I am amazed and saddened by the depth of dissatisfaction people express with their spiritual lives and their spiritual searches. As the new synagogue year approaches, I am sitting successively with dozens of individual Jews and couples who express a distaste and dissatisfaction with the communities they have joined or their inability to find a spiritual community which speaks to them. Many, particularly the men, describe the drudgery of their youthful Religious School experience, where the teachers failed to speak to their souls. Others decry the formality which characterizes many of the rituals and services they have attended. How is it, that in seeking to allow Judaism and Jewish spirituality to touch lives, the larger Jewish community has so alienated a generation?
To borrow a phrase from our political world, it is all about community stupid! [Forgive the use of “stupid.” In our house, we don’t say “stupid.”] When a Jewish community – the synagogue, a JCC, a Jewish organization – fails to realize that people seek community – deep, meaningful, touching community – they might as well close up shop now.
People want to walk in the doors of a synagogue and feel like they matter. They want to call up and have a warm voice answer the phone, and let them know that we care. After entering the synagogue (where we hope a friendly face greets me), will I sit anonymously in the pews? Or will someone else welcome me, invite me to sit with him or her, and make sure I meet the rabbi? At the Oneg Shabbat (dessert following the service), will people come up to me to say “hi,” or will I languish in a corner or at a table alone, until my pride sends me fleeing home?
It is about community, stupid!
I think that our Congregation Or Ami is growing and thriving because, like the Cheers bar of TVland, it is a place where everybody [tried to] know your name. Name tags at services (blue for members, red for guests) allow everyone to recognize and welcome the stranger. We take a break in the service to welcome guests, inviting them to introduce themselves, allowing the regulars to say “Shabbat Shalom,” reminding everyone that “before you go get a cookie at the Oneg, make sure to introduce yourself to someone you do not know, and invite him/her to join you at the Oneg.” And the Rabbi is ready and willing and accessible to sit down and talk, to share a phone call or enjoy an email with you.
The 20th century philosopher Martin Buber taught us that God can be found in the meeting between two people, when we truly connect. God is in the I-Thou, the close relationship of openness and vulnerability.
Yes, Torah and Lifecycle and Prayer and Israel (and … and … and) are all important, but only once you are (I am) feeling comfortable, at home, as part of the community. That’s why I love our Congregation Or Ami, it approximates the community of caring and welcoming that we all seek!