Ten Truths of Synagogue Life

After a decade in the rabbinate, RABBI ADAM J. RASKIN shares what he has learned from his experiences

by Rabbi Adam J. Raskin

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Rabbi Raskin

I am in the midst of two sacred milestones in my life: Ten years ago I was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City and one year ago I began my tenure as senior rabbi of Congregation Har Shalom, in Potomac, Maryland. On the last day of religious school in May, one of my sixth graders asked if I like my job. Without hesitation I said, “No. I love my job!” I truly feel blessed every day to do what I love to do: teach Torah, facilitate meaningful Jewish experiences for people of all ages, and be an ambassador for all of the wisdom and beauty that Judaism offers.

Over the course of my decade in the rabbinate, I have come to understand ten truths about Conservative synagogue life that I want to share. I invite you to discuss them with me.

1. Jews affiliate with synagogues much more because of the sense of community they offer than because of the theology they preach. I believe that people gravitate toward synagogues where they are energized by participating in Jewish life as part of a larger group. Whether the synagogue precisely matches their personal belief system is often secondary. I know too many great Conservative Jews who are members of modern Orthodox synagogues primarily because they want people with whom to share Shabbat and holiday meals. Serious Jews want to be surrounded by other serious Jews who prioritize Shabbat, prayer, holiday observance, and deeds of loving kindness. They want to raise kids together, volunteer together, and become active together. The most devoted synagogue members are in search of likeminded people with whom to share the Jewish journey.

2. The effectiveness of Jewish education depends more on a child’s parents than on any other single factor. Whether they attend the best Jewish day school or the most well conceived supplemental religious school, the kids who are the most affected by Jewish education are those for whom Jewish life is a family, rather than a drop-off, experience. The fact is schools are not very good surrogates nor are they designed to be. There is simply no substitute for kids witnessing their parents engaged in Jewish learning, observance and synagogue attendance. Preaching these values is of limited success without the partnership of the children’s most impactful role models, their parents.

3. Israel remains the most powerful Jewish resource we have. Israel simply has no rival when it comes to infusing Jews with a sense of their own sacred history, an indescribable pride in Jewish survival and resilience, and an investment in the future of the Jewish people. Having seen Israel’s profound impact on the people I’ve taken on congregation trips – many first time visitors – I remain passionately committed to bringing as many Jews as possible to Israel.

4. Watering down Judaism is not the answer. The flocks of liberal, non-observant, or searching Jews who become enchanted by Chabad, Aish Ha’Torah and other ultra-Orthodox manifestations of Judaism confirm that people want substance in their Judaism, not an empty vessel. The Conservative synagogue will not survive if we are the place for ‘everyone else’ while committed Jews go elsewhere for their religious sustenance. Jettisoning Hebrew, eviscerating the traditional prayers and offering only elementary Judaism is a recipe for failure. Helping people appreciate the fullness of this 3,500-year-old tradition is what makes me leap out of bed in the morning. It is the business our congregations ought to be in.

5. The classes that rabbinical school should have offered: sales, marketing, human relations, social work, theater, storytelling, child development, fundraising, business administration, comedy, information technology, travel, conflict mediation, and culinary arts! That being said, my enthusiasm for the rabbinate has encouraged me to explore many of these skills as I have come to realize how essential they are for a successful rabbinate.

6. Synagogues are expensive. Engaging qualified staff, offering attractive programming, and maintaining a pleasant, spiritually evocative physical space is not cheap. Dues cover a shockingly limited portion of what is necessary for a synagogue – which is still the central address of the American Jewish community – to accomplish its mission. People may think that a rabbi talking about money sullies the religion, but until manna falls again from heaven, there’s no way around it.

7. I am neither indispensable nor can I be everywhere all the time. I have been pleasantly surprised that there is no committee, class, task-force, or meeting where a rabbi’s presence is unwanted. People love having the rabbi focus on their particular project. A rabbi’s attendance communicates importance and value. And I love supporting the initiatives of my congregants. However, in order to avoid burnout and to be a present husband and father, I cannot – nor need I – be everywhere for everyone all the time.

8. Membership does not necessarily translate into meaning. Synagogue membership is a responsibility shared by both the synagogue staff and its members. The responsibility of the synagogue is to provide meaningful, engaging, spiritually invigorating prayer services, learning opportunities and other gatherings of significance. But it is also incumbent on members to avail themselves of these opportunities and to engage the synagogue as a place where they connect as Jews and become inspired by the gifts of active participation.

9. It is not your duty to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it. (Pirkei Avot 2:21). It is the rare exception when a rabbi’s teachings produce overwhelming lifestyle changes. Much more often I witness incremental changes over time: people studying more Torah, making specific (rather than wholesale) Jewish ritual commitments, attending services more often, etc. Rather than wondering how many people have really become more Jewish because of my rabbinate, I believe that I am planting seeds that will grow and blossom over time. I know that people turn on to Judaism at various life stages, and I hope that I have contributed in some way toward that growth whether or not I see its ultimate fruition.

10. Alongside any great rabbi is a great rabbinic spouse. I cannot imagine being successful in this vocation without the inspiration and support of my incredible wife. Not only is she my confidant and an incredible source of wisdom, she also opens our home to hundreds of people on a regular basis, prepares inordinate quantities of food, is available to listen and become involved in the lives of our congregants, and to reassure me during long, irregular hours when she keeps the family – not to mention her own career – afloat. I know that she is just as passionate and engaged in this mission as I am, and that I am a much better rabbi because of her.

Adam J. Raskin, ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2002, is senior rabbi of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, Maryland. He is married to Sari Levinson Raskin and they have three children.