed of language, ritual and culture, moral and spiritual insights, and so much more — has been cultivated carefully throughout the generations and continues to be in our own generation an act of cultivation to which we ourselves contribute.

This act of cultivation and the nourishment that proceeds from it does not stop when seismic events occur. If anything, the engagement with this Jewish foundation becomes all the more important when times get tough.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that the project of building Jewish community is unaffected by external events. Quite the contrary. Events like pandemic and war very much shape how this project is pursued, and I believe successful community-building efforts were quick to recognize the significance of these developments and to respond accordingly.

But the core need we have for Jewish community remains vital. And so the task of the rabbi in 2024 is to recognize that ongoing, generation-upon-generation need and ask how it can best be met in the contemporary community, given current conditions.

I’ll share a little bit about how I’ve approached that task, recognizing that some components are specific to the circumstances with which I’ve been presented and some more translatable across circumstances.

First, I do want to share that to the extent that the success can be marked by numerical growth (and, surely, not all rabbinic successes are quantitative; many more are qualitative), I am proud to share that in the six years I’ve been working here full time[i], we have seen significant growth — expanding from 250 households to 340 households during a period in which the pandemic temporarily and significantly halted membership growth. We also saw significant growth in our preschool, Hebrew school and annual fundraising. This led to a near doubling of our annual operating income, from $1.2 to $2.2 million, which has allowed us to reinvest in the things we care about: teaching, music, staff support, food to facilitate gatherings, needed repairs to improve the accessibility of our physical plant and more. All of this helps support our mission of essentially engaging the rhythms of Jewish community to support, and bring meaning and holiness to our lives and the lives of those around us.

What do I attribute that to?

For starters, demographics. I’m tempted to say that demographics is destiny, though that feels a bit overwrought. Still, we are a downtown congregation in a large city in the Northeast — one of the hubs of Jewish life in the United States. We’re no New York or Los Angeles, but there is a big population base from which to draw. Further, anecdotally, I experience two helpful demographic trends: one is that “empty nesters” — that old term for parents whose kids have grown up and left the home — seem to gravitate from the suburbs to the city. Whereas a big house with lots of space for a middle-class family makes sense, folks getting older, at least in the Philadelphia area, seem drawn to city living — proximity to restaurants, art, culture and like-minded, similarly situated fellows. (Hineh Ma Tov U-ma Naim Shevet Akhim Gam Yakhad). Second, whereas once young parents seemed to make the reverse exodus — from city to suburbs — many seem to find those same amenities appealing, and further, at least in our district, are finding the local public schools to be providing a quality education.[ii]

Second, fundraising. Two of the most important components of a successful synagogue community — physical plant and paid staff — require significant investment. We wouldn’t be in the position we are in without a generous congregation with the means to give, as well as volunteers, staff and clergy who are committed to organizing ongoing efforts to ensure that our financial needs are met. In my time here, the volunteers successfully led a second phase of a capital campaign that enabled us to expand our space, which enabled us to serve more people, especially in our preschool and Hebrew school. That enabled us, in addition to serving our mission of nourishing people through Jewish communal rhythms and values, of raising more revenue, which allowed us to continue to reinvest in the health and growth of our community.

Third, Shabbat. The heart of the synagogue experience is Shabbat. I am aware that some synagogue communities end up feeling like there is only so much interest in Friday-night or Saturday-morning synagogue services, and that much of synagogue growth is about offering non-religious programs or social programs or anything but the core Shabbat experience to bring in new members. I’m here to assert that I believe not only does it have to be a “both-and” strategy rather than an “either-or” strategy, but that investing in the core Shabbat experience is one of the most important things a synagogue can do.

Synagogues are fundamentally religious institutions. Yes, they meet other needs of ours as well, primarily through facilitating social connections around Jewish cultural and ethical foundations.

But their primary raison d’être — their primary “value-add” compared to what else is available to the Jewish individual in North America — is religious-spiritual in nature. (By “religious,” I mean the formal containers of mitzvot (ritual observance), talmud Torah (study), tefillah (prayer) and other Jewish rituals built up over the millennia. By “spiritual,” I mean engagement with the Divine; these arenas obviously complement one another.

Jewish community — the humility that accompanies living our lives in concert with others not only within one generation but across the generations—is an act of sacred living.

For synagogues to thrive, in most cases, they have to recognize this unique contribution they have to make: the embodiment of the term Yisra’el — wrestling with the Divine; recognizing that even if we seek to avoid dogma and theological absolutes and prescriptions, Judaism is a means of wrestling with God, searching for ways to discover and lift up the holiness in the universe.

The primary regular container synagogues have through which to do this is Shabbat — and, more specifically, the vessels of tefillah and talmud Torah, which in modern synagogue terms become manifest in prayer, music and space for reflection with respect to the former; and divrei Torah/sermons and Torah discussions with respect to the latter.

Early on, I realized that Society Hill Synagogue was made up of — at least, when I first started — three primary communities: (1) Those who attend on High Holidays, the occasional special event and who may or may not rely on the clergy or community for a life-cycle moment like a death in the family; (2) Regular shul-goers who attend many Shabbatot per year; (3) Hebrew-school families working towards celebrating b’nai mitzvah for their children.

One of the first things I noticed was the vibrancy of the third category and the increasingly small (though deeply committed) second category.

Hebrew school at our synagogue met on Sundays and Tuesdays.

I realized that having the school meet on Sundays was not meeting our needs for several reasons. First, this arrangement completely siloed groups (2) and (3) from one another. When a guest came through on an average Shabbat morning, they encountered a sweet group that was swallowed up by a massive sanctuary. Good Torah and davening (praying) were taking place, but it was mostly empty. If they happened to duck in on a Sunday, however, they would encounter kids bouncing off the walls — laughter, playing and a good amount of learning.

So, too, were the kids being siloed from the experience of Shabbat. Their only institutional exposure to Judaism was child-focused, catered to children. For all they knew, synagogues were set up exclusively for children. They showed up to Sunday school and when they did come for Shabbat, it was for a “class service.” The contents of the service were entirely changed to suit the kids’ needs. There was no opportunity for the kids to view adults who saw synagogue Judaism as a nurturing force in their lives, rather than as an institution that served kids until they “graduated” upon turning 13.

So the first thing I did when I became “senior” rabbi was to launch a process of engaging parents, teachers, students and congregants that resulted in moving Sunday Hebrew school to Shabbat.

As part of this, beginning in third grade, students join the rest of us in the sanctuary for our 20 to 30 minute Torah discussion), in which Hebrew-school students and adults alike raise their hand and participate in a discussion about the Torah portion that I prepare and facilitate, aiming to connect the portion to our lived realities. The younger kids — kindergarten through second grade — join for the close of the service singing v’shamru with us on the bimah, saying kiddush and motzi.

The results have been tremendous. Adults gush about the kids’ smarts and participation in the service; kids feel integrated in, and not daunted by, the experience in the sanctuary, and also see the service as not just something kids do and graduate from. They see adults freely deciding to attend for their own purposes — modeling that I believe will make a difference down the line so that we as Jews will continue to avail ourselves of the nourishment that comes from a Shabbat experience.

Whereas we once averaged around 20 people for a non-“special” Shabbat, we now average 50 to 60, not including the nearly 100 students we have in our Hebrew school.

This is key, because when guests drop in — prospective members who are “shul shopping” — they see a synagogue filled with life. Note that even prospective members who will not end up being regular Shabbat attendees themselves often rely on a Shabbat visit to a synagogue to help determine whether it is the right synagogue for them, so it is so important that Shabbat be a real showcase for all the virtues of the synagogue. It is also, obviously, important to invest in the Shabbat experience to meet the needs of current members.[iii]

This same logic applied to our Friday-night services. While we couldn’t operate the same lever of moving an entire Hebrew school to Friday night, we did ask Hebrew-school students, with their class, to attend two Friday-night services a year that we assigned to them, which meant big infusions of people in these services.

Beyond that, we built on a previously successful model of a once-a-month “TGIShabbat” service, which featured talented guest musicians accompanying the service and made instrumentation a weekly feature of the service. We typically have at least three musicians for every Friday-night service, which we hold weekly from September through May, taking a break in the summer.

The instruments help fill the sanctuary with sound, and again, help give the impression — now often a reality — of a sanctuary filled with life.

A crowd draws a crowd. The experience of a sense of vibrancy and people builds on itself.

We have grown from about 10 to 20 people per Friday-night service (with the one monthly musical “TGIShabbat” being 60 to 80) to approximately 40 to 50 people, at a minimum per Friday-night service.

I’ve neglected to mention one key ingredient (no pun intended; OK, partially intended) of our successful Shabbatot: food. The single biggest financial investment we have made is to feed people at every service. It’s not so much the food itself that is important; it’s the way in that food facilitates one of the primary reasons people seek out synagogue communities: gathering and connection. Food allows everyone to come together at the end of a service.

Of course, food was not available during the early stages of the pandemic, which brings us to how those two signal events — the pandemic and Oct. 7 — transformed one of the key parts of a rabbi’s role: Torah.

Prior to the pandemic, when I was leading Shabbat services, I typically prepared two divrei Torah each week — one for Friday night, one for Saturday morning.

When the pandemic first arrived, with everything moving online, one of the features I experienced was how difficult it was to deliver a d’var Torah on Zoom. I got used to it over time, but, when people are in the room, you can hear the chuckles, you can tell if people are stirring in their seats; you can even hear the silence or its absence. Are people hanging on your words on not? Are they bored? On Zoom, at least initially, that was all eliminated. You essentially were delivering a d’var Torah, hoping it landed, no feedback loop in which to adjust your energy.

So I determined that it needed to be more interactive. We changed our Saturday morning d’var Torah to a Torah discussion, and we haven’t gone back since. The multitude of voices, the different perspectives, holding space for people to build off one another’s comments have all added a dimension to our learning and to our synagogue experience that we needed. I know other synagogues had long since incorporated this feature, but for us, it took the pandemic to re-incorporate it (it had been there decades before), and it has been a breakthrough.

After Oct. 7

Another breakthrough took place after Oct. 7.

I believe that the notion that “politics” and religion should be separate is largely a fallacy. So many features of Torah are ultimately “political” in the sense that the Torah speaks about issues that affect public affairs. How do we treat those experiencing homelessness, poverty, indentured servitude? How we treat the earth? These are key features of Torah; a document that clearly touches on public affairs and informs — with a vote but not a veto — how we think about them.

Furthermore, being Jewish means to have been in the crosshairs of geopolitics over the preceding two millennia. If part of what we are talking about from the bimah is the Jewish experience, then autocrats predisposed to scapegoating other peoples is very much fair game for the necessary discourse in synagogue communities.

Still, my divrei Torah from the bimah have largely avoided politics — at least, week to week on Shabbat. Not because I don’t think politics is fair game for a d’var Torah; I do. But because I think there is a part ourselves that needs more tending to on Shabbat — the part of us that wrestles with the Eternal; the inner self; the part trying to make sense of Jewish features like tefillah, Torah and mitzvot, and how we might bring more holiness into the world. While I think Judaism has something to say about political questions, I also think we are inundated with political discussion over the course of the week, and the special charm of Shabbat calls for us to take a step back from the messy realities of the world when we can, even if we return right to it when Shabbat is over.

But synagogue communities do want to engage with world events. And they do appreciate commentary from their rabbi. Oct. 7 made this all too clear, when not only did we bear witness to these horrific events and the subsequent war, but protests and debate spilled into our streets and online public squares. Congregants wanted to hear from their rabbi.

Judaism is a means of wrestling with God, searching for ways to discover and lift up the holiness in the universe.

So, I began writing weekly emails to the community (in addition to the divrei Torah that I deliver Friday nights and the Torah discussions I prepare for Saturday mornings) in which I felt more comfortable being explicitly “political.” The Friday-night bimah calls for a significant degree of poetry in its divrei Torah, I believe, holding the sacred space that has been created on Shabbat. A weekly email missive provided the format for me to wrestle with explicitly “political” content: was war the proper response to the massacre? What was (and is) the case for Israel as a state? What might the future hold for two peoples conflicted over, generally, the same land? While I hold no special expertise on these questions beyond being a committed and active citizen of the United States and of the Jewish people, I found people yearning for — and responding to — my weekly emails. It is rare that I have received as much affirmative feedback, alongside occasional disagreement, from the congregation as I have on these writings.[iv]

This brings me back to my congregant’s question. What does it feel like to have a rabbinate almost entirely defined by pandemic and war? It’s hard to imagine a counterfactual where these were not present, but I know that people, including me, have been nourished by the exact thing that nourished them long before these two specific occurrences and will for a long time hence: Jewish community. Thank God for it.


[i] In 2018, I was hired out of rabbinical school to serve as associate rabbi alongside my friend and mentor Rabbi Avi Winokur. I served as a part-time rabbinic intern here for about four years prior to that.

[ii] To be clear, this description is not one articulating any particular urban-policy stance. There are many neighborhoods in the city that need much more investment, and affordable housing is always challenging. I am merely describing what I see as a significant contributing factor of a thriving synagogue.

[iii] If a synagogue is built around the rhythms of Jewish life and the way those rhythms can uplift its members, Shabbat is obviously a keystone feature of that experience.

[iv] Perhaps also speaking to the fact that while congregants may not all show up for a weekly Shabbat service, they continue to engage online.

2 Responses

  1. Informative, thoughtful as usual. Much appreciated this piece, as I do your weekly emails and d’var torah!

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