Dear JTNews reader:
This column is addressed to those who are “unaffiliated.” The rest of you are welcome to read it as well.
The word “unaffiliated” in this context means anyone in the Jewish community who is not a member of a synagogue. According to estimates by sociologists, this would be over 50 percent of the Jews in America — probably a bit more in the Puget Sound region.
I am going to make you an offer you can’t (shouldn’t) refuse — at least in my opinion: I will personally pay the first three months of your annual dues if you join a synagogue — any synagogue — before next Rosh Hashanah* (the details of this offer will be found at end of this letter).
The body of the letter will be a reasoned and reasonable argument (in the philosophical meaning of that word) of why you should join a synagogue, using selected quotations from the Mishna tractate “Avot,” also known as Pirke Avot (the Chapters of the Ancestors or ‘ancient rabbis’).
“Find yourself a rabbi.” (Avot 1:16)
Every Jew needs a rabbi to call his or her own. This is someone who will be your mentor, teacher, confidant, and lifecycle officiant. While you can probably find a rabbi on an emergency basis, there is no substitute for having an ongoing relationship with your rabbi — someone who knows you intimately and has a true sense of who you are. In America, the best way to “acquire” such a mentor is through synagogue affiliation.
During the course of a year I officiate at 20 or more funerals. If a Jew dies and needs a rabbi, if I can I will be there (and I never charge for any mitzvah). However, there is a world of difference when I preside at the funeral of a member of my temple and when I preside at the grave of someone I never knew. My intentions are the same, but the depth of connection is worlds apart.
But it is not only at important lifecycles that having your own rabbi is crucial. To know there is someone who will listen to you day in and day out, and with whom you have an on-going relationship, is life affirming. To me, this is one of the most compelling reasons to be affiliated.
“All those engaged in the life of the community…will prosper.” (Avot 2:2)
This statement by Rabban Gamliel, son of the great Rabbi Judah, may appeal to the more selfish reasons for being affiliated. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Not all motives need to be altruistic.
Synagogue affiliation is a formula for success in a variety of ways. You will prosper materially through networking and increased connections. But you will also prosper emotionally and spiritually through a sense of belonging and the ego boost being part of something larger than yourself brings. I would challenge a sociologist or Ph.D. candidate in social science to conduct a well-designed study, and I would bet that affiliated Jews are statistically more successful and happier than those who are not.
Being engaged in the life of a congregation is a path to success and the more involved you are, I would contend, the greater your success.
“Do His (God’s) will as if it were yours, so that He will do your will as if it were His.” (Avot 2:4)
I am so foolish to suggest that God wants you to be a member of a synagogue and that God will reward you for doing so? Maybe not.
But this is my belief: The world/fate operates on mystical principles that defy our understanding. One does not need to evoke the Hindu notion of karma to believe that all things are connected in ways that defy our rational understanding. Put another way, prayers may not be answered directly, but why take a chance? Judaism is a tradition that is open to all kinds of connections. Think about it.
“Do not cut yourself off from the community.” (Avot 2:5)
This oft-quoted aphorism of the saintly Hillel is the ultimate argument for affiliation. To be a Jew is to be part of the community. There are, of course, many other ways to be part of the Jewish community. (Reading JTNews is one, to be sure.) I speak in this context not as a rabbi, but as a Jew raised from day one in a close-knit synagogue my grandparents help establish decades before my birth. I can state unequivocally that my life was shaped in a wonderful way by my rabbi, my congregation, my friends and my teachers. Every Jewish child deserves such an experience. Your child/grandchild deserves such an experience. This is why I am making this offer you “can’t” refuse.
So now the details and the caveats: Do some research and select a congregation right for you: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Renewal, meditative. (Caveat #1: I exclude so-called Messianic synagogues — another topic for another day.)
After you are sure it is one you would like to try, make the connections, appointments, paperwork that will allow you to join for a year, sign on, and then bring a piece of paper to me, in person, stating the terms/costs, etc. (I can be reached very easily at 206-323-7674).
We will sit down and talk about your choice for a few minutes and I will write you a check for three months worth of dues (made out the synagogue — I will get the tax deduction, it seems only fair). I would ask that you try it for an entire year and then report back to me by phone or e-mail.
I will also report to JTNews readers how many people took me up on this offer (no names, of course) and summarize our various conversations.
Can I afford it? Yes. I believe in this passionately and I strive to be like Aaron: “Loving my fellow beings and bringing them closer to Torah” (Avot 1:12)