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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.