The first wedding at which I officiated as a newly ordained rabbi was on the island of Maui. The couple planned their ceremony in a location that rarely received significant rainfall. Yet it rained on the day of the wedding and the wedding had to be moved inside. Everyone was upset.
Sensing the tension, my husband encouraged me to begin the ceremony with a joke:
“A rabbi arrived for an elaborate outdoor wedding. However, as the time for the ceremony drew near, a huge rainstorm moved into their area. The father of the bride demanded: ‘Rabbi, can’t you do anything about this?’ The rabbi replied, ‘Sorry, but I’m in sales, not management.’”
The joke worked. People chuckled and the tension broke.
Since then, I have told this joke whenever people asked me to guarantee good weather for an important outdoor event.
Lately, I’ve had second thoughts about telling this joke. I do not like the punchline about the rabbi “being in sales.”
Too many times, I hear marketplace language used in connection with synagogue membership, such as: “I’m shopping for a synagogue. Can you tell me what you can offer my family and me?”
If a synagogue were a commodity, then the rabbi would indeed be “in sales.”
This idea of shopping for a synagogue is an entirely modern idea. In Europe, prior to the Emancipation, you would automatically be a member of the Jewish community by virtue of birth. Since that time, certainly in North America, membership in a religious community is a matter of personal choice.
Joining a synagogue is like signing up for a gym or a beach club. When deciding whether or not to join a specific, or any synagogue at all, convenience, comfort, price, and quality of services all become considerations.
Today, we are in a “buyer’s market.” There are more synagogue membership spaces open than people looking to fill them.
As the future of most synagogues depends on membership support, the lower the barrier to entry the better. We need to get people inside our doors. It is a mistake, however, to position ourselves as a product or service. Commodities are things that can be used and then discarded.
A synagogue is not a commodity; it is a community composed of people in relationship with each other and with our ancestors, whose struggles, hopes, and aspirations are reflected in our sacred texts.
From the earliest days, we have been a people with a lofty mission: “Kedoshim ti’hiyu” -- You shall be holy. [Leviticus 19:2]
In the language of our ancestors, to be kadosh, holy, meant to be separate and apart, to be extraordinary. Ritual practice, dress, and diet all served to distinguish them from their neighbors. But to be holy meant so much more.
To be holy meant to be upright in our actions towards others: to treat the stranger in our midst with the same respect as the citizen; to provide for the hungry and protect the vulnerable; to respect our elders; to be honest in weights and measures; to love our neighbors as ourselves.
These are the actions of holiness that our Reform Movement has long embraced, even as most of us have rejected customs of dress or diet that would keep us distinct from our neighbors.
Roughly 2500 years after our ancestors created our mission to be holy, we are still reading these words of Torah today. Our ability to uplift and inspire one another with extraordinary acts of justice and kindness may be the reason we are still here. This can only happen in a sacred community.
So even as we welcome people who say to us that they are “shopping for a synagogue,” we should remember that we are not a commodity. We are a community with an ancient, ongoing mission: to be holy, to be extraordinary.
We want prospective members to know for what we stand. One of my teachers, Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, expressed this aspiration beautifully: “May this synagogue be, for all who enter, the doorway to a richer and more meaningful life.”