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      President's 2019/5780 High Holiday Message

Jeffrey Gordon, President

During the summer months, our son, Avi, who is 23, decided to binge watch the television sitcom “Cheers”. As a Millennial, he never watched the original episodes which aired between 1982 and 1993. I was fond of “Cheers” and decided to join him. The familiar song came on, and I was hooked. I had not heard the theme for many years. And then I started thinking that the lyrics would be a perfect introduction to the main theme of my Yom Kippur address this year. To refresh everyone’s memory, here are some of the lyrics from the “Cheers” theme song: “Making your way in the world today takes everything you got. Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot. Wouldn’t you like to get away…” And then the music builds up: “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came.” Think about these lyrics for a second: where everyone knows your name; and they are always glad you came. These are simple words with a profound meaning, and represent a challenge for each of us.

 

In his book Relational Judaism, author Dr. Ron Wolfson describes the ideal Conservative congregation in 21st century America. Basically, he summarizes his grand plans and big ideas into one concept. Dr. Wolfson is emphatic throughout his book and repeats his main theme: “It’s all about the relationship.” But let us dig deeper and ask a fundamental question: What type of relationships are we as a congregation attempting to build and to nurture?

 

Here is where Dr. Wolfson draws an important distinction. Historically, non-Orthodox synagogues followed the transactional model in the 20th century. For example, a Jewish family desired to enroll their son or daughter in Hebrew School and joined a synagogue to prepare for the child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah. However, after the child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah, the family left the synagogue and did not renew their membership. Sadly enough, the most vulnerable group of non-Orthodox Jews on the margin of synagogue life is the empty nesters, my contemporaries. In fact, many empty nesters do not even belong to a synagogue. We can do better, and Dr. Wolfson argues for a new paradigm. Conservative synagogues should move away from just providing a venue for life cycle events and instead focus on building strong, lifetime relationships among all members, no matter what age or background.

 

I want to make a bold suggestion: relationships within Beth Sholom should focus on what unites us and not what divides us. Too often, politics, money, levels of education, and preconceived notions place artificial barriers between us. We are part of something bigger - a holy community - and it is incumbent on each of us to act as committed Jews supporting one another. In Pirke Avot Lev Shalem, the Ethics of the Fathers viewed with a full heart, Rabbi Gordon Tucker quotes Maimonides, who relies in part on Aristotle, and describes the three levels of friendship. In Hebrew, as you may know, the word for friend is haver. Rabbi Tucker writes, “Maimonides goes on to say that there are three kinds of haver relationships. The first kind is the simple association that one has with a co-worker, which most often involves no deep personal connection at all; it is simply circumstance that has brought people together to perform a task. The second kind is, in a way, the reverse: it is when a relationship brings pleasure and security to the parties involved, though they have no common goal beyond the relationship. But when the third kind is achieved, one has a confluence of aspirations to lofty values that not only creates a working partnership but actually binds souls together in the deepest way. This is what the haveirut – the fellowship of Torah - is supposed to do.” All of us within the Beth Sholom community should strive to achieve the third level, the highest level of a haver relationship, with one another in order to link ourselves together in the deepest possible way.

 

One way to strengthen relationships is through active listening. As a physician, I am trained to listen to and repeat a patient’s comments in a meaningful way before responding appropriately. Active listening is a challenging skill to develop, but the dividends are enormous. Active listening implies that we care, and shows empathy. In his book Lessons in Leadership: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes a rabbinic program in the 1980s which included three years of counseling. Part of the counseling involved learning a method pioneered by Carl Rogers known as non-directive or person-centered therapy. This process involves active listening and reflective questioning. Rabbi Sachs writes, “The deep truth behind person-centered therapy is that listening is a key virtue of religious life. Listening matters in a moral environment. The very act of listening,” Rabbi Sachs writes, “is a form of respect.” And therein lies the key to developing and strengthening relationships within our Beth Sholom community. Active listening is a religious virtue and a sign of respect.

 

Strengthening relationships and nurturing them is hard work, but important work. Our Congregational Engagement Committee has partnered with the Mid-Atlantic Region of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism to find concrete ways to retain members within our Beth Sholom community. One suggestion is labor intensive and involves developing a detailed database of each member. However, the reward for completing this project will be great. We will eventually have the tools to truly learn about the lives of each Beth Sholom member allowing us to form unbreakable bonds over the years.

 

Shifting from a transactional model to a relationship model in the life of Beth Sholom will not happen overnight. By nature, most people are resistant to change, and a paradigm shift of this magnitude involves significant change. Rabbi Sachs writes, “By and large we tend to resist change. We settle into patterns of behavior until they become comfortable like a well-worn armchair or a comfortable pair of shoes. How do you create an atmosphere within a synagogue family that encourages change and makes it unthreatening? The answer is praise. Every day we need to catch our members and our professional staff doing something right and we must say so, specifically, positively and most importantly thankfully. Positive comments will help effect change.” I am optimistic that our Beth Sholom community can move from a transactional model to a relationship model with the majority of our members supporting this paradigm shift.

 

Our Beth Sholom community is special and I am confident that we will develop even deeper bonds with one another during the coming months and years as we focus on developing the relationship model of the 21st century Conservative synagogue community. Nevertheless, we need to face the reality of demographic trends that are eroding our membership every year. As I mentioned in my Yom Kippur address last year, our membership dues, which are in line with the Conservative synagogues in the area, are not sufficient to cover our operating expenses. Beth Sholom depends on the generosity of its members during the annual Yom Kippur appeal to help sustain our synagogue financially. Additionally, during the past year, our nation experienced an increase in anti-Semitism, exemplified by two synagogue shootings. To meet the increased threat of anti-Semitism and to better secure Beth Sholom’s campus, significant expenditures were incurred for a variety of security upgrades. Security concerns are an ongoing challenge which require significant funding. At this time, during the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, please ask yourself what Beth Sholom means in your life and the life of your family, and please consider a generous donation to this year’s Yom Kippur appeal. On behalf of the Board of Directors and the professional staff, let me take this opportunity to personally thank each of you for your support of Beth Sholom.

 

My family – Heidi, Ariel, Avi, Erez, Gerri, Yarden and Liana – join me in wishing you a year filled with health, prosperity, meaning, and joy. May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life. G’mar Hatimah Tovah.

 

 

Tue, August 11 2020 21 Av 5780