I chose New Landscapes, New Horizons for the title of this post not so much thinking about my own new set of landscape and horizons in Loudoun County. Rather, I was thinking about the American Jewish landscape, and what it might mean to us at CSS looking out at our horizon and beyond. The dynamics of rapidly changing realities in religious communal life in America has certainly impacted the Jewish community. The very rate of change occurring is stunning. It was nearly twenty years ago that a congregant noted to me that “By the time you get done dealing with one change, five more have happened.” The 2010 Pew Report confirmed the trends first detailed in the 1990 National Jewish Population Study and then again in 2000. I sense that no serious observer of the Jewish community was really surprised by the emerging data that says the American Jewish community is undergoing several transformations, all at the same time. The very essence of community is up for redefinition. After all, over half of America’s Jews do not feel the need to connect formally with any type of Jewish institution,organization, agency, or congregation. In a truly delicious, Jewish, paradox, at the same time Jewish lifeon the DIY level is thriving. By some metrics the creation of and participation in Jewish culture is growing in intensity across all ages, and new approaches to communities are inviting connections around new concerns and commitments.
One of the communal institutions under transformation is of course, the synagogue. While every region in the country has its own unique demographics and dynamics, there are some that are universal. In any given region, some congregations are able to respond to the challenges facing the community and thrive. In the same region, others falter and fail. The thriving congregations share one common feature: all of them look at the challenges as an opportunity to reinvent, revitalize, and recharge itself with enthusiasm for the future. For the thriving congregation, nothing is more exciting than the potential offered by the future. The failing congregations similarly share one common feature: they fearfully “circle the wagons” in a defensive posture, refusing to consider new ideas for new realities, and desperately try to reclaim some romanticized past epoch of the congregation’s grand history. For the failing congregations, nothing is more current than the past.
While the congregation is an institution, it exists for its people. It is first and foremost a hub of a sacred community. There are many worthy mission-driven endeavors to which we can devote our time in the world, and many of them might even be holy work. Yet, all the other mission-driven endeavors present their given values to us; we can either take them or leave them as is. The Red Cross is not going to get involved in Voter Education; Oxfam is not interested in serving wounded combat veterans; Greenpeace is not going to be concerned about youth in distress, etc. It’s good they all exist; they all seek to make the world a better place. Even so, there is something special and different about a congregation in that it reflects a consensus of values within the spectrum of positions of its membership. It invites us to reflect ourselves through it. We are asked to consider as a community in what way—or ways—do we want to express ourselves in sacred study (Torah), sacred conversation (Prayer), and sacred acts of meaning (Loving-kindness) as a congregation within and beyond our synagogue home? Our input not only counts, it is essential to the vitality and vibrancy of the congregation.What do you feel is important about a congregational community?
What do synagogues need to be thinking about and doing to be vital? Feel free to leave your comments below!