Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Shabbat in Saskatoon

This past weekend, I had the distinct privilege of presiding over the installation of Rabbi Claudio Jodorkovsky at Congregation Agudas Shalom Synagogue in Saskatoon, Canada.

The appointment of Rabbi Claudio, as he is known, was big news -- not only for the Jews of this Western Canadian city… but also for the local community. In addition to local Jewish dignitaries, we were joined by members of the Provincial and local governments, clergy of all faiths and local civic leaders over the course of the weekend. The occasion of a rabbi’s installation was deemed important enough to celebrate on a wide scale. I was moved and impressed by the outpouring of support and media attention inspired by Rabbi Claudio's appointment.

Of course, Rabbi Claudio deserves every bit of the star treatment he received. Born in Santiago, Chile in 1974, he was ordained at the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary of the Conservative movement.
After graduating, Rabbi Claudio first served in a congregation in Bogota, Columbia before joining Congregation Agudas Shalom.

Built in 1958, Congregation Agudas Shalom is a kehilla whose influence extends far beyond its physical dimensions. The appointment of its first full-time rabbi in 50 years was not only a milestone for the community but a vote of confidence and investment in its future vitality. According to all the estimates and demographic projections, Saskatoon is poised for rapid growth, expected to double its population in the next 15-20 years, from 250,000 to half a million people. The leadership of Agudas Shalom is fully anticipating -- and supporting -- that growth."

The Jewish population – currently holding steady at 2,000 members – is also expected to double in size, or more, during that time. The leadership of Agudas Shalom, in installing a new full time rabbi, is clearly planning ahead and investing in their future.

The Shabbat I spent with this very special kehilla was sweet on so many levels. First, the personal. Being at the synagogue over Shabbat enabled me to reconnect with a dear old friend – Heather Feynes – the immediate past president and an active member of the kehilla. While we reminisced, I was introduced to the pillars of the community who welcomed me like I, too, was a member of the family. I was also able to meet Harold Jacobson, a family friend of the Feynes's from Florida and a member of the board of directors of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who is a native of Colombia.  He made the trip just to participate in the festivities. It was his friendships and his network that provided information from Columbia which validated the kehilla's choice in Rabbi Claudio.

For a small synagogue without a full-time professional for so many years, Agudas Shalom has made a big mark. For a small shul, you cannot believe all the activities that take place under its roof. The place is hopping with life and enthusiasm and passion. Quite literally, Agudas Shalom has earned the distinction of being the central Jewish address of Saskatoon. They are involved in reconciliation and dialogue with other faith groups. They are financially secure.

Agudas Shalom is truly a model kehilla, living the dream of an engaged, connected Conservative Judaism. And while the hiring of a full-time rabbi is a stretch for them financially, it is also an investment in tomorrow. That’s what they are doing. Rabbi Claudio is the right person for them. A dynamic personality, he wants to be in a small community, he wants to build relationships. His intelligence is as great as his menschlichkeit.

His appointment marks a great and successful shidduch for Agudas Shalom.

I took away so many valuable lessons from my Shabbat in Saskatoon…about what makes a successful kehilla, about how to exist in harmony with the surrounding community, about how to invest in the future, about how to build successful interpersonal relationships.

Heading into Yom Kippur I am reminded of a lesson we all know internally, but which bears repetition because we sometimes forget:

Success is about engagement.

If we want to grow a vibrant community for today and for tomorrow, our message should be not about membership but engagement.

At United Synagogue, we are about relationships, not numbers.

If Yom Kippur is a time of reflection and heshbon hanefesh and reflecting on what one needs to do to grow in year ahead, let us draw inspiration from Congregation Agudas Shalom Synagogue in Saskatoon.

In other words, let’s not beat our breasts in despair this Yom Kippur, but raise our voices together in song…and celebration.

G’mar Chatimah Tova.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Power of a Time Out

Sometimes, to keep moving forward, you need to stand still. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past few days with my colleagues at United Synagogue, and it’s been a nourishing and, frankly, moving experience.

We began Sunday morning at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County in Bethesda, Maryland. I note the location because, significantly, we were not sitting in an office; rather, we were in one of our partner synagogues – a sacred community whose health and vitality represents the essence of our mission. After conducting routine business, we engaged in what I think of as the real work: discussing our core values and how to bring them into what we do every day.

Sitting together at round tables, our staff and board discussed a story from the Talmud, in which Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Hiyya argue about what they would do if, God forbid, the people of Israel forgot the Torah. (It’s a wonderful story that you can find in Tractate Baba Metizia, 85b.) I listened as each group teased out the values behind the two rabbis’ strikingly different approaches, and debated which had the most merit. They then began to articulate the values that should animate our own work and to decide which were most important.

What moved me was not so much the ideas generated – though there were excellent notions about empowerment, respect, collaboration, and building community – but the fact that we were sharing a conversation about what matters most, about the principles that would guide us. It moved me to see how seriously each person took this discussion and to hear afterward how meaningful they had found it.

We’ve been working with the boards of our kehillot to help them go beyond simply giving committee reports toward articulating their core beliefs and how their institutions can embody them. Needless to say, we can’t preach this message very effectively unless we practice it ourselves.

Which brings me to the second part of the last few days, a staff retreat in the Pennsylvania hills. Again, we stepped back from the craziness of our daily routines to look more deeply at what we do. What’s been moving about this experience is how much time we’ve spent in meaningful conversation. We’ve sat face to face, talking about our lives and work. We’ve learned the art of asking questions and truly listening to the answers. Some of the feedback about these sessions is that people felt “validated,” “taken seriously,” “really listened to.”

It’s hard to think of a better way to move into the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, than asking each other about our most precious values; listening to each other as if we were truly created b’tzelem Hashem, in the image of God; and measuring ourselves against our most deeply held beliefs. Because that’s what we pray for this time of year, isn’t it? To find the inspiration to recommit ourselves to our core values. To internalize those values so they guide how we actually live. To elevate our lives into something holy.