Congregations are an expression of God’s presence in the world and an expression of God’s love and care for all humankind. Congregations are places of beauty and simplicity, openness and acceptance, justice and peace. Can we do all that and be all that without belonging to a synagogue? Of course you can; but you would miss one key element.
Can you be a good person without the perceived notion of a divine being forcing you to act nice? Of course; but you would still be missing one key element.
On Yom Kippur, we read from Deuteronomy 30:
“See, I set before you this day life and good or death and evil. … Choose life.”
It is the underlying concept of choice from that parashah which is the underpinning for deciding to affiliate.
New Member Shabbat
Perhaps you might accuse me of overstating. Really, Rabbi, choosing “to live” is my reason for joining Or Chadash?
In the 1960’s through the 1970’s, it was the nuclear family that was the mainstay of synagogue life. You were a member because that was what Jewish families did. That mentality no longer exists among a majority of Jews anymore.
Today, in the 21st century, we make choices based on our needs, our hopes, and our dreams. There are 29,000 Jews in Pima County. Perhaps 5,000 or fewer are part of families belonging to the 8 or so synagogues – barely 18%.
Instead of asking why so few, how about celebrating that your hopes, your dreams, your needs, in fact your very lives are enhanced by being a member of a spiritual community. Perhaps there are those among the majority who at present are too preoccupied with their own struggles and confusions of daily living that they do not have time or perceive the need to dream like you all do.
I must tell you that those 80% who are not members ought to be thankful to you all and and to those who are members of this and other congregations in Tucson. It is because of you that:
- They have a place to go for the High Holy Days.
- They have a synagogue to come to in order to say Kaddish for the yahrtzeit of their parents
- When there is a birth, wedding, death, a spiritual crisis, you have made a rabbi or cantor available to them in their time of need.
Look what else you are able to provide as a member of Congregation Or Chadash specifically. You serve the community as a member by affecting the lives of so many people. Through being active in this congregation or supporting the activities of this congregation:
- We become role models to others that Jews can be good American citizens through our care for the homeless and the hungry in Pima county;
- We inspire our 7th graders, who, since 2006, have donated over $70,000 to worthwhile charitable agencies in the city (click here to read about our Youth Philanthropy program);
- We have built homes through Habitat for Humanity;
- Our sacred fellowship, known as chevra kadisha, lovingling prepares loved ones for burial through an important purifying ritual; and
- In twenty-two years, we have educated thousands of children and adults.
For those who attend regularly on Shabbat you understand that congregations like this one should be an oasis of joy and a spring of spiritual refreshment in the midst of uncertainties and confusions in life. You come here to refresh your spirit in a community that loves and supports you.
Maintaining a community has its expenses. If it makes sense to pay for the upkeep of your home, you should feel the same way about your spiritual home as well. In this way, you give advice to our Board, and our Board gives direction and pays the salaries and expenses to maintain what we have. Your membership dollars are not about the Board, not about the Clergy. Your financial support has created a concrete home for our religious community.
Finally, the choice you have made to be a member here embraces the teaching of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:
Your membership embraces “a vision of a dynamic, vibrant, compelling Judaism that finds its home in the synagogue, but whose message is lived inside and outside the synagogue walls.”
No one cares about a Judaism that reflects just a habit or some pale version of the past… Only a Judaism that has something deep, meaningful and relevant to say about life — that challenges the mind and soul, that is open and tolerant — can have a chance.
I know we are not perfect. I hope you do not expect perfection. Or Chadash will disappoint you in the songs we choose on Shabbat, the social causes we wish to support from time to time, and the lesson your child learned in Sunday school last week. I will even say something from the pulpit from time to time which you will find completely inappropriate. And yet, you will see that our intentions are good and that we are better today than we were yesterday.
But what keeps all of us renewing our memberships despite the complaints is that we have found a place where we can confront the central questions of our existence. When a loved one dies and we are left without their presence, it may be the Cantor’s chanting of the Psalms or El Malei Rachamim, or the rabbi’s words, or the presence of friends that will provide you with the comfort you need.
We come together and, through the wisdom of others, we may find the answers to some of those questions which may trouble us. When that happens, the synagogue becomes a place where we connect to something larger than ourselves — to our community, to ideas that can transform our world, and even to a transcendent experience.
When you join that kind of synagogue, membership dues are a bargain and not a burden. They become, in consumer language, a value proposition. These intangible benefits of membership are the only ones that make the cost of being a synagogue member “worth it.” Anything less is a bad deal.