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NYC rabbis grapple with post-High Holy Day blues
MICHAL LANDO, Jerusalem Post correspondent
'Is it our mission to bring people in or to help those who already come connect in deeper ways?'
One week after the High Holy Days, the masses of Jews who make their annual debut at synagogue, overcrowding pews, have already crawled back into the woodwork. For some rabbis the conspicuous dwindle of crowds is a relief, for others, a kind of post-High Holy Day blues sets in. At no time is the age-old question of how and if to reach out to the unaffiliated more apparent. Rabbis whose core membership tends to be small are provoked by the sea of faces they encounter during High Holy Day services, which offer a glimpse of what synagogue life could be if only more Jews could be pulled in. But most synagogues don't have the resources to reach out. Very quickly the synagogue atmosphere goes from "potential energy, to kinetic energy, back to potential energy," explained Rabbi Micah Kelber of the Bay Ridge Jewish Center, where the regular 50 or so Shabbat-goers bloomed into 500 over the High Holy Days. "But it doesn't make me think about how to bring more people in - I go back to focusing on people who are here, because as rabbi of this shul, I need to take care of the needs of people who are around." Numbers matter, though rabbis are hesitant to speak of it openly. Behind the scenes one of the first questions a rabbi asks his fellow rabbi is: "How big is your shul?" One rabbi said he replies "eight inches" because the implication of the question is clear: "How powerful are you?" Part of the hesitation to speak about congregation size comes from the biblical prohibition against counting the Jewish people. To determine if there were a minyan, rabbis were instructed to use a 10-word verse from Psalms; if they made it to the end of the verse, with each man reciting one word, they would know they had a minyan. "You get to 10 and stop counting," Kelber recalls his teacher, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, once saying. Numbers aren't supposed to matter, he explains, "but at the same time there is something very attractive about feeling all the possibilities of the community, and the rabbis weren't immune to knowing when lots of Jews were around." In Tractate Brachot, the rabbis teach, "If one sees a crowd of Israelites, he says, 'Blessed is He who discerneth secrets, for the mind of each is different from that of the other, just as the face of each is different from that of the other.'" "Having so many people together makes you realize how different people are, and how much knowledge and beauty is out there," said Kelber. "There seems to be a connection between having lots of people and the possibility for knowledge." While the High Holy Day crowds offer a glimpse of what is possible, how to actuate that potential is a question with which every rabbi has to contend. "On one hand, there's nothing like looking out at a full congregation and really having the opportunity to connect with a large number of the community," said Rabbi Hayim Herring, executive director of Synagogues, Transformation and Renewal (STAR), an organization that helps revitalize synagogues. "And then suddenly, depending on the size of the congregation, the extra wall comes down, the chairs come down, and you think how can we create more of this experience?" We all know that's the pattern in Jewish communities, said Rabbi Andy Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, which had roughly 3,000 participants in this year's High Holy Day services. And there are two possible responses, he added: "Either decry or regret, or try to figure out why it is and put yourself the challenge of how to bring people back to the community." This challenge, Bachman said, in large part defines his rabbinate. Others question whether outreach can or should be the role of a synagogue. While there are numerous organizations - STAR among them - dedicated to finding new ways to reach out to the unaffiliated, under-resourced synagogues are often forced to choose between investing in the core membership or doing outreach. One of the biggest challenges that synagogues face is balancing practice of core synagogue values - Torah, Jewish learning, spirituality and community - with the "pursuit of innovative ways to reach out to the vast majority of people who generally are untouched by synagogue community," wrote Herring in an on-line post this week. But innovation can't be a one-time act, he wrote. "The question is, is it the mission of a synagogue to focus on figuring out what those programs are to reach that specific demographic who would come if the program suited them, or are we here not to bring people in, but to help those who come to the synagogue already, connect in deeper ways?" said Rabbi David Schuck of Pelham Jewish Center, which has 120 member families. "In a big synagogue you can do both because there are enough resources, but in a small synagogue it's tough to do both." Many rabbis see it as their responsibility to turn inward before reaching out. "I don't imagine there is a synagogue that doesn't want to get more people involved, but I'm not here to increase the market share of Coke over Pepsi, or to buy Nike over New Balance," said Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of Anshei Hesed in Manhattan. "Higher on my list is that people find avenues to deepen their Judaism." To be effective, a synagogue needs to decide well in advance what its mission is, but most synagogues don't have that explicit conversation, said Schuck. "Synagogues that are trying to reach out to the unaffiliated have to think much further down the road," Schuck said. "They have to ask how they can build a community and how to follow up in a way that isn't patronizing. It can't just be a cool, appealing program to hip people in their 30s, it has to be a deep understanding of what has been missing in the first place." One way the Pelham Jewish Center is trying to do just that is by offering a "Jewish Birthing" at a discounted rate, which was made possible by a recent grant. The class includes seminars on Jewish parenting, the brit mila and naming ceremonies. "This is a way to reach out and get people connected who wouldn't normally come to the synagogue," said Schuck. "Maybe at the end of the class they will feel connected as a community."
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