Building a Jewish Identity One Nail at a Time
by Neil Z. Platt
Some recent efforts at our congregation put a new twist on the old saying “Build it and they will come.” At Congregation Beth Shalom, our saying is “Fix it and they will come.”
Located in the middle of the Texas Bible Belt, we have been the center of Jewish life and identity for more than 30 years. We have energetic leaders, an active population of youth whom we strive to keep engaged, and a common hope for a bright future. As the U.S. economy shifted, we not only lost members and the associated dues, but we also realized our facility was in need of some love and attention. In addition, our beloved rabbi has announced his retirement for next summer and so we also are beginning a search for a new spiritual leader.
As several active members were discussing our building situation, one asked, “What if I just fix the sand box myself?” Another one asked, “What if I do the garden repairs?” Before long, what began as a couple of people offering to put a few nails into a wooden deck became the centerpiece for both physical and spiritual evolvement and involvement at CBSW. Each Wednesday, members of our congregation show up for two hours of labor, contributing what they can. Some are experienced electricians, others retired machinists and several simply offer a strong back or hand out water.
One week, we used our evening to spruce up the conference room. One thing we could not fix, however, was a missing artistic rendering of the Ten Commandments, and after hours of work, we had only nine commandments. Returning the following week, we noticed the tenth commandment was back on the wall! After some searching we learned that the missing commandment had been in “safekeeping” in a congregant’s home—waiting for the room to be in good repair. Once the congregant, who happens to be an artist, noticed the room was being cared for, she re-hung her painting. She has since lent her skills to improve other areas of our facility.
All this activity led to a new discussion: If fixing sandboxes and fences, and cleaning rooms make us feel better and made the artist want to re-hang her artwork, what else could be gained from the repairs? The answer: spiritual connections and love. Our team began reaching out to teens and other younger members of the congregation, inviting them to join us. They accepted our invitation and today, when they arrive, they are assigned to work with adults and, indeed, they work: learning the proper use of both power and hand tools from the adults. More than that, they learn about the history of our synagogue and its facilities in general overarching conversations about the congregation.
Most important, the adults take time to listen and learn from the youth. As young men and women push wheelbarrows across the dirt to improve our facilities, they tell the adults about their vision of the future of Judaism. And do the adults listen? Absolutely! When the rabbinic search committee was formed, two teens were invited to be members. Teenagers also now represent our youth group on the social action, ritual, mitzvah and other committees, as well as on the board of trustees. As the new school year approaches, we’re compiling on a list of projects we can do together with the teens throughout the school year.
Our work to fix up the synagogue with our own hands not only results in lower labor costs, but also in increased spiritual bonds between young people and adults. As families approach the building for services, teens often are outside showing their friends what they have built.
So, what do you need to build at your facility?
Neil Z. Platt is the incoming president of Congregation Beth Shalom, The Woodlands, TX. Together with his wife, Ronna, they are raising three teenagers of their own.