Thursday, May 30, 2013

The 16 Percent Solution: The State of the Synagogue

Below is a slightly edited version of my report given at last night's TBE Annual Meeting:

This week’s portion of Shelach Lecha is perfect for a time of transitions.  Moses sends forth a dozen spies, much the way we send forth dozens of bar mitzvah students in a given year. But we hope for better results than he had.  For Moses, ten out of twelve failed to come back with a positive report.  Imagine what would have become of Moses in the corporate world, with a success rate of 16 per cent. 

But 16 percent is all Moses needed – just two spies out of twelve had the potential to grow into new leadership.  One of them, Joshua, became the next leader.  And by the time Joshua was ready to step aside, the whole nation was firmly ensconced in the Promised Land and ready to take its place in history.  Sometimes 16 percent isn’t bad.  If we manage to achieve 16 percent of our programming or visioning initiatives, that’s far from perfect.  But it would be 16 percent more than we would have achieved had we tried nothing new at all. 

We are on the verge of finalizing a new strategic plan – one that codifies the vision that has been coalescing here for a number of years.  Yes, we know that as soon as the ink dries, it will already be time to adjust it.  But that’s the beauty of the culture of TBE – we never stop growing, we never stop trying new things – we never stop moving forward, even when it seems like things are working 16 percent of the time.  We’re actually doing much better than Moses did.  But that’s not the point.

The point is that when you have a culture of adaptation and innovation, you are immunized against institutional paralysis and fear.  When something doesn’t work, we just go on to the next.  When services in the chapel aren’t quite right, we come down to the lobby.  When this isn’t right, we go back up there.  We are adaptable – that isn’t merely the story of TBE – it’s the story of the Jewish people.  It’s the secret to our survival.

So what do we need to do now in this increasingly challenging environment?  One thing we have determined collectively is the need to re-emphasize the centrality of Shabbat in the life of this congregation.  We may differ as to how best to do that, but the goal has been set and is now enshrined as key pillar of our strategic plan.

In fact, we’ve been doing this work for a number of years, in different ways.  Over the past three years, since the arrival of Cantor Mordecai and his amazing music, we have succeeded in completely transforming our Friday night experience.  This transformation can’t be measured in numbers alone, but we now can expect a solid 50-plus each week, without any bar mitzvah or special event – a core that is growing – and for a reason.  I was talking to someone just yesterday, a newer member who has suffered harsh personal blows and he just couldn’t stop talking about how soothing and healing our service is for him.  It is for so many of us.  I have no doubt that we will continue to grow on Friday nights – and I believe that service is primed to take off in a big way.  And for Shabbat morning, we will continue to push the envelope, with the goal of engaging far more of our congregants, far more often.

Our new strategic plan emphasizes the importance of repairing the world to our mission. And what aren’t we doing to make this world a better place? 

  • This isn't the largest 7th grade we've ever had, but look at their photo and you will see the kind of diversity, ethnically, culturally, and religiously, that makes this a better world. 
  • Look up to our roof and in a few short weeks there will be over 800 solar panels generating 70 percent of our electricity and we will become, arguably, the greenest synagogue in the country.
  • We have taken the lead in a number of key areas of tikkun olam, world repair this year, including interfaith dialogue and service to those who are in need of visitation or support, with our new in-reach organization called Reyut.
  • We responded to Hurricane Sandy and the Newtown tragedy in meaningful ways, opening our doors to those in need of a warm hug and a hot meal, as featured on NPR, and generating support for meaningful gun violence legislation in our state.  We’ve become very good at reaching outward and inward simultaneously, especially on Shabbat.  While on Friday nights we reached inward to touch our souls, on Shabbat mornings we focused on projecting God’s love outward to the world. We recalled the plight of Soviet Jewry 50 years ago and the plight of the bumble bee today.  We dialogued with a Muslim educator and a learned about a Palestinian prisoner turned peace activist, blessed our animals and heard from our teens who marched in Poland, lobbied in Washington, built schools in Central America and danced at the Kotel.   We took an active role in advocating for our community’s public schools – an existential issue for the future of our synagogue. 
  • Out in the community, I also taught a 6th grade class this year at Carmel Day School and sent off 8th graders to Israel from Bi Cultural. Not only is it true that Beth El Cares, Beth El matters, in so many ways, across the community and around the world, and we proved that once again this year.
The strategic plan speaks of TBE excelling at the human touch. Engagement is so important to us that we have staff position dedicated to it, but the human touch is central to all our relationships here.  We now have active women’s and men’s discussion groups.  Over the past few months I’ve begun spontaneously calling congregants we haven’t seen here in a while, to see how they are doing. I’ve already seen some nice results from those calls.
Finally, our new strategic plan will continue our longstanding focus on Israel – with a primary goal being to get people there.  I’m pleased to announce tonight that our next TBE Israel Adventure will take place toward the end of July 2014.  Even before the trip has been officially announced, we already have a solid 15-20 people on board.  We are also going to be looking for more opportunities to bring people to Israel and elsewhere in the Jewish world over the next few years.

So yes, I think we are doing better than Moses did with his spies.  For one thing, we have a much better staff (Moses’ staff, as you may recall, was inanimate.)  I want to personally thank Al Treidel and Rabbi Michelle Dardashti for all they have given us – and they have given us so much - and I wish them success in their future endeavors. They’ve brought so much to us. Over the past few years, I’ve come to see why people call Ronnie Brockman the best nursery school director around.  Talk about the human touch!  Shorashim is a true gift to the community and we are duty bound to help it prosper for years to come. Steve Lander continues to be the best executive director in the business.  I call him my right arm, but truly, since I’m a lefty, he’s my left arm.  He does all the hard work so I get to do all the fun stuff. We can’t recognize him often enough for the heart and soul he pours into this labor of love known as TBE.  The office and maintenance staffs are an extension of that left arm.  They’re dedication and skills are unmatched.  I have to include Eileen in that, although we’ll have more to say about her at the concert this weekend.  I also want to mention Lisa Gittelman-Udi, our new Education and Youth Director.  I’ve been working extensively with her over the past couple of months and I can only say that we are in for a treat.  I see great things ahead both for our Hebrew School and for our teens.  My partnership with Cantor Mordecai could not be more enjoyable.  There is no better cantor around and, I humbly add, few more fruitful better cantor-rabbi partnerships.  You are a precious jewel for this synagogue. We make beautiful Torah together and I hope that continues for a long, long time.

And finally – none of this could happen without great lay leadership.  I would love to thank each of you individually for the incredible amount of care and time and effort you put into something that for you is clearly a labor of love.  For the past two years we’ve been led by Peter, who has earned his place on that TBE Mount Rushmore, right next to his immediate predecessors Eileen and Gary.  It’s one thing to put your money where your mouth is – that is expected of any leader.  But Peter put his feet there too.  No, I don’t mean that he put his foot in his mouth, but that he walked the walk – all the way to Israel, last summer, to a comprehensive class on Judaism, last year, and to services, a heck of a lot more often than he might ever have expected.  We will always be grateful for his cool hand under pressure and his ability to listen to all sides – often for hours - before a decision was made.

Peter, you have been a great president. We are in a better place – maybe as much as 16 percent better! And because of your work, our work, we have made the world a better place too.  And the work has only just begun.

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