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What the Temple Means to Me
Morning Service Rosh Hashanah 5770 (2009)

Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro, Sinai Temple

 

Everybody has problems. Listen to this crisis in synagogue life. A rabbi in Texas described his dilemma on one of my list serves.

Dear Friends: My congregation is in Arlington, Texas. Nice place, unfortunately our building is one mile from the new Dallas Cowboys football stadium. It is unfortunate because the Cowboys have a Monday night game that will begin about an hour after the final shofar on Yom Kippur day. Traffic will be a nightmare.

Here is the problem: Do we close services early to avoid the traffic? Or do we figure out a way to make services so attractive and long that people will stay until the traffic dies down and the game has begun at 7:30 p.m?

I loved this question when I first read it, and I saved it for today because, among life’s many problems, I thought wouldn’t it be great if our biggest concern as a synagogue was the balance between service times and the NFL.

Yes, we do have problems at Sinai; they’re just a bit different.

Last year, on Yom Kippur afternoon we had a problem. The afternoon service that precedes Yizkor went way too long, and more than a minyan of people let me know that. (By the way, I had sort of figured it out anyway.) At any rate, watch us this Yom Kippur. We’ve worked hard to make amends. We hope to get the timing as close to right as possible.

Then there is the matter of how long Sunday School ought to run. For the last two years, we tried an experiment. Sheila Shear, the Religious School committee, and I were very excited about lengthening Sunday School to three hours. A good number of parents were not as impressed. So we listened. We’ve changed course and created a new format for the school that runs 2 ½ hours. Shorter, but hopefully solid, serious Jewish learning.

But you know and I know there are problems and there are problems, and I wouldn’t be honest with you, if I didn’t mention the particular problem Sinai faces as we enter this New Year.

Actually, I’m of two minds on this issue. On the one hand, there is no better time to discuss a problem than now when we are all together. On the other hand, I’m reluctant to talk about trouble because this is the very first day of our brand new year.

I’m also hesitant lest a presentation on our problems lets us overlook the good work done here at Sinai.

After all, this last year has included: our first Jewish dog show back in October, a successful Mitzvah Day with hundreds of participants, the introduction of a new prayer book, the blessing of our new cantor, the creation of a fund to respond to those in financial need, an outstanding scholar in residence weekend, brand new Saturday morning programs and potluck lunches, a first-time ever excursion for 11th & 12th graders to rebuild New Orleans, plus the usual experiences of Jewish learning, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, Confirmation, and weddings.

We are living Judaism here. We are doing what healthy synagogues are supposed to do.

It’s just that our healthy, creative synagogue has sailed into very turbulent waters. A combination of demographic and economic trends challenges us in fundamental ways. So much so that you might ask if Sinai will be here to celebrate its hundredth anniversary in the year 2031. To which I respond absolutely yes. But I say that while also knowing that survival isn’t the primary issue. For me, it’s not whether Sinai will survive. It’s whether Sinai will thrive and do all it should do as a synagogue home for you, me, and Reform Judaism through to and beyond 2031.

But how did we get to the point where I might ever need to mention survival from this bimah?

We celebrated our 75th anniversary with delight and pride only three years ago. Many of you may remember taking that photograph on Yom Kippur morning 2006 when we all turned around to face the balcony. That image of a vibrant, celebratory congregation has been the image on our website ever since then. In that 2006 photo, we were every bit the joyful, creative, compassionate community described in our Temple mission statement.

It’s just that even then we were already quietly experiencing the slippery demographic realities of 21st century Springfield. Put it this way. In the good old days of 1989 or 1999 we always lost members. Some died, some moved away, some lost interest and slipped away. On average, maybe 25 households left Sinai every year over all those years. But we didn’t pay that much attention because, in the good old days, 25 to 30 new households generally showed up on our doorstep every Fall. From the 1980’s through to around ten years ago our congregation grew comfortably because natural losses were exceeded by natural gains.

Then came the changes starting around ten years ago. People stopped moving to this area the way they used to move here. Jews stopped moving to this area they way they had. Except Jews didn’t stop leaving the area or the synagogue either. And there you have it: if the same number still leaves and fewer come in to replenish us from the bottom, we shrink. We go from a high of around 600 households to our present membership in the area of 500.

“Thank God,” we said for a few years. “We have endowment funds which can help us maintain ourselves despite the loss of income from 100 households.” Then along came the recession that attacked these funds last year. We met what you might call the perfect storm that led to the congregational meetings and mailings of the last few months.

So what do we do now?

Well, it is Rosh Hashanah. We could blow the shofar. Historically speaking, the shofar was used to summon the Israelites to their battle stations. In times of crisis, the shofar blasted Jews out of their routine and said it’s time to act.

That is what we have done. The mailing that came out last month told you that our Board and Executive have created four vision statements and ten action steps or commandments for this coming year. We are going to redouble our efforts at outreach and finding new members. Just as importantly, we are undertaking some internal initiatives.

For example, during the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah those of you who receive e-mails from the congregation were part of an internal effort to build community. Preparing for Rosh Hashanah, we used e-mail to distribute reflections and thoughts from myself, the cantor, and a series of your fellow congregants about the holidays.

Although you may not have realized it, I purposely did not invite some of the usual suspects to create these pieces: no Executive members or past Board members. Instead, I reached out to wonderful congregants who have sustained Sinai for many years without being official leaders. I knew congregants like you, you, and you would have thoughtful, personal statements to share with us.

Why do these e-mails? Because we need to make Sinai matter. We need to do whatever we can at this juncture when every member literally matters to build connections, to build a sense of involvement.

That is why I am also so proud of what our Caring Community Committee did last weekend. This past Sunday morning the committee delivered a flowering plant with best wishes for the New Year to every congregant who had experienced the loss of a loved one since last Rosh Hashanah. Over 50 plants were brought to the homes of over 50 Sinai members.

Why? Because we need to make Sinai matter. We want to indicate that belonging to Sinai can touch your heart and soul.

Speaking of reaching out to you personally, this year we are placing some adult learning opportunities for those with grown children at a time when so-called empty nesters might be most available. Once a month from 6 to 7:30 p.m., we are offering something called Big Questions; Jewish Answers. Anyone and everyone is invited to have a light dinner (for free) at Temple as we discuss questions about faith, ethics, and identity.

The sessions will be at dinner time because we are hoping this will be a congenial time for many congregants (not all, but many) to get together for dinner and a conversation.

There’s much more to say about what we want to do to make membership at Sinai meaningful and worth your while. You might say, we are dancing as fast as we can with our visions statements and our ten point action plan. Perhaps we are dancing even faster than we can because the stakes are high. The Temple needs us to act boldly if we want the Temple to maintain itself as we have known it for so many years.

But here’s the problem. Notwithstanding all our plans for the coming year and notwithstanding all the good work we have done for so many years, the following letter arrived in my mail box around the middle of August.

Dear Mark:

After much thought, we have decided to resign our Temple membership…Thank you for the many ways you have shared life with us and our children through Bar and Bat Mitzvah. We appreciate all you have done. Best wishes for the days ahead.

Sincerely…


Now what?

Here’s a pretty happy Sinai family. I know them well enough to know that our dues are not a burden for them. Actually, their letter is not that different from letters I’ve occasionally received over the years from other families. If I might offer a paraphrase, the letters have basically said, “Thanks for a good time. Our kids grew up here. They’re done and so are we.”

In 1995, I could read such a letter and regret it. Today, it is another matter. I’m sad to lose the personal connection with a departing member, but, in 2009, I am also counting numbers as I never have before. Plus, as I said earlier, I am also dancing as fast as I can. Which is to say, that, although I am committed to refining what we do in order to make Sinai more meaningful, I myself can’t preserve the congregation. Our Temple president can’t do it and neither can our Board. None of us, for example, would ever have anticipated that the letter I just quoted would have come from the family that sent it.

Bottom line: I think we all need to feel as if that letter was written to every single one of us. Everyone of us (not me alone) lost a member. There is, as it were, an empty seat beside me, our leaders, and each of you sitting here this morning.

We are in this together.

I know, by the way, that it’s expensive to be a synagogue member. I would never take that for granted. I also know everyone lives a full life. People are very, very busy.

But I also know…

Well, let me try that again because you know I don’t really know what’s most important. I don’t know why so many of you graciously and generously do belong to the Temple.

Some are here to get the kids educated. You need Sinai to do that.

And some remain here after the kids are educated. Then your “need” for the Temple is less obvious. At that point…maybe even today…some of you may have one foot out the door.

You’ve read your Temple bill and wondered if the Temple is necessary. You’ve considered writing your own resignation letter.

But you haven’t done so. You’ve remained a Sinai member and, if you have or if you’ve wondered what you might say to others who say they are leaving, here’s how I tell myself why Temple membership matters.

Here’s what I believe. Perhaps my thoughts can clarify yours.

First, the Temple matters to me because it feels different than any other place I enter. It feels old: not antique or outmoded. It feels old in the sense that Temples are all about connections to the past. Parents, grandparents. Moses, Miriam. This is the place where I touch base with the voices of Judaism that are as old as the Jewish people.

Temples mean history; Temples mean I have a history.

Temples also mean reading great stories and challenging visions out of a scroll. Not a Kindle or an iPod. This is where I find a handwritten scroll, the shofar, lulav, etrog, and candles burning all through the year.

And the Temple matters because it has a sanctuary. Better still, the Temple functions like a sanctuary because the Temple is like a get away. Being part of a Temple means I am connected to a place that is not CNN, not frantic, not focused on who owns what, who bought what, or who betrayed whom. In a Temple, the conversation always goes beyond the immediate. Temples talk about ideals and values. Temples are a sanctuary where the conversation is about decency and living a worthwhile life.

It feels right. In the finest sense of the word, it feels wholesome inside a Temple..

Amos, Isaiah, Moses Maimonides, Abraham Joshua Heschel. These are the Jews I meet in the Temple. They lived fabulous lives dedicated to making the world better. When I’m part of a Temple, I’m motivated to emulate these righteous giants who are my ancestors.

And there is more here: There are babynamings; Bar/Bat Mitvahs; weddings; wedding anniversaries; and even funerals.

I meet all of life in a Temple: from the beginning all the way to the end.

Temple is about community too.

To be a Jew is to know that I can’t survive on my own. No Jew can be a Jew for very long without other Jews. No Jewish community can survive without Temples where learning takes place and where Jews are made.

I belong to a Temple, then, because it does me good and also because it builds the community. If I’m not part of a Temple now when I think I don’t need it, how will it be there in a year or maybe three years when I suddenly do want it.

Jews think in terms of community. We are a people.

We belong. It’s what makes us strong.

And as for Sinai Temple in particular?

All that I’ve said holds true - plus one other reality: This is the address for Reform Judaism in our community.

If I believe in a liberal, values-oriented, contemporary Judaism, then this is the only place I can find it. I love my other friends in the Jewish community, but if the only face of Judaism for Springfield was conservative or orthodox, where would I go? Who would respect and protect me as a Jew or my children? This is it, friends. This is the place where we fit.

In a few minutes, we are going to arrive at the Torah reading. It will be one of the toughest Torah readings we have. It’s that old story in which Abraham displays faith so strong that he is willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac.

This much I know: I am not Abraham, by which I mean I am not like Abraham who can walk so alone through life. That is what Abraham does when he embarks on his journey with Isaac. He goes it mainly alone.

But I’m not that loner and I believe most of you aren’t either.

We like community; we need community. We need to belong, to be part of something bigger.

Ultimately, that’s what the Temple is: something bigger, broader, and wiser than we are on our own. At its best, a Temple can summon Jews to be their best. At its best, Sinai Temple can summon each of us to be our best.

Thank you for sensing this truth about Sinai for all these years.

Thank you for believing in this Temple.

Thank you for letting me remind you about a final Torah teaching on the tapestry in our front lobby. Our ancestor Jacob has got himself in great trouble. He is forced to run away from his family and spends a lonely night sleeping under the stars. When he wakes up, however, he has this extraordinary feeling that he has been touched by God. In this forbidding desert setting, something holy has transpired.

Jacob wakes up and, according to the Torah, exclaims: Surely, God is in this place and I did not know it.

Friends, Temple members, something remarkable can happen here.

Something holy can make us and our whole community richer because of what happens here.

This is a holy place.

This is our holy place.

I am so thankful to greet you and the New Year in this holy place.

© 2012/5773 Sinai Temple 1100 Dickinson St. Springfield Massachusetts 01108