To Survive, To Strive, and To Thrive

After Katrina, a New Orleans congregation has done much more than come back from adversity

by Bob Leventhal

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As I prepared for a workshop recently with Shir Chadash, a Conservative congregation in New Orleans, I watched Spike Lee’s HBO documentary “When the Levees Broke.” The people interviewed loved New Orleans – its history, its music, its food, its families. Many have had a multi-generational commitment to the city. I came away from the film with a powerful sense of what was lost.

When I arrived at Shir Chadash, I learned that over 25% of their members left after the flood. Older members decided not to rebuild. Some moved near their children. Many members had to leave when their companies relocated.

A few years ago, I heard Rabbi Harold Kushner speak about his book on Job. He told a story about discussing his book in post-Katrina New Orleans. He was asked where God was in the storm. He replied that God was not in the storm. Storms are governed by the laws of nature. God was in the hearts of the first responders. Religious faith and practice is not an amulet that provides protection from the world but it does provide a framework for building a purposeful life the day after.

purim in NOLAI asked some of the leaders of Shir Chadash to complete a new assessment we created called “18 Characteristics of a Thriving Congregation.” The assessment looks into how a congregation’s clergy and lay leadership create a shared mission, a welcoming culture, meaningful Jewish learning, prayer, and connected community. I had some initial, interesting responses from the Shir Chadash team.  But I was most struck by what I noticed informally over the weekend, which were clear examples of what I call “sightings of thriving.”So as I traveled to Shir Chadash, I was looking for how Jewish life was being built “the day after.” I wanted to see what it looked like to survive – and thrive – as a synagogue in the 21st century.

  •  Spirited Singing: At the Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service, I was impressed by the spirited singing of the rabbi and prayer leader. Not everyone was able to sing with such abandon but overall the room was lifted up by enthusiasm.
  • Welcoming Guests: The kehilla leaders took it upon themselves to hold a Shabbat dinner for me with the board. Everyone wore name tags and were great about coming up to me. We played Jewish geography and got to know each other. On Saturday morning I was given an Aliyah. I thought, I thought, “This is what welcoming looks like.”
  • Connecting Torah to the Modern World: I walked away from this service with two divrei Torah that boldly and creatively took traditional Torah values and “made the connection” to our times:
    • The rabbi gave a very creative sermon about the dangers of Jews criticizing each other for having multiple allegiances. He reminded us that throughout history governments have tried to give Jews a litmus test to prove their loyalty. There is nothing wrong, he argued, with having multiple allegiances. The rabbi showed how he might make the connection between Jewish history to a burning issue of the day.
    •  Next I heard a d’var Torah by the bat mitzvah. While we had just listened to a Torah reading about animal sacrifices, she helped us look at the text in a new way. In Biblical times, she noted, sacrificing an animal was a huge economic sacrifice. Paying for an animal would not be such a big deal for us today. Today our most valuable asset is our time. She asked us to consider what time commitments we are willing to make for our Jewish community. WOW. The issue of how we carve out sacred time is one of the pillars of the Sulam for Emerging Leaders program. I often have to work hard to help rabbis make this point with their participants. This 13 year old girl “nailed it.” She had learned to make the connection.
  • Building Relationships: At Kiddush lunch people came up to me and introduced themselves.  Rabbi Linden took the initiative to introduce me to the Membership Chair, “I think he would like to talk to you,” he said. Rabbi Linden was helping us to connect.
  • Welcoming Young Families: I sat with several young couples and was surrounded by babies in high chairs and kids zigging and zagging around us. One of the young couples told me that this is a place that welcomes young families. I could see that the generations really enjoy each other.
  • Taking Care of the Little Things: When I arrived at the conference room the executive director was there early, making sure that everything was in order.  I in turn was able to focus on my pre-workshop preparation knowing that all of the logistics were taken care of. This is what it looks like to care for and honor a guest. Why do I make such a big deal about such mundane details?  Judaism emphasizes the importance of practicing the little things that build a covenantal and caring community. I learned a great deal about a leadership culture by observing how they treated me.
  • Leaders with a Shared Commitment: On Sunday we conducted a leadership development workshop for the board. They have around 30 members. Usual attendance is about 60%. In some dysfunctional cultures it can be less than a third. On Sunday we had over 85%. This is what shared commitment looks like.
  • Going Beyond the Synagogue Walls: I learned that the congregation holds Friday services in a member’s home in the uptown neighborhood where many members live.  Shir Chadash has a vision of a portable mishkan that can move out to the people. This is what you see when leaders  strive to meet people “where they are.”

Shir Chadash:  A New Song

Ten years after Katrina, Shir Chadash certainly has a new song. They have added a net of about 20 new members a year for the last 5 years. They have been able to create a narrative of growth in a community with memories of devastation and loss. These members have been welcomed into a community that seems committed to weaving new meaning between their Torah and the lives of their members. They have had the chance to participate in a caring, connected community clearly united in striving for continuous learning and improvement. That is more than surviving, I thought. “This is what thriving looks like.”

Bob Leventhal is the Transformation Specialist Team Leader at USCJ.