This was an exhilarating week at Torat Yisrael: we held four Open House events this week and welcomed a steady stream of prospective members interested in touring our new synagogue building, meeting our members, learning about our school, our services, our adult education and social service programs.
This is an excellent week to contemplate the significance of synagogue: why do hundreds of us so willingly and loving contribute our precious resources of money and time and good will and expertise to sustaining our congregation?
I found a thought-piece published in the Huffington Post this week rather inspiring. It was written by Tara Woodard-Lehman, Presbyterian Chaplain at Princeton University. Her piece begins:
Not long ago I was having a conversation with a college student. Like many young adults, this guy was a religious "none." He wasn't some sort of jaded post-religious person, but he also wasn't actively trying to find a religious home.
Despite his state of self-described religious none-ness, this student pursued conversations about spiritual things. And, as expressed by many students I talk with, he found my commitment to "traditional religion" quite curious.
He asked, "I mean, I get why you're into 'being spiritual' and 'helping people' and everything, but why bother with Church? I just don't get that part. Do you really think you need it?"
He went on to describe how irrelevant the Church was. In his view, all the Church once provided can be found elsewhere in civic life. From community service projects to book clubs; from outreach to the poor to potlucks; from meditation groups to support groups, he described the many other places that provide much of what the Church used to (and occasionally still does) provide.
I did my best to listen.
And you know what I concluded? He was, at least in part, right. If the Church is only what he described (a sort of glorified community center or service provider), it is a wonder anyone shows up.
I thought: If the synagogue is only a sort of glorified community center or service provider, it is a wonder that anyone shows up, too!
Reverend Woodard-Lehman, of course, provides her answer to why she needs church:
After giving it much consideration, I've decided that there is at least one very good reason why I need Church: I have a really bad memory.
It's true. I have a terrible memory. Especially when it comes to remembering who I am as a child of God. . . .
I forget who I am. I forget who God is. I forget God's Epic Story of Redemption and Liberation and Renewal and Beauty and Hope.
I forget. A lot.
On top of that, there are a gazillion other demands and voices that are vying for my attention all the freaking time.
So I admit it. I get tired. And I get distracted. And more often than not, I forget.
I need Church, because Church reminds me of everything that's important.
Yes! So does shul! We come together in our Jewish community, certainly to enjoy our Sisterhood Book Club and our end of summer barbecue (August 25th, don't forget to sign up!) and our support of the Edgewood Food Closet and the Chester Kosher Food Pantry (bring non-perishables to the barbecue, please!) and sharing wine and munchies at Shalom to Shabbat . . . but there are non-Jewish, secular versions of all these activities.
We need "shul" to remind us of what's important . . . and to come together with others who also want to be reminded of what's important.
In the context of the secular world outside our congregation we're "on our own." There is no way to be reminded that God is an ever-present, consistent source of strength and inspiration accessible to us any time, any where. But we walk into our synagogue and our Torah study and our liturgy and our discussions around all kinds of tables recharge or spiritual batteries, so we can take that assurance out into the world.
In the context of the secular world outside our congregation, there is no humility. Where, at the public library or the shopping mall or the gym are we going to be reminded that life itself is a gift from God? But in our synagogue, through our Torah study and our liturgy and our discussions around all kinds of tables, we come together from all sorts of backgrounds and motivations and learn to appreciate the Godly in each of us and we are given the opportunity to savor just being one sacred part of God's creation instead of moving through the world assuming we are each the center of the universe.
At Torat Yisrael, our congregation is the place where we can grow into these truths: that God never leaves us along, that we are part of something greater. At Torat Yisrael, these truths are sources of joy: we sing, we laugh, we build and grow as Jews because our tradition gives us so much to celebrate.
That's why we need shul!
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.