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Membership Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Friday, November 15, 2013

It is unlikely that your great grandparents belonged to a synagogue. If they were Jewish and were in Europe, the organization of Jewish life was very different than in America. The word Kehillah, which we use for congregation today, then meant community. You were part of the Kehillah from the time of your birth into a Jewish family, and when you became an adult you paid a sort of tax to the Kehillah which supported all the local Jewish institutions.

That is why the battle for Reform in Europe was different than in America. It wasn’t a matter of a particular congregation deciding to become Reform but of the community supporting a Reform institution and rabbi. In some ways it was more like the current battle for Reform in Israel, where there are now several local communities which have appointed Reform rabbis as their regional rabbis and are fighting their way through the Orthodox dominated system.

If your family wasn’t in Europe 4 or 5 generations ago, but had come to the United States, they were more likely to have purchased a pew at Temple than to have paid a membership fee to a congregation. Depending on their means they might be sitting in the front of the Temple, or off to the side. Later that seemed anti-democratic and congregations moved towards a dues approach to support their activities. In the Conservative movement, where many of the congregations were born out of the move to homogeneous suburbs in the 1950’s that usually led to a set dues system. Reform congregations, which often had their roots in more diverse urban areas, tended more towards variations of fair share systems to reflect their heterogeneous membership.

The recent Pew survey of American Jews has been quoted by those who express concern about the membership system of organizing American Jewish life. Though the overwhelming majority of Jews belong to a synagogue at some point during their lifetime, perhaps as many as 80%, a much smaller number belong at any given moment. The recent Pew study estimates those who belong today at about 40%, probably less in western states like California. Those who challenge the wisdom of continuing the membership model note that in general in American life membership organizations are shrinking. They quote the well known research of Robert Purnam’s Bowling Alone, and the tendency toward individualization in American society. They note that Americans in general are moving away from religious affiliation, with 20% of all Americans describing themselves as none’s (having no religion) and 32% of millenials, that is those who came of age at the turn of the 21st century. This is the approximate percentage of American Jews who describe themselves as Jewish but not by religion.

Still I’d like us to think twice about the data before we throw the baby out with the bathwater. One of the outstanding discoveries of the Pew survey was the extent to which social connections are a significant part of Jewish life. This is parallel to work others are doing in the area of networks. The Pew study found that being part of a community of Jews and having Jewish connections is the greatest predictor of every aspect of Jewish life. As in the study of Jewish philanthropic giving that I quoted over the holidays, Jewish connections were a strong predictor of Jewish actions.

At our board retreat this summer we brought in a scholar in residence Sarah Bunin Benor, associate professor of contemporary Jewish studies at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. She has been an important researcher and commentator on the Pew Survey. In a recent article in Sh’ma magazine she wrote about the investigation of networks and its application to Jewish life. Strong networks have both density and multiplexity. Density, refers to the number of people within a network who know each other, and multiplexity, refers to the number of contexts within which individuals interact.

For example, my small student pulpit in Alpena Michigan had very high density- all 26 families knew each other, and pretty high multiplexity. Living in a very small town, they met each other at the grocery store, the public school, and at the town’s Fourth of July picnic lunch.

Most Orthodox congregations also have high density and multiplexity. They tend to be smaller and are defined to a large extent by the distance a person can walk to shul on Shabbes. Their children tend to attend the same religious day schools and they shop in the same kosher markets. Acts of Gemilut Chasadim, loving kindness, whether visiting the sick, comforting the mourner, or bringing food to a family with a new baby, also create internal ties.

Our congregation faces challenges in both density and multiplexity. With over 600 family units, it is hard for anyone to know everyone. Even if you know a fair number of Temple members, sometimes you can have the experience of coming to a service or event, and not really knowing anyone. In addition we live all across the South Bay and our children attend schools in 15 different school districts not including those attending private schools. We shop in different markets, and exercise in gyms in our different neighborhoods.

To make belonging to a congregation more meaningful, at Shir Hadash we try in various ways to overcome these challenges. We encourage our members to join Havurot and we have social activities where people can get to know each other. Over the past two years we have been learning ways to be more intentional about creating social ties in everything we do, whether that’s sitting in a classroom, working together on a social action project, or just hanging around waiting to pick up our children. One of the recommendations of our recent long range planning study was that we continue to find ways to enhance connections between people with similar interests- both through high tech and more old fashioned means.

The idea that our Jewish life reflects our friendships is nothing new. There is an old Yiddish joke about the atheist in the community who goes to shul regularly. He is outspoken about his objection to God and religion and so someone challenges him- what are you doing at services? He responds: Goldstein goes to shul to talk to God, and I go to shul to talk to Goldstein.

Whichever your motivation we welcome you this evening.

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