Communal Birth Pangs

We have quickly moved through Super Bowl season, through the college basketball March Madness, and are in the midst of NBA playoffs. The primary election is a few weeks away and, before we know it, the highly anticipated mid-term elections will be upon us. Throughout all this, we are inundated with commentary and predictions. 

So, if you have peered into the crystal ball, read the runes, revisited Nostradamus, checked out the Mayan calendar, had your palm read, and shuffled the Tarot cards, then you know what’s going to happen. My prediction is that confidence in predictions is never warranted. After all, doesn’t the Talmud say in the name of Rabbi Yochanan that after the Temple was destroyed, prophecy was given only to children and fools? 

I know I am not a child. And I hope I am not a fool. So, the gift of prophecy fully eludes me. But, that does not stop me from thinking about the future, contemplating change, and anticipating future events.

Like Jews in many parts of our country, we face clear and present dangers, perhaps even more severe in the northeast. We know we have certain demographic realities. We know from changing membership and enrollment patterns that synagogues and Jewish agencies must work differently and collaboratively, not only to engage the newer generation, but even to maintain the engagement and involvement of those who have graced our rolls for the past few decades. What can we as a community do to help our institutions or synagogues maintain their vibrancy? How will we meet the needs of an increasingly aging population? Can we raise the additional $200,000 to $300,000 we need to meet our annual campaign goals so we can continue to meet all our commitments to the Jewish community? 

In the wake of the Roman conquest of Israel, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai offered this parable, as apt for the 21st century as it was in his day: 

A man in a boat began to bore a hole under his seat. His fellow passengers protested. “What concern is it of yours?” he responded. “I am making a hole under my seat, not under yours.” They responded, “That is so, but when the water enters and the boat sinks, we too will drown.” 

Without a doubt, our potential is inextricably linked to one another. We sail or sink together. Charles Darwin, speaking about something slightly more complex than our Jewish community, stated “in the long history of humankind those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” 

And not only is that true in our Jewish community, but good things are happening now which portend good signs for our future. In this HAKOL issue (page 1) our editor writes an excellent article on the merger of two synagogues in Easton. It is an uplifting article because those directly involved recognize – notwithstanding some difficult times in the process – that they are collaboratively planning their future and the future of the Easton Jewish community. And without going into detail, in two separate processes, four Jewish organizations in all at the other end of the Lehigh Valley are in active discussions about how best to husband resources and proactively collaborate, not before it is “too late,” but because they recognize the outstanding benefits and value of working together. Quoting a synagogue president in Easton about collaboration, “we have a lot more in common than not in common.”

I am reminded that the Chinese ideogram for “crisis” also means “opportunity.” But, the Hebrew is more hopeful still. The word for crisis, mashber, also means a “birthing chair.” The Jewish reflex is to see difficult times as birth pangs. With the will to confront crisis, something new will be born.

Does that mean organizations will merge? Does it mean more program and administrative collaboration? Does it mean right-sizing, relocating, or co-locating Jewish communal facilities? Does it mean the curtailing of some programs in order to maintain those of greater emerging priority? Does it mean revising budgets, staffing patterns and communal expectations as a response to the realities of 2020 rather than becoming a mere reflection of what we might have been in 1990?

So what are my predictions? We are the people of a journey to a distant destination, begun by Abraham and Sarah and continued by a hundred generations of ancestors. And it still beckons. What I know is that we are changing. And we will stress collaboration because Darwin’s exhortation and our future speak simultaneously to us. 

It won’t be easy and not without “birthing pangs.”