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In the fall of 2008, I was the executive director of a 1,000-household synagogue. We had recently finished a major sanctuary renovation, and our membership numbers were on an encouraging upward trend. Our finances were sound, and we had big plans for the year ahead. The new president of our board was writing her first Yom Kippur appeal as I was busily taking care of the last details of our High Holiday preparation.
Then, two weeks before Rosh HaShanah, Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, after which the bank loan market crashed. Banks large and small suffered huge losses, and during the first week of October, the stock market experienced a sharp downward spiral. That week was was Kol Nidre, and our president ascended the bimah (pulpit) to deliver an appeal for donations on the very day on which many in our congregation had lost a significant amount of money – money they were counting on for homes, for retirement, for food.
The president delivered a masterful appeal that evening, and even on that worst of economic days, we collected Yom Kippur appeal monies in excess of what we had collected the previous year. The next day, on Yom Kippur, the stock market fell 700 points, sending the entire country into a recession that, some would argue, continues to this day.
Throughout that fall and into 2009, we came to learn just how much members recognize and appreciate the importance of the synagogue. As the president reminded them during her speech, the synagogue is the center of their community. It is where they find friends and family. It is where they celebrate joy, and support each other through tough times and sorrows. It is where they learn, where they teach, where they reflect.
During this same time, I was re-reading my favorite book, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which I first read during high school and return to every 10 years or so. I absolutely enjoy the beautiful writing and the tragic story of the Joad family.
The book tells of the Joads, an Oklahoma family that loses their farm during the Great Depression. They load the entire family and all their belongings into an old truck, making their way to California in the hopes of finding happiness and prosperity. Along the way, they stop often on the side of the road, along with other families making the same trek, to sleep and eat. During those daily stops, they find the unexpected:
In the evening a strange thing happened; the twenty families become one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream. And it might be that a sick child threw despair into the hearts of twenty families, of a hundred people; that a birth there in a tent kept a hundred people quiet and awestruck through the night and filled a hundred people with the birth-joy in the morning. A family which the night before had been lost and fearful might search its goods to find a present for a new baby. In the evening, sitting about the fires, the twenty were one. They grew to be units of the camps, units of the evenings and the nights. A guitar unwrapped from a blanket and tuned – and the songs, which were all of the people, were sung in the nights. Men sang the words, and women hummed the tunes. (Steinbeck 1939)
Those things, which were intangible and sacred in the makeshift camps on the way to California, are exactly what make our congregational communities so special, and it is those things that inspire involvement and support.
The communities of the migrant camps, of course, were not dues-based. Membership invoices were not sent, collection calls were not made, and appeals for larger donations were not delivered. The people gave what they could because they recognized a need. They had virtually nothing, yet they gave what they had.
Likewise, our congregations are not migrant camps. There are salaries to be paid, and building maintenance expenses and mortgages to be met. But, perhaps there is an important lesson to be learned as well: “…the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all….”
Family. Twenty becomes one. Your family joins a congregation, and that congregation may have 100, 500, or maybe even 1,500 other households. But when we think of those other congregational families as part of our family – when we think of all of the children as our children – financial concerns become secondary to family concerns about our spiritual home.
The fall of 2008 was a difficult time for our country and for our congregations. In many ways, we have been recovering and learning ever since. Perhaps we are out of the recession, perhaps we are not. Regardless, our congregations always will thrive when we see ourselves as a vital part of a larger family, and when we recognize that a gift of any size is vital and important.