I have long been convinced that a congregation should ideally provide its members with the following: community, learning and celebration. When these three elements are woven together they lead to the creation of a truly vibrant congregation. Moreover, when a congregation possesses the ability to exist as a community, provide educational opportunities for children and adults, and moments of celebration, then it is in the position to encourage its members to address the urgent issues facing Jews.
The issues can be formulated as follows: What is it that distinguishes us from other communities? What are the beliefs, values and traditions that serve as the sources of our identity? And finally, are these worth perpetuating and why? These questions are at the heart of defining Jewish existence at the beginning of the twenty-first century. We cannot and should not escape answering them if we seek to live a worthwhile and meaningful Jewish life.
Community is both a state of mind and various structures that a congregation must provide to convey a sense of belonging. I distinguish between congregational membership, which for some Jews is a matter of simply paying dues for services rendered, and belonging to a community, which implies a sense of extended family and an environment where people learn to care for each other. It is in the community where Jews are able to celebrate the joyous moments of their lives, and also where they find comfort at times of pain and loss. It is in the community where individuals are not simply members of the same congregation but fellow participants in contributing to the making of a rich and meaningful Judaism.
Community doesn’t come into existence because we wish it to. It is the product of extraordinary leadership, labor and ultimately learning. Leadership provides direction and the impetus to travel in those directions, and learning provides the substance which makes the path worth traveling. What I mean by this is that if we are to have a community, individuals must be encouraged to continually learn, so that they will have the content with which to address the issues of Jewish identity that I have already raised. Moreover, learning is contagious: it breeds curiosity which leads to increased Jewish literacy. And Jewish literacy, I contend, with time leads to greater participation in Jewish life.
Learning opportunities are not only provided for adults by the Rabbi’s sermons, but also, and even more importantly, by a carefully thought out structure of adult education. Such a program should ideally include evening and day classes, lectures, study sessions for parents on Sundays when they bring their children to religious schools and study opportunities in Havurot, assuming a congregation has them. Adult education is also the creation of various materials- such as books, audio and videotapes, DVDs etc. — that will enable individuals to take Judaism into their homes. For it is in the home that Judaism becomes a habit and where reinforcement of one’s Jewish identity takes place. The synagogue alone, after all, is insufficient and incapable of providing all the structures individuals need to make Judaism a worthwhile enterprise.
Jewish knowledge as a source of rumination, without its externalization in the form of behavior, is a spiritless Judaism, if that much. The behavior I have in mind is not only ethical but ritual-celebratory behavior as well. I take for granted that one of the major functions of Jewish knowledge is the creation of a Mensch, a good human being. But I also believe that Jewish knowledge is a vital element in liberating Jews from the notion that Judaism is a dour tradition that emphasizes a history of persecution. Jewish knowledge can teach us that there is infinitely more to Judaism than the recounting of pogroms and that, in fact, Judaism calls for each Jew to hallow life: That is, perceive life as though looking through the eyes of God and then acting as though with God’s hands. This hallowing of life is easily summed up with L’chaim, “to life.”
For Judaism, life is to be celebrated, to be relished. It is the role of the synagogue to provide opportunities for celebration, teach its members how to celebrate, and then how to transfer celebration to the home as a source of joy.
A major component of celebration is music, not only “traditional” but contemporary synagogue music as well. Shabbat services should always have music and it should be accompanied by instruments for aesthetic reasons and as a means to encourage congregants to sing along. Participation, after all, is one of the goals of celebration. Holiday services should be considered as yet another opportunity to celebrate and express creativity. It is possible and without contradiction to blend tradition with new forms of ritual, where not only music is used but dance, drama and storytelling as well.
An additional component of celebration is the writing of liturgy by lay people for the naming of children, engagements, weddings, anniversaries and other occasions. Such celebrations need not only take place in the synagogue, but should be encouraged as home celebrations where congregants reinforce community by sharing each other’s lives outside the synagogue. This effort also encourages participation in what often times is considered to be the Rabbi’s “realm” and it serves to strengthen the confidence of individuals to make Judaism a greater part of their own lives.
A rich and meaningful life
In the end community, learning and celebration serve to reinforce each other. All of these elements combined serve to create an extraordinary rich environment where encouragement, support, and openness are allowed to take root. This, then, is what the ideal congregation should provide to its members as a means to enable Jews to frame a Judaism that can give meaning and purpose to our lives.