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August 29, 2014 | 3rd Elul 5774

Do It Yourself

Galilee Diary #511, October 6, 2010
Marc Rosenstein

Make for yourself a rabbi and acquire for yourself a colleague...
-Mishnah Avot 1:6

Twenty years ago, when we came to visit Shorashim to consider and be considered for membership, we spent a week working in a few different placements, and were hosted by different families for a meal. At the time, Shorashim was a moshav shitufi, a commune with an economic structure like that of a kibbutz. At our formal interview, we were asked about our thoughts about work; before I could answer, one of the veteran members said, "You aren't thinking of being the rabbi here, or anything like that, are you?" Even if I had been too dense to sense the right answer to the question, I would have said "no," because I in fact had no interest in being the rabbi of the community, preferring to continue the direction my career had already taken, towards informal education. In fact, there was already a rabbi on Shorashim, who had made a similar decision. The community, both because it was struggling economically and because it was quite heterogeneous along the spectrum from Conservative to "secular," certainly had no interest in having to support a professional religious leader, whether he was perceived as a spiritual leader or just a functionary.

When we arrived, the religious community of Shorashim felt similar to the one we had left in Philadelphia - a minyan within a larger synagogue, whose liturgical life was entirely self-conducted: leaders of services, preachers, Torah readers were all just members of the group who agreed to serve in a rotation of those roles they were competent to do or willing to learn. Quality may have been uneven (actually not very), but the sense of ownership and community was very strong and gratifying. Of course, for education, pastoral care, counseling, weddings, and funerals, we had been members of the host synagogue which had its professional staff. In the young community of Shorashim there were few weddings or funerals (and they were handled by the state rabbinate anyway), education was public, counseling and pastoral care one had to find wherever one could.

Privatization of the commune in the early 90s drained a certain amount of energy from this idyllic congregation, as people had less time for and interest in the community, since they had to worry about needs that had previously been communal, especially work. And the related freeze in growth (stuck at 50 families for over a decade) led to a wearing-down and burning-out of some of the volunteer leadership. Which in turn led to endless discussions of "what will become of us as a congregation."

Recently, as a number of young families have built houses and joined, the picture has brightened (currently we're 80 families). Some of them, of course, we never see; but others are trying out the synagogue - and some are enthusiastically contributing their skills or their willingness to learn. The "programmer" of our synagogue rotation list recently published the news that in the lineup for the Tishrei holidays, various parts of the [many] services were being led by a total of 30 different people from 20 families. This includes all the Torah reading and the sermons, but doesn't count the choir.

I'm sure that not having a rabbi to stimulate and lead and support community efforts has "cost" us in the richness and the creativity of our Jewish life, and perhaps in outreach to the uninvolved, but interestingly, changes have been introduced in the liturgy, educational and tzedaka projects carried out, support provided for families in mourning or in need, and a program of Torah study maintained since the beginning - all by members' initiatives and efforts.

On the one hand, there are some unique factors at work here: we are self-contained geographically (everyone who lives in Shorashim is a member); and we bear the legacy of our years as a commune with its intensive interdependency. On the other hand we are not unique, as there are lots of chavurot around the world. And I think the congregational rabbinate is a vital institution. Nevertheless, I do find it satisfying to live in a community where I am not needed.

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