Putting the Syn Back in Synagogue
Putting the Bayit Back in Beit Knesset
An Introduction to the High Holiday Sermons of 5769-2008
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg
A traditional Conservative congregation in a Midwestern city needed to build a new sanctuary. When the sanctuary was completed it had a large center dome in which the building committee intended to install a chandelier. The congregation didn’t have enough money to finish it off, so they left the dome waiting from year to year. Many years passed. Eventually the shul came into some money. At a board meeting someone made a resolution that they should install the chandelier. One of the charter members, Mr. Goldfarb, stood up and turned to the people and said, “This is a traditional shul. It has always been a traditional shul and it will always be a traditional shul. There will be no chandelier in this shul.” He sat down, so obviously agitated, that the people on the board were afraid he was going to have a heart attack. They didn’t understand what he was so upset about, but in deference to Mr. Goldfarb, they voted down the installation of the chandelier.
A year passed. They brought the chandelier idea up again and, again, Mr. Goldfarb went apoplectic. As had happened the year before, the proposal went down in flames. Finally, three years later, the young Turks had taken over the Board, and despite Mr. Goldfarb’s protests, they voted for the installation of the chandelier. At the end of the dramatic meeting Mr. Goldfarb sat back resignedly in his chair and sighed, “All right, so tell me, who’s going to play the chandelier?”
Change is hard. Change brings on anxiety for we fear the bad things that change may bring. Most people are willing to live with something they don’t love which is familiar than to risk major disruption to try to bring something better to replace it. And as our story about the congregation demonstrates, people can be so aversive to change that they assume that any change represents a rejection of their long held values or practices.
But change is in the air. We live in a time of great insecurity and anxiety. The last two weeks have been described as a crisis on the scale that sparked the Great Depression. The country is led by a lame duck president whose approval ratings are the lowest of any American President in the history of these ratings. Two presidential candidates fight over who is going to be the leader who will bring change to the country. We know there will be change if either one wins, but we really don’t know what those changes will be much less their consequences. We truly live in a time of uncertainty.
This is a period of change for our congregation as well. The changes at Beth Shalom are both exciting but also disorienting. Many of the changes that have begun to take form here are very gratifying. We are enjoying during these High Holydays our newly renovated sanctuary. The synagogue completed just last month a newly renovated Beit Midrash and library. Most dramatic are the impending changes to our property as we enter the final stages of the sale of the North 40 project. These projects reflect the conviction of the synagogue leadership for the need to take dramatic action to put the synagogue on firmer financial footing and to address severe needs of our facility that was showing signs of serious wear and tear.
We do not only face structural changes, we also face demographic and generational issues that threaten the future viability of our congregation. During my first year at Temple Beth Shalom, I devoted much time to meet the members and to learn as much as possible about the forces at work on the congregation.
While our congregation faces many challenges we are truly blessed with a great asset and vital link to the congregation’s past as embodied by our Cantor Emeriti who have served the congregation for a continuous period since the 60s. Rabbi Hazzan David Kane and Rabbi Cantor Gelman (who by the way received his rabbinic smichah this past year) have defined the public worship of our congregation with their beautiful Hazanut and inspiring presences.
One of the challenges I observed after being here a year is the reality of a very fragmented congregation. We are fragmented along generational lines. We have circles of people who know each other well, but do not know other members who have joined the synagogue in recent years. Most of the younger families do not have parents or grandparents in the congregation and most of the older members do not have children or grandchildren active in the congregation. In short we are not yet a cohesive community. We are a congregation of clusters who are disconnected from each other with different needs and expectations.
My theme this year and during the High Holidays is Putting back the Syn (SYN) in synagogue. Putting the Bayit back in Beit Knesset.
Now I am sure putting the syn back in synagogue opened some eyebrows. No, it’s not what you think. Syn is spelled S-Y-N and means to bring together. Our goal this year is to help make our synagogue better at bringing people together.
The second part of our slogan is to put the Bayit back in Beit Knesset. The word for synagogue in Hebrew is Beit Knesset which has the word-Bayit-house embedded within it. That bayit stands for house, home, place of dwelling. As you will learn, we seek to bring Jewish life back home, to link the synagogue to the home.
Everything we are trying to do this year is to build a stronger sense of community in our congregation. Building community means finding new ways to bring people together. Building community means to create new and lasting bonds. Building community involves fostering selflessness, generosity, sacrifice, and support among all our members.
To do this I will propose in my sermons a renewed consideration of the spiritual building blocks of Jewish communal life:
Shabbat-the Sabbath; Tefilah-Prayer; and Gemilut Hasadim-acts of loving kindness. Tomorrow I will share with you my vision for renewing Shabbat at Beth Shalom. On the second day, I will explore with you the great challenges we face making communal prayer meaningful and how we may envision reinvigorating our worship at Beth Shalom. On Kol Nidre I will address how we can create a truly caring community through a renewed commitment on acts of loving kindness.
My last sermon on Yom Kippur will move from a local focus to sharing with you my sense of the unusual times that we are witnessing. We have as the Chinese are apt to say the fortune to live in interesting times.
These are times of heightened worry and uncertainty. We will need each other. We need family and friendship. We need people to lean on. We need a responsive community composed of members who are genuinely concerned about each other and are ready to be supportive in times of need.
The writer, Mitch Albom, who wrote the beautiful book, Tuesdays with Maury, captures the underlying purpose of the changes we will introduce to you these High Holidays. He wrote,
“The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.” I seek to inspire you to focus anew on each of these critical areas of life: caring for others, serving community, and seeking meaning and purpose.
Please join us as we put the Syn back in synagogue and the Bayit back in Beit Knesset.