Sunday, March 30, 2008

Recreating Zeydeh's Living Room

The Jewish Week, May 18, 1995

Normally at this time of year I present my own version of the State of the Synagogue. Since we've been taking our temperature quite a bit recently and since the incredible things that have gone on this year really speak for themselves (and what else can you say about a year that includes visits form the likes of Colette Avital, Yitz Greenberg and Debbie Friedman, dozens of great programs and wonderful new spirit of can-do), I'm using this year-end space to discuss some of my vision for Beth El. The following is adapted from a recent sermon, entitled "Zeydeh's Living Room," and it explains, I think quite clearly, just what I feel is needed for us to fulfill our responsibility to our membership, our community and our people.

The idea came to me in the midst of a recent Friday night dinner for our young families. Nearly 150 were present, all ages; and with the kids running around, the adults chatting, the grandparents kvelling, I began to understand what it must have been like for my father in Brooklyn when he was growing up, when every Shabbat he would kibitz with dozens of cousins at his Zeideh's home. Back then being Jewish meant having the kind of organic, extended family that most of us pine for. But here we had it, if but for a fleeting evening.

And the screwy thing was that in our educational scheme, this program was seen not as an end in itself, but as a tool for encouraging the families to do the same things at home. It's known as "family education," the heir apparent to "continuity" on our ever-fluctuating priority pedestal. Of the dozens of families present that night, maybe four or five will expand their Shabbat home ritual based on this program; but scores wanted to know when we could do it again, at the synagogue. That's when it hit me: family education is fine, but what we need most of all is not a chicken in every Jewish pot on Friday night and a Kiddush in every cup, but an extended cousin's club in the shul.

The fact is that most of these families won't do it at home every Shabbat, and many can't. Even if they have time to make the chicken, even if there are two parents present, even if both are Jewish, and even if a grandparent miraculously appears from time to time, from where will they import the sense of wholeness that obliterates generational boundaries and allows people to relax and share the love they all so wish to share? Zeydeh's living room can now be realized only on a larger communal scale.

The family as we once knew it hardly exists anymore. Surveys show that actual two-parent families with children, devoid of divorce, widowhood and all the other forces that have detonated this nuclear unit, constitute a minority of Jews in America. How can you expect true bonding with Judaism to occur in this setting? But while we're still talking in "Leave it to Beaver" language, the people we're addressing are living in a far more fragmented world. By placing the burden of Jewish cultural transmission on the parents, we're actually rendering it inaccessible to their children.

We're talking to single parents who don't have time to breathe and we're telling them to whip up a hearty dinner every Friday night, preferably with company. We're talking to couples who scratch out two incomes and barely see each other during waking hours, and we're telling them that their kids will stay Jewish if only they would build a Sukkah in the backyard. We're saying that we're willing to be partners, but that the fate of Judaism is ultimately in their hands. And we're telling the children the worst message of all: if your parents aren't willing to buy into the program lock, stock and barrel, you, my friends, are lost. If your parents can't hack it, there's not much we can do about it.

On that fateful Friday, I realized (what I sort-of knew already) that what these families need is not the training to be Jewish at home, but more chances to do it here, in a non-threatening, multi-family setting. They don't need instructions, they need a support system. The route to greater commitment is not through persuasion and training, but through embrace and communal bonding. Most people avoid commitment like the plague, but no one will turn down a cheap meal that someone else cooks and a chance to relax with friends.

I have nothing against practicing Judaism in the home. But the social phenomenon of disintegrating families is far beyond our capacity to fix by ourselves. We can support efforts that promote home-based "family values," such as the celebrated V-chip; but in an era of dwindling resources, the Jewish establishment has a choice: rebuild the family-unit or renew Judaism. My vote is to pour our energy into building a communal life so vibrant that what the family does at home will hardly matter. We've got to serve Judaism up to them on a platter, so that in the end, parents and children will look forward so much to decorating the synagogue's sukkah with their friends and eating in it, to spending each Friday night and Shabbat morning with their new extended family, that they won't even realize how much time they are pouring in to being Jewish - and being together.

Paradoxically, by building up communal life, we'll bring families together, away from their homes, perhaps, but under our watchful eyes. The more we eat together (and as you know, we now have a communal Shabbat lunch at least once a month) the more we become an extended family, and communities that become extended families love to travel together too. Shabbat retreats and Israel experiences become natural extensions of Zeydeh's living room.

By the time the children go away to college, our goal should be that they pine for their extended families almost as much as their real ones. We want to build up a tribal loyalty that goes beyond reason, a closeness that cannot be explained in words; so that when a Jew for Jesus approaches there will be no chasm of loneliness to fill, so that gathering with friends at Hillel on Shabbat will be as natural as the Brady Bunch going home for a snack.

I would love a family educator on our staff; but in the end that won't help us to create the feeling of wholeness that can enfold people in a living, breathing Judaism. What I would love more is additional funds for more lunches, dinners, baby sitters, trips and a bigger and more beautiful sukkah for us all to decorate together. For the "Zeydeh's living room" strategy to work, much more money would have to be poured into synagogue programming than ever before -- by Federations too -- not merely for classroom innovations, but for the nuts and bolts activities of synagogue life, and especially for the cheap meals, so that membership can be affordable to all. The synagogue is still the only place where the most significant Jewish sacred moments can be lived out on a communal scale. It is our best hope. Community priorities must be adjusted to reflect this.

Synagogues also have to change: to become a true living room, formality and pretense must be cast aside, democracy encouraged and responsibility shared. Most of all, each child has to become everybody's child -- and each adult too.

Sooner or later, we'll come to realize what Hillary Clinton has been hinting all along, that it takes a village to raise the next generation of Jews. For us to mobilize the villagers to the task, we've got to understand that the home can no longer be seen as our prime battleground. There is only one place that retains some of the magic of Zeydeh's living room, with small children running in circles, teens chatting in the hallway and the older generations exchanging Torah wisdom and stock tips, and the sweet smell of kugel in the air. And that place is the synagogue.

Help us to become that place. Be more active. Volunteer. Help us with our endowment drive. Strive at least to understand that what we do here will make a profound difference in the lives of thousands of people (or more) for generations to come.

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