A Community of Leaders: What I Learned from Ner Tamid about Communal Responsibility and Cultivating Engagement

This d’var torah was delivered at Temple Ner Tamid on Shabbat Shekalim, Parashat Mishpatim, February 9, 2018.

When David Katowitz reached out to invite me to speak tonight, he told me that Steve’s only guideline regarding a topic was that he wanted speakers’ comments to be  “not so much about me.” So, in deference to Steve’s wishes, I’m not going to talk about him. I’m going to talk about the Ner Tamid community.

I grew up at this congregation. This is not a statement about being a member of the community during my childhood years. This community played a major role in my formation. I spent a significant percentage of my childhood in this building.

I first expressed an interest in becoming a rabbi when I was fifteen, but in reality, it had been gestating for some time. When I was about eleven, my dad started bringing me to the Saturday morning casual minyan. Together in the synagogue library (which used to be much smaller back in my day), a group of adult learners – among them Dan Herman, Belinda Plutz, Arlene Linetsky, and Lanny Katz – would gather each week for a brief Shabbat service wrapped around an engaging hour-long Torah discussion. It was inspiring for me to see adults wrestle with the text – finding points of connection with contemporary society and life experiences, as well as voicing strong disagreements when applicable. Their examples helped teach me that there was space in our Jewish tradition for lots of different interpretations and perspectives – even an 11-year-old’s. The recognition and respect with which I and my thoughts were welcomed into the conversation was the starting point of my relationship with Jewish text. As a rabbi, I aim to bring people into a rich conversation with the text and tradition. I learned that here.

In Ner Tamid’s religious school, I learned the liturgy. But not only that, I learned to feel connected to the ideas expressed within it. At age eight I was already memorizing the words of the prayerbook, paraphrasing Mishnah Peah: “These are the obligations without measure, whose reward, too, is without measure: to honor father and mother, to perform acts of lovingkindness, to attend the house of study daily, to welcome the stranger, to visit the sick, to rejoice with bride and groom, to console the bereaved, to pray with sincerity, to make peace when there is strife – and the study of Torah is equal to them all, because it leads to them all.” What a message! These acts of chesed, this life, joyously lived – these are some of the most important things a person should do in this life – and this, too, is an expression of the values of Torah!

After I became bar mitzvah, I continued in my religious school education. In ninth grade, in Barbara Sack’s class, I made the tallit that I wear today. The connection I have with it is far deeper because of my personal role in its creation. When I teach today, the value of experiential education is always at the front of my mind, as is the importance of making long-lasting connections to ritual.

When I entered high school, Joanna Rich welcomed me warmly into the synagogue’s youth group. I quickly found my way into SNoTTY leadership – that’s Senior Ner Tamid Temple Youth – spending three years as the religious and cultural vice president of the Ner Tamid youth group. In this role, I began to engage in the process of designing creative services – which helped me begin to think about how to operate creatively within the structure of a service.

As the son of Bob Adler, someone who probably spent as many waking hours each week at the synagogue as he did at home, I think I saw Ernest and Armando as often as I saw my high school teachers – and I probably talked to them more than I talked to my teachers.

In the rabbinic era, the early rabbis were often judged by z’chut avot – the merit of their ancestors. Although some rabbis, including the great rabbi Akiva, were great in spite of, or perhaps because of their humble beginnings, there is a strong tradition throughout Jewish history of rabbinic dynasties – long lines of rabbis.

But I don’t come from a line of rabbis – I come from a line of devoted lay-leaders – people who make commitments to their communities. People who opt in.

I know what commitment looks like – and as I’ve been interviewing with congregations over the past month, I’ve had a keen eye for communities with a strong lay leadership. Growing up at Ner Tamid has given me a higher standard for quality and commitment.

There’s a major worry about the future of progressive Jewish communities – that once the obligation to follow the halachah, or traditional Jewish practice, has been removed, the sense of obligation, or responsibility, to the community will also be lost. And it’s not only in Jewish communities. Robert Putnam has written about our society’s shift away from rooted communities in his books Bowling Alone and American Grace. The thesis of Alain de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists is that though secularization has overall been good for non-believers, it has also led to the loss of important factors that religious communities offer to members, and aims to emulate the positive features of religious communities in a secular context. It is easy for me to see the absence of a sense of communal responsibility because I grew up in a spiritual home that was always filled with examples of it.

In my rabbinate, I’ve lately been emphasizing the importance of learning the communal response to the Mourner’s Kaddish. It’s one of the things I focus on teaching b’nai mitzvah students. I truly believe that the most important part of becoming bar or bat mitzvah is not being called to the Torah for the first time. It’s being recognized as a member of a minyan – and the responsibility to show up for the community in times of need. To me, it’s less important that a student has memorized X number of prayers than whether that student feels like they have a place – that their presence adds something essential to their Jewish community.

I grew up in this congregation in the early years after the Reform movement changed its policy, moving to recognize patrilineal Jews – the children of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother – as full members of the Reform community. Of course, we know that changing a policy is only one step towards changing the environment. It speaks very well of the congregation that though I grew up during this time, it wasn’t until I was almost sixteen that I became aware that some people might have an issue with recognizing me as Jewish.

This, to me, is the sign of a great congregation. Good policy is only impactful if it is well-implemented. I am about to graduate from the Reconstructionist movement, a small movement known for leading the way in making major innovations in our American Jewish society, based on a deeply rooted philosophy and progressive approach. But people don’t join Reconstructionist congregations because they’re well-versed on Jewish peoplehood, or because they appreciate the democratic nature of Reconstructionist communal governance, or because they want to read everything that Mordecai Kaplan ever wrote. In fact, I recently taught an adult ed course at my Reconstructionist congregation on Recon 101. People don’t join a synagogue simply because they agree with the theology or the educational philosophy. They join because of how the policies are put into action; because the community makes them feel welcome and let’s them know that they belong.

This Shabbat on the Jewish calendar is known as Shabbat Shekalim, the first of four specially themed Shabbatot. It served as a reminder of the approaching census, at which time each Israelite was expected to bring a half shekel to contribute to the upkeep of the Temple. Everyone, no matter their financial means, was required to make the same small contribution each year. Of course, the people were welcome to make additional free will offerings, as their hearts were called.

Don’t worry, I’m not here to talk to you about dues or a fundraising campaign – although I do think that there is a relationship. One of the members of my congregation in Allentown has belonged to the synagogue since he was in college. He told me the story about how the previous rabbi of the congregation encouraged him to join. The amount wasn’t important, she said – $50 a semester. What was important, she said, was that he felt that he had an investment in the future of the community. Now, nearly fifteen years later, he tells this story to the people he trains to fundraise for the LGBT Center he founded in Allentown. A sense of responsibility for the future of the community led to a commitment to stay and work to improve the resources in his adopted city. And despite the massive time commitment necessary to build something new, he still makes the time to stay involved in his congregation – because it means something to him.

Volunteering your time is itself a free will offering – a major one. It’s an act of love and investment. Not only for lay leaders, but for their families as well. Trust me.

My parents always want to give me updates about so-and-so from the synagogue board, and I always have to tell them – I don’t know who that is! But I know that they’ve got to be good! And have a strong sense of commitment! To me, it’s a major strength of the congregation that there is a successful process for identifying and developing future lay leadership and preventing burnout.

With all of this leadership development, and high retention of former leaders, what you end up with at Ner Tamid is a community of leaders. At times it can be intimidating or overwhelming – when so many people can tell you exactly what you need to do in a given situation. But the thing is, they’re usually right. And they’re willing to give you advice not because they think they have the right answer, but because they care. They’re invested in the success of the community as a whole. They’re passionate about the causes that matter them. At a time when apathy towards religion is increasing, when an increasing number of young people are identifying as spiritual “nones,” there’s something refreshing about a community that cares.

When I interview with congregations, I always ask, “what’s the experience or interaction that, to you, exemplifies the congregation in a nutshell?” And the answers rarely involve the rabbi. It’s the time when a dozen community members drove 45 minutes to pay a shiva call. It’s the fellow congregant, who you’ve never met before, who shows up at your house the week after you give birth to twins, with a homemade dinner and an offer to sit with the babies for a couple of hours so you can get some SLEEP.

For me, it’s the shiva minyan the night after my grandfather’s funeral. Papa died in mid-June, and so we made a plan to gather outside, in my family’s backyard. But as we were preparing to begin the service, it started to pour – a heavy summer rain that drenched everyone present. We all raced into the house – I think there had to have been at least fifty of us (my dad thinks it was closer to a hundred – the truth is probably somewhere in between). We pushed back the furniture in the main room of the house and all sat together on the floor. Being in a room packed full of wet, happy people, gathered together to support my family – out of the deep sense of love that they felt for us – has been one of the most deeply spiritual experiences of my life.

Of course, in saying this, I don’t mean to suggest that rabbis are irrelevant. Chas v’shalom! God forbid! In spite of my desire to subvert hierarchical expectations of rabbinic authority, I still believe that rabbis have an essential role to play in Jewish communities. Otherwise, I’ve just wasted a lot of money and six years of my life! Rabbis have an enormous influence on the communities they serve – though not always as much as they think – and a responsibility to guide and support their communities during times of transition. Rabbis are equipped to do this by virtue of what Liam Neeson would refer to as “a particular set of skills.” We learn Torah and Jewish tradition so that we can translate and demystify them for our congregations, ensuring that Judaism continues to be relevant to Jews. We are trained to provide pastoral support for congregants during hard times. We cultivate a prophetic moral voice to speak on important contemporary issues from a spiritual, ethical, and religious perspective.

We are given a great example of the rabbi’s responsibility in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, where Moses is instructed that he – and he alone – will be allowed to ascend Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. He is the community’s representative. He has long been their advocate, so, now, it will be his responsibility to bring knowledge and instruction down from the mountain top.

So, I have to admit – I lied (chest thump). I can’t talk about the influence of this community without talking about the influence of Rabbi Steven Kushner.

Sitting in this sanctuary during my formative years – usually right there – I learned from Steve how to deliver a dvar torah. How to structure my message for maximum impact. The importance of balancing intellectual content with emotional resonance. The power of a well-placed pop culture reference.

I still lay out my divrei torah the way that Steve taught me when I was a teenager – pick a font that you can read easily, make it large enough to read from a distance. Single-sided, non-stapled, large page numbers. Roughly a minute per page.

Steve’s attention to detail and appreciation of aesthetics taught me how even the look of a prayerbook can augment the prayer experience. And, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve looked for Steve to learn how to pick the right kippah for a bald head.

I don’t want to say that my relationship with Steve has always been perfect. I wasn’t always the most focused student in confirmation class – although if I was playing games on my Palm Pilot, it was only because he had just sent them to me.

We have had disagreements – I remember one in particular that I won’t describe in detail, except to say that looking back, I was right about the first part, but he was right about the second part. But, speaking in my own defense – I was eighteen.

How could I not talk about Steve? He has been one of the greatest influences on my decision to pursue the rabbinate.  When I first decided that I wanted to become a rabbi, he was the only rabbi I had really known. Until I was in my senior year of college, I didn’t have a close relationship with any other rabbi. He was my first, and most significant, role model for the rabbinate.

So it is my great honor to be here tonight with this sacred community, honoring Steve’s many contributions to this congregation, and all of your contributions to my rabbinic future.

Shabbat shalom.