Thoughts for Our Annual Meeting

It’s hard to know where to begin as I contemplate the end of our year-long 20th-anniversary celebration. It has been, so soul-satisfying to reflect on all of the things we have done together. And we have done so much! A new Torah! The magnificent Dor l’Dor campaign. Collecting a truckful of supplies after Hurricane Katrina and sending two intrepid temple members to drive it down to Mississippi. The Peter Daniel Clark seders. MLK interfaith services. Derech Eretz. 5k and 10k certified races. Jazz Shabbat. So many special concerts, including Debbie Friedman and Julie Silver. The Newton Lane Scholar in Residence series. Elie Weisel. Dedicating our social justice energy to domestic violence work… Mitzvah days.

I could generate several pages of nothing but fantastic, well-received projects and lectures and classes and initiatives. I am so thankful for all the people who worked so hard to make these things happen: staff, lay leaders, temple members, community resource people, and many more. The amount of time and energy spent on these events is prodigious.

Not everything was successful. I sometimes tried to do too much without sufficiently consulting my staff partners. Sometimes I had an idea for a program or activity, put it on the calendar, and then promptly forgot about it. Sometimes I assumed people would be interested in a certain topic or speaker or class, without first checking in with you, for whom I was planning the particular program or event. There have been times when I was juggling so many professional and personal torches, that I came close to burning myself – and sometimes, burning you. I regret those times and any pain I inflicted on you, on my family, and on my staff.

In times of duress, when some sought to accentuate my failures, so many more of you lifted me back up and pointed me in the right direction. You have been patient and loving over these 20 years. You give me lots of room to do better, to reboot, to reconsider. I know not every congregation is so kind to their rabbi.

John Gottman, the preeminent Marriage therapist, says that his work has led him to claim that there are two things that every relationship needs to survive intact: kindness and generosity. Without these two qualities, there is strife and dissolution. Your kindness and generosity have been prolific and unstinting.

Liza and a fellow rabbi friend of ours make fun of me, calling me, “The happiest rabbi in America.” The thing is, I don’t get defensive about that – anymore, that is. I wear that label with honor and joy. Yes. Sometimes being your rabbi is exhausting, but since when did anyone do good work without, sometimes, feeling exhausted? It is a true blessing for me to know from the bottom of my heart that I am doing what God wants me to do. I know this because of the feeling I get every time I walk from my car to the doors of the temple. There is a great sense of at-homeness, a true sense of nachat ruach.

Nachat ruach is a desirable and pleasant emotional and spiritual state, connoting inner fulfillment and gratification of the spirit. And I get to feel that way when I come here. Yes, there are moments when I was sad or overwhelmed or angry or disappointed; but I never doubted whether I belonged here, because I do. This is where my spirit leads me.

Some years ago, when I got to perform Tevye in our temple’s performance of Fiddler on a Roof, I sat next to Beth Shuster, who played my wife. I said to her, “It’s a new world, Golda.” Tevye was right. The world he knew, the world he assumed would still be like his father’s world and his father’s father was utterly changing, morphing faster than he could even begin to understand it. One response to the revolutionary change was to try to avoid it, closing the windows, locking the doors, and pretending everything was just fine. But of course, it was not all fine, and would never return to the way it was.

Make no mistake. We are living in times even more revolutionary than Tevye’s experience. Thank God we are not confronted by violence and persecution. The changes are, in many cases, coming from within.

Statistic #1. A study, published by the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Institute, found that only 50 percent of American Jews aged 25-54 (not including the ultra-Orthodox) are currently married. Among those, close to 60 percent married non-Jews.

Statistic #2. We estimate at least 20% of the Jewish population is racially and ethnically diverse, including African, African American, Latino (Hispanic), Asian, Native American, Sephardic, Mizrahi and mixed-race Jews by heritage, adoption, and marriage.

Statistic #3. In the Greater Boston Jewish community, 37% of households (44,200) belong to a synagogue or another Jewish worship community of some type. The rate of synagogue membership in the Greater Boston area is comparable to that of the rest of the country (39%) but has declined since 2005 (42%). The number of synagogue-member households in the Greater Boston area, however, is unchanged since 2005, when it was just over 44,000.

Statistic #4.  The proportion of Boston Jews who identify as Reform or Conservative has declined since 2005. Ten years ago, these two groups accounted for nearly three quarters (74%) of Boston Jews. Today, they are only 44%. By contrast, those who claim no denomination—that is, those who are secular, culturally Jewish, or “just Jewish”—have increased from 17% to 45% of the population.

Statistic #5. Engaged young Jewish adults resist what they see as coercive expectations. They see once widely accepted normative standards – such as in-marriage and support of Israel – as optional, tentative, and, at best, a means to express higher Jewish purpose.

Statistic #6 In 2010, 50%of our Sunday School students came from Spaulding School. This year the number is less than 30%.

Statistic #7 This past year, seven families in which neither parent was Jewish, enrolled their children in our Early Learning Center.

To quote another line from another temple play, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” All of these statistics are simply a look at who we are now. What are we going to do about it? How will we respond to these findings, some welcome, some scary, all challenging us to change our assumptions and open our hearts to who we are becoming.

Our Beth Avodah story began on this land over 55 years ago in a Quonset hut purchased from the Salvation Army Home for Wayward Girls.  We were the temple in the woods, a place invisible from the road on a dirt driveway that was almost unpassable in the winter. The mortgage was guaranteed by the founders who put up their own homes as collateral. People heated the room before services by turning on the stove and setting a window fan to blow the heat into the room. The cleaning and planting and painting and upkeep was all sweat equity from temple members.

We are not about corporate Judaism. We are the boutique temple, the alternative to the big box temples around us. We strive to make TBA a place where everybody wants to know your name, a place where our culture is to be generous and kind. We are a place where the doors are open, and the light is on, light that pierces the darkness of spiritual loneliness and leads others to find here community and empathy and hope. We are committed to becoming increasingly relational and not transactional.

We are writing the next chapter right now. How will we engage our community? How will we respond to the statistics I’ve shared? What do we do with this rapidly changing demographic information?

Some things are very clear. We must leave Puddingstone Lane and bring word of our community to a larger population as the number of Jews moving to Newton continues to decline. We must engage the micro-communities within our temple. We must provide the physical space that will be conducive to attracting our temple community as well as those in the greater community. The architecture of our temple must express open arms and generosity. Kindness and comfort need to predominate.

I invite you – I implore you to join in writing this new chapter. It must be written by all of us, not by the staff or me or lay leadership alone. If the #metoo movement has taught us anything, it is that transparency and collaboration and inclusiveness must be the new norm for all people.

It’s a new world, Golda. We don’t have to do the cleanup or the painting or pave the driveway. But: we are the ones who must build the bridges to our larger community and open our hearts to our fellow congregants. We are the ones who write the next chapter, empowered to step up and make the difference. We believe in this temple in the woods, no longer hidden away but dynamically present in making a difference. We are the ones who must recognize how much we have changed and what we need to do with that information.

Our tremendously talented advisor, Nanette Fridman, once said that right now Beth Avodah has a long runway, with plenty of active, committed people ready to fly. I agree. We have the power and the vision for take-off.  I’m ready. Let’s go!


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