Creating Covenant Communities

When I came to Columbia, Maryland in September of 1973 as a rabbinic intern at Temple Isaiah, the congregation had 58 families. We shared space in an interfaith Center—part of the New Town’s plan—with the Roman Catholic parish, several Protestant congregations and two other Jewish congregations. I shared an office with Rabbi Martin Siegel, rabbi of the unaffiliated Columbia Jewish Congregation.

Rabbi Siegel had gained considerable notoriety in the early seventies with his publication of Amen, the Diary of a Suburban Rabbi. He was on the cover of New York Magazine and on many of the National TV shows.

He had come to Columbia a few years before my arrival at the invitation of a group of the new city’s Jews to build the ideal congregation for the next America. It would not be like the “service station model” that he characterized his former congregation in Long Island and most other Reform congregations to be.

By “service station” he meant a place where people paid their dues in order to receive services. They wanted to be sure they could get their kids “Bar or Bat Mitzvahed”, they wanted to be sure that a rabbi would be available to marry their children and to bury their parents when the time came, and to be available to meet their other pastoral and personal needs. In terms of involvement and commitment to the synagogue beyond paying dues—there is little of it in the “service station” congregation, and that was both the source of Siegel’s discontent and the motivation to write his book.

Without a doubt there was something special about those early days at my congregation in Columbia. It seemed like nearly every one of the fifty-eight families was actively involved.

Fueled by the fact that none of the residents had roots in a city formed only a few years before, a majority of members attended Friday night services seeking to meet other Jews and forge a community. Home baked Ongai Shabbat were the norm.

Members were on the look out for newcomers. When new faces appeared at a service, old members descended on them with a warm, inviting welcome.

But even the most “audacious hospitality” will not sustain Jewish congregational life if we fail as communities to nourish our Jewish roots.

What are those roots?

4000 years ago God made a Covenant with Abraham. In that Covenant the Almighty promised to protect us, give us children, make us a permanent people and give us the land of Israel. In return Abraham and his descendants pledged to make our lives a blessing, follow God’s teachings, and use our talents to create a society based on “Mishpat” –justice—and “Tzedakah”—righteousness.

To fulfill those Covenantal demands is the only reason for us to exist as Jews,

When I first spoke at Congregation Beth Israel in 1997 when I was auditioning to be their Rabbi—I cited the passage in Deuteronomy (27:6) and in Exodus (20:22), right after the Ten Commandments in which God commanded the Children of Israel to build the Altar for the ancient tabernacle of unhewn stones. They had to use stones as they were, not shape them and mold them to fit into any preconceived design.

Although they could not sculpt the stones to a certain size or shape, our forbears forged those unhewn stones into a strong and sturdy base from which to serve our God.

Our ancestors were up to the challenge!  Are we?

Jewish community members come in all shapes, sizes, religious backgrounds, ethnicities and skin tones. We must find a way to welcome them all –just as they are– and help them find a warm and nurturing spiritual home in our congregations.

For me the operative ideal for a congregation is the model that Rabbi Shimon Ha Tzaddik presented in the first pre-Christian century:

“Upon three things the world stands—the study of Torah, worship, and deeds of kindness and compassion.” (Pirke Avot 1:2)

Our Sages, Hillel and Shammai, who agreed on almost nothing agreed on this point: “Set a fixed time for study, for one who does not increase his knowledge decreases it.” (Pirke Avot 1:15)

As far as worship goes: we all want services to be inviting and alive. For me that means services that are more Torah centered and less entertainment centered.

People today can find entertainment more exciting than anything a congregation can offer. If we set our minds on making Torah reading and teaching dynamic and interesting, we will offer Jews and prospective Jews something they cannot find in other venues.

There is no more important focus of Jewish life than deeds of of kindness and compassion. The realities out there of poverty illiteracy and violence are not diminishing.

Our top priority must be to engage with the world in many different ways and make it a better place.

Studies show that what is good for organized Jewish life is also good for individual well-being. Studies show that one of the major contributing factors in promoting good health and longevity is active involvement in a caring community. Investing time and energy in a religious community will not only strengthen those communities, your involvement will add meaning to your lives and –very possibly– length to your days.

Such a goal in the words of the Torah “is not too hard for us nor is it beyond our reach. (Deuteronomy 30:11)” If it is in our minds and hearts to do it, synagogues (and other houses of worship for that matter) can become dynamic, dedicated and diverse communities concerned about each other and devoted to our Covenant with God. Then, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah (58:8) “Our light will blaze forth like the dawn,” and we shall merit God’s blessing both now and in the generations to come.