Reaching out with Rachamim
by Michael Anatole
In his op-ed “Synagogues Must Reach Out to the Uninspired,” Rabbi Rick Jacobs writes:
“It’s our job to inspire (the unaffiliated/the uninspired) and help them find their place in the Jewish community … by reorientating our synagogues to address the needs of this group. Most of the time the synagogue is not reaching them. Synagogues must speak to the soul; they must challenge and educate.”
I respectfully suggest that the way to reach the uninspired is not as simple as “speaking to the soul,” “challenging” and “educating.” In fact, it is simpler still.
Jews used to be a part of community out of necessity, social pressures and prejudices forcing us together. Anti-Semitism, both overt and covert, was the vise, clamping us into community. Now that those pressures are gone, or at least, largely attenuated, Jewish community has become the victim of the entropy of assimilation. Absent the pressure from without, we need an in-gathering, a “Jewish magnetism” to attract and bind our cultural molecules.
Maslow proposed a hierarchy of needs, but our tradition said it first, and more succinctly: “No bread, no Torah.” Extending the metaphor, I suggest that inspiration is good, but before inspiration must come invitation. Perhaps Jews are not unaffiliated because they are uninspired: Perhaps Jews are unaffiliated because they are unwelcome.
It is good to go to coffee shops and bars, gyms and apartments, seeking out young Jews. But it is vital to reach out to Jews of all ages, perhaps those already in community but marginalized – to the sick, to the aged, to the lonely, or even those from whom we have not recently heard, with compassion. I suggest that a congregation that earns a reputation for caring will not need to go out looking for unaffiliated Jews; they will find us.
I would also caution against the ubiquitous use of the word “young” in every discussion of membership and affiliation. Rabbi Jacobs referred to “young Jews,” a “young rabbi,” and “young people” four times. It was clear that the uninspired, unaffiliated youth are his target and the subject of his article. I believe that this is a continuation of the error of the prior administration. The Reform Movement has every reason to be proud of the NFTY program and our excellent camps. However, the Jewish community is much broader than that, and our obligation of community extends to everyone. Failing to wrap our arms around Jews of all ages, equally and lovingly, sends the clear message that the great majority of Jews, those over the age of 30, do not really matter.
To educate, challenge and inspire Jews is the job of the synagogue, no doubt. But that is not what motivates the unaffiliated. When I was in college, the born-again Christian youth were most successful in motivating their fellow students, even Jews, to join their groups and movements. Their success was not based upon theology or education: it was based upon open arms and a promise of community. One could say that they learned from our history. I suggest that we should, as well.
Rabbi Jacobs is absolutely right to say: “Our web of mutual responsibility doesn’t end with those in our congregation. Rather that’s where it begins.” I propose that a synagogue that is serious about increasing affiliation do the following: activate its bikur cholim group; create a group whose mandate is to personally, by telephone at least, and personal visit if possible, to touch base with everyone, especially the aged, who are not present at Temple functions; use email judiciously, and favor person-to-person communications; reinstate the phone tree.
Synagogues thrived when Judaism was under attack, not because worship was more inspirational but because Jews came to be together. By reaching out and showing that we care about each other, of every age, Jews will come together again, and our community cannot help but to thrive.
Michael Anatole is the cantorial soloist at Temple Beth Torah in Ventura, CA. He has served in this capacity since 1974 and practices law in Ventura. If interested, you may listen to his compositions at cantormichaelsmusic.com.