Over the past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about eternity. I don’t know whether that’s because I’ve hit my late 40s (and that’s about as late into your 40s that you could go), because both my kids have gone off to college, because my extended family has had several deaths, or because I assumed leadership of this community. But my thoughts are filled with eternity.
Not, you should understand, eternity in the sense of worrying what will happen to my soul after I die. G-d will take care of that. Rather, eternity in two other senses, one outer, my effect on the world, and one inner, the world’s effect on me.
The outer sense of eternity is how I can make what I do on Earth outlive me, if even for a short while. I don’t create buildings or products or works of art that will outlive me. I can cook a good meal, but that’s gone in an hour or two. In fact, as a cook, any food that outlives me merely means that nobody wanted to eat it.
So how to make my work outlive me? I have two answers: my kids and my congregation. If my kids are just a little more productive, more sociable, more compassionate, and more charitable than I have been myself, and if they carry these values forward, then my work will outli ve me.
Those values don’t come from a void. Those values come from our faith and are exemplified by this congregation. And so, this congregation — which greeted new families many years before mine, which educated children many years before mine, which helped the sick and the needy many years before I and my family could do the same, which counseled the concerned and comforted mourners many years before it did the same for me and my family — this congregation should last to do the same for all the generations that follow.
And I intend to work just for the persistence of Judaism, but for the persistence of this congregation. Because this place, this very building, matters. It matters that Jews have a place, a physical place, to congregate on the South Shore. It matters to draw Jews to the South Shore. It matters to announce to our communities that we are here and a part of them. It matters to have a place at which we can worship. It matters to have a place at which we can educate our children. It matters to have a place at which we can protect our ritual objects and conduct our rituals: baby-namings, bar and bat mitzvahs, confirmations, weddings, and memorial services. It matters to have a place with a preschool that educates not just our children, but also children from the larger, non-Jewish community, and thus sow greater tolerance. It matters to have a place that employs clergy full-time to counsel us when we suffer or are bewildered, and to bring our families through all the challenges they face. It matters to have a place at which we meet other Reform and interfaith families who become our friends and celebrate with us on holidays.
It matters that Congregation Sha’aray Shalom have a future.
Are we in danger of disappearing? Not even close. We have our own building, wonderful clergy, dedicated staff, a stable and perhaps slowly growing population, and relatively stable and perhaps slowly growing finances. We are not only stable, but improving. Having talked to other congregational presidents, I know that other congregations would envy our position.
Yet we face the same pressures that every other Jewish religious organization faces — that in fact every religious organization faces, whether Jewish or not. Our society is more secular: people believe in and practice religion less and less. They have many alternative places to fulfill their need for community: their kids’ schools and sports teams, their places of business, the many secular charities, and even communities found online. People feel like they have less time to devote to religious communities, whether because of long commutes, long working hours, always being online, busy children’s schedules, what have you. Many activities and nonprofits compete for discretionary cash. All these pressures are magnified by the fact that we are not a traditional neighborhood temple whose congregants all live within walking distance and work, shop, play and go to school together. Instead, we live among a couple dozen towns and might see each other outside the temple little or not at all.
How can we overcome these pressures to ensure that this congregation outlives us all?
Most important, most important, most important of all: we must do what I implored in my first speech as president: “What if instead of being a member, you were a congregant? A congregant is one who congregates, one who joins together with other people. A congregant comes to a service with 200 other members and either talks to someone else — even someone they don’t know — or is approached by someone else. A congregant joins others to learn about common issues. A congregant joins others to do good works, like feeding the hungry or clothing the poor. A congregant commits his resources to the congregation because the institution is bigger than himself and offers him a place to transcend himself.”
A second way is to ensure that the congregation outlives us all is to never let you leave. Like the mafia in The Godfather, just when you think that you’re out, we pull you back in. Our leaders of the past continue to lead: we have past presidents heading up our cemetery committee, our building committee, our caring committee, our nominating committee, and contributing their time and talent in many other ways. I hope to do the same myself, once the congregation has another president. And we don’t let congregants leave the flock easily. Congregants who seek to leave out of concern that their financial contribution find that the congregation fiercely tries to take finances out of the question, and instead the congregation uses its own resources to ensure they stay with us. As Rick Astley put it, “Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down/Never gonna run around and desert you/Never gonna make you cry, never gonna say goodbye/Never gonna tell a lie and hurt you.” If you are considering leaving the congregation because your resources are strained, I ask you — I plead with you, I beg you — do not be stiff-necked and disappear. Instead, let our congregation adjust for you, just as you have adjusted for it.
And I want to announce a new way to ensure that the congregation outlives us all, so that over the long term congregants can continue to join and participate fully in congregational life: establishing an endowment. Into this endowment, congregants can contribute, knowing that their contributions will not just supply next week’s bagels and lox, but instead will grow from generation to generation for our kids, our kids’ kids, our kids’ kids’ kids, and so on. The L’Dor V’Dor Fund will generate income to lessen current financial pressures on congregants, with the principal safe from being spent except under specific procedures in times of dire, dire need. This will be no quick fix. Many contributions will come in through various flexible forms of long-term planned giving intended to honor congregants’ wishes to help future generations. As you consider how your congregation can help your philanthropic priorities extend your reach into a future generation, please let us know how we can help.
In contemplating eternity, I mentioned before, I’ve been thinking not only about how to make my work on Earth outlive me, but also about how the world can affect my soul for the good and for the rest of my life.
The phrase “life-changing” is overused. At a restaurant the other day, the waiter told me to order a molten chocolate cake for dessert because it was so good that it would change my life. So good it would change my life? How could I refuse? So I ordered it and ate it. It was very good. In fact, very, very good. But life-changing? There was no burning bush, no parting of the waters, no voice from heaven. No fantastic job offer, no winning lottery ticket, not even a drop in the humidity. You call that a life-changing cake?
I am no expert on how to change my life forever. But I do know that a good bet is to engage in experiences that are meaningful. And by meaningful, I mean experiences that teach me, that change how I view the world, that bring me closer to other people. A lot of moments here in temple do that.
This year, a unique and meaningful Jewish experience will present itself at our virtual doorstep in Boston, the Union for Reform Judaism’s 2017 Biennial Celebration. From December 6th through December 10th, thousands of Jews from across North America and around the world will join together at the Hynes Convention Center to learn, pray, share ideas, dance and sing, hear from inspiring speakers and the leaders of our movement.
The biennial was last held in Boston in the early 2000s. I attended with my family and with some of you here with us today. It was the largest, most raucous service I have attended in my entire life. What was it like? Think about a moment during these high holidays when you’ve felt an upwelling in your heart or a chill up your spine. For me, that’s when Rabbi tells an unexpected joke and we all break out in laughter together, when we sing “Sow in Tears” and “Yesh Kochavim”, and when during T’kiah Gadola the shofar fills the room and lasts seemingly forever. Have you felt a similar moment? Can you feel it now? Now multiply that feeling 500 hundred times, as you share it not just with all the people in this building, but with an entire city full of people engaged in study, song, and prayer.
We will have such moments at the biennial. These experiences will be unique, and meaningful, and we will share them with each other. We will carry them forward, individually and together, and see how we can use their spirit throughout our lives. You have been receiving information on the biennial. I beg you, for your own sake, to read it and register before the mid-October deadlines expire.
Meanwhile, throughout this coming year, back at Congregation Sha’aray Shalom, we will offer such moments on a smaller scale but of no less beauty and meaning. Dancing with the Torah on Simchat Torah. Shaking the lulav on Sukkot. Learning to chant Torah and Haftorah. Doing good deeds for others. Comforting those who are sick and who grieve. Feeding the hungry. And standing with the oppressed. These moments, too, will change our lives.
But only if we have open hearts, and only if we show up.
I look forward to a wonderful and sweet year with you. Let’s work together to improve the rest of our lives and to make our work outlive us.