(What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You) Unaffiliated

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Last year, when I found myself in tears over massive, unexpected changes at our synagogue, Black Gay and Jewish blogger Erika Davis told me something instructive. She said that Jews-by-choice, like us, “are acutely aware of what we need in our Jewish communities and therefore aware when those needs aren’t met.” Not that Jews-by-birth aren’t. But when you choose Judaism as an adult with your eyes wide open, it’s hard to let things go by that your religious sensibility flags as less than kosher. In Reform Judaism, that often boils down to issues of justice, fairness, and inclusion.

Such were the issues that originally pushed us out of our previous Reform synagogue community in Chicago, Emanuel Congregation, shortly before Passover 2014, with a lot of anger on both sides. (Especially from board members.) And such are the issues over which we have decided to leave on the table our membership in our current synagogue, the mainline Temple Sholom. This time we’re letting go gently—but we’re still letting go.

When we left Emanuel, one former fellow congregant told us that it would always be the same wherever we went. That Reform synagogues always placed the needs and input of adult Jews without children on the back burner. That the input of families and donors mattered most. And that, essentially, “good Jews” paid their synagogue dues, solved their own problems, and publicly kept their mouths shut. (Actually, their now-former lead rabbi told me the last part.)

I’d like to think that speaks much more to how the top-down political corruption of Illinois and Chicago gives cover to those in power here in any arena to shut out the voices and needs of the people over which they wield that power. Then again, Kvetching Editor blogger Chaviva Galatz once told me that she had never experienced a synagogue that didn’t cause problems for itself by over-focusing on the childhood end of lifecycle needs. And she started her now-Orthodox Jewish journey as a Reform Jew-by-choice at Temple Sholom.

When we left Emanuel, I blogged extensively about the feeling of being an unexpectedly unaffiliated Jew-by-choice. What made us decide not to renew. The incredible disappointment of my first Shabbat chanting Torah becoming my last Shabbat in the building. What we wanted and needed out of our next time synagogue. Spending Rosh Hashanah at Disneyland.

Seventeen months later, when we joined Temple Sholom, we did so recognizing the deep sense of inclusiveness—including LGBTQ inclusiveness, respect for adult Jews without children and adult Jewish religious needs, and great amity among—not to mention constant presence at services of—board members, staff, and congregants. The shul ticked off every box of our “next time synagogue” wish list. So we settled in. Ryan completed his conversion and daydreamed about becoming a board member. I joined the social justice committee. We made good friends, including among staff and clergy. We mourned the future day when we would finally move to New York for my family and leave the shul behind.

A year later for reasons whose full scope we’ll probably never know—though we asked almost every leader we knew—the synagogue decided to change direction. Adult-friendly holiday programming reverted back to familes-only events. Community events began to carry prohibitive cover charges. Music at services was suddenly and completely changed. And in rapid succession, nearly (or by one former staffer’s count, more than) a dozen members of staff and clergy were either let go, resigned, or told their contracts would not be renewed.

Very quickly, the Temple Sholom we knew and loved for our wonderful first year became a place we didn’t recognize anymore. It didn’t feel the same. It didn’t sound the same. It didn’t look the same. It felt like someone else’s synagogue.

Most of all, it felt like a deliberate strategy.

The only person who would even admit to us that anything concerted was really going on was the lead rabbi, who told us that the changes were aimed at making the synagogue less “dysfunctional” and giving it a better financial footing for it’s upcoming 150th aniversary. And, essentially, that as good Jews we should not resent the changes but support them.

While we considered the explanation, we were reminded of the story of B’nai Torah, the six-decade-old Reform synagogue on Chicago’s suburban north shore that closed down around the time we left Emanuel. That shul decided to fix its own financial dysfunction by pivoting its vision to focus almost exclusively on money-saving measures and promoting them to members as changes worthy of support, not resentment. Debra Neelson, their next-to-last rabbi before they closed after their membership balked and walked away, said this to the Chicago Tribune after the closure:

“They viewed B’nai Torah as an economic problem. I saw B’nai Torah as a sacred gathering place… If the overriding message becomes about money, that has a way of diminishing why people join a sacred institution.”

Not that Temple Sholom is going anywhere. But it’s clear that their powers that be are re-aiming the synagogue at a very narrow chohort of older donors of means who seek a return to a time when synagogues were closed systems at the center of Jewish life. The comfort zone of the last century, when Reform shuls still didn’t have to worry about things like declining membership, inclusivity, or community participation.

Personally, I think it’s a mistake to paint any synagogue’s landmark 21st-century anniversary with such an outdated 20th-century brush. I’m sure we aren’t the only members who spent a year sheltering in place, waiting for the tornado of changes to end. (They still haven’t.) For most of our second year, with such little explanation from leadership, we felt like we were experiencing a bizarre congregational bait-and-switch. If nothing else, the response we got finally confirmed for us that we were.

Even so, I still refuse to believe that it will be “the same wherever we go.” Beyond Emanuel, Sholom, and Chicago, our movement must harbor congregations that understand that the measure of a community is the people who are part of it. For a synagogue, that includes members, staff, and clergy, together.

You can decide for business purposes that staff and clergy are reducible to line items, that collateral damages regarding changes to either are capturable completely in dollars and cents. But you’re only fooling yourself. Friendship and respect and love accrue within a congregation. They purposefully ignore and leap over picayune definitions of division like “member,” “staff,” and “clergy.” And if Jewish ethics are to be honored, people—both individually and as the congregations which they form and in which they make friends, respect each other, and show love—are meant to be treated with fairness, justice, and compassion. They are meant to be a part of the discussion—talked to, not talked at. They are meant to be appreciated not just in their comings and goings, and not just because of their donatable wealth, but in their daily presence, and because their presence in and of itself honors and enriches the community as a whole.

It’s obvious when that stops happening in a synagoguge, and the ends of an abundant bottom line do not justify the means of leaders putting their Jewish ethics in their back pockets to get there.

Though we’re not coming back, we wish Sholom well. It was an amazing first year that we’ll never forget. There are some awesome people there, both on the bimah and off. The place gave Ryan his Judaism and me a much more easygoing relationship with my own religious journey.

But from our experience with Sholom—and Emanuel before it—we’re also a lot more personally clear about why so many liberal Jews choose to be unaffiliated. The best I can make of it is this: unaffiliated liberal Jews, simply, are not on auto-pilot. We recognize and honor the time and place in which we’re living—and wonder why our former synagogues so often don’t. We welcome diversity and change. We are unafraid to say that we don’t need organized Judaism to claim our own Judaism, including claiming our own Jewish religious journeys. We know that we don’t need to pray within the walls of a synagogue to connect with God or to remember to live Jewishly.

Most of all, we’re willing to live by our Jewish ethics—even when those ethics lead us back into the desert, searching for the promised land of a congregation with leadership willing to live by them, too.

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