This season, when so many emotions surge through us, it is comforting to be within a community. That’s part of the grand design, for Jews to be together to usher in the New Year. We collectively hear the shofar’s urgency of now and decide that this year, things will be different….we’ll be different. But one thing is stubbornly the same and I need to write about it.
For those who were not part of a synagogue community last year, has their situation changed? I’ve spoken with many people who don’t connect to the formalized Jewish community and miss the experience of belonging. They were once members, somewhere.
Yet they haven’t received any personal communication to return to the synagogue. Not a letter, not a phone call. I wonder what their experience is of Klal Yisrael and what our obligation is to them? (For the most part, these issues don’t arise for those who identify as Orthodox, as their entire experience of community is different).
Their feelings of being separate must hurt and are in total opposition to the goal of feeling close to G-d and community. The pain they share with me is palpable, but often buried.
Most synagogues don’t have the volunteer power to do outreach. Yet for years, as a communal educator, I have listened to stories of exclusion peppered with harsh memories and I feel helpless. The problem is so overwhelming.
Programs like ‘public space’ Judaism, online workshops, concierge services or outreach spiritual leaders are part of innovative responses to this growing problem of disconnected Jews. But for those who are searching specifically for a re-connection to their synagogue, personal outreach is required. We need to initiate teshuvah by encouraging them to return.
Sometimes the reasons for leaving a community have to do with finances so we need to change the dues structure paradigm by thinking beyond the synagogue. Ultimately, it might cost more to exclude those we are not reaching. If we want individuals to belong to a community, then we need to offer wider access to that community. Right now, our definition of belonging is defined exclusively by which congregation someone belongs to.
For example, my experience is that even if a synagogue event is open to the public, people from neighboring synagogues don’t attend. I’ve witnessed this phenomena multiple times, though I don’t understand the behavior at all. So, how can we make others feel welcome in any synagogue in a given community….without feeling that they don’t belong? Because every Jew in a Jewish community belongs.
A community could establish a communal membership fee, whatever amount works for them, on whatever scale, which would be a way to say ‘you belong’. A person would then be a member of all synagogues in the area. This manageable fee could be an option for people who are new to an area and want to ‘synagogue shop’ for a year or two. Or it could be for those who would like access to a wider range of social programming.since prayer may not be the way they connect to the Jewish community. The fee would also work for those who are already a member of one synagogue but elect to additionally support the Jewish community in this way. There also might be levels of giving to reflect these different needs.
Just imagine, everyone could feel part of the community, with no artificial borders and boundaries.
If some of these discussions occur, then next year, when it comes time for us to think about Teshuvah, we might just agree that the return to an old paradigm is worth a change.