Growing the Congregation

Rabbi Amy Memis-Folder is the rabbi of Temple Judea Mizpah in Skokie, IL and is also a Big Tent Judaism Professional Affiliate. below is an excerpt from her “erev Rosh Hashanah” (the first night of Rosh Hashanah) sermon, in which she discusses the importance of being a Big Tent Judaism community and synagogue with her congregation. Photo credit: Michael Jarecki for Sun-Times Media

Speaking of marking milestone years, this year Temple Judea Mizpah (TJM) is celebrating our 60th year. Through the coming months we will be marking this milestone with a variety of simchas [festive occasions], such as a ribbon cutting for our new archives, a gala evening and monthly blessings on the bima [raised platform from which the Torah is read] for every group in the congregation. Keep posted to hear how you can participate and how we’re honoring you.

Temple Judea Mizpah too needs to grow. How?

Do we want to grow the population of people in the congregation and get more members? Well yes, but there are other ways to grow too.

We want to grow our numbers and increase membership, but the reality of today, is that at any given time, only about 35% of American Jews are affiliated with Jewish institutions, and of those, even fewer participate regularly.

Therefore, in order for Temple Judea Mizpah to grow we need to invite our children, grandchildren, parents, siblings to become members in their own right, as well as our neighbors;–or give them the gift of membership–and we also have to reach out to those whom we may not know, who do not have, or have not had in a long time a Jewish home, a sacred space a connection to Judaism, and create relationships with them.

Who are these as yet unaffiliated? They may have a connection to Judaism, because they were born Jewish but haven’t been in a Jewish institution for many years, or ever.

Nor might they have immediate plans of walking into a synagogue, JCC, or other Jewish establishment.

So we need to connect with them where they are—not just spiritually, but physically— whether in book stores, in coffee shops, at the park, at the gym, in the mall.

This is a philosophy of Jewish Outreach Institute/Big Tent Judasim, which I wrote about this summer in our temple’s bulletin, The Lamp. In that article, the key idea was engagement, engaging people where they are physically and spiritually.

Big Tent Judaism serves as a nice metaphor and image. Think of the “four walls” of our building as canvas flaps, allowing us to open them and spread them out –in all four directions of the compass–so that the ceiling expands and grows, allowing us to engage & welcome a great number of people under our canopy.

That canopy might grow & stretch out north to Westfield Old Orchard shopping mall, east to Emily Oaks Nature Center south to the Skokie Public Library, west to Morton Grove’s Harrer Park and beyond.

For example, on two Sundays in August, TJM hosted a Big Tent Judaism event, in which the walls and ceiling of our shul [synagogue] stretched all the way out to the Skokie Village Green. There we hosted a Big Tent Judaism program called, “Spoonful of Honey” in which we offered people who passed by a taste of honey on a slice of apple, as we taught them about the upcoming holy day we are now celebrating, Rosh HaShanah.

On these two days we engaged with over 250 people—some of them Jewish, some of them not. One woman I spoke to mentioned that her sister married a Jewish man. A young girl, when I asked if she ever ate apples and honey together, giggled and said, “yes, I’m Jewish.” When I spoke with a man that had what sounded like a Russian accent, I learned that he came from Ukraine, and his father was Jewish. Perhaps a young mother who came with her daughter and the daughter’s friend will find her way to our Free Family Services during these High Holy Days.

Thank you, to the volunteers, not just those of the Membership Commission, but also others on the Board and in our congregation who served as those friendly faces creating these relationships.

It’s this kind of engagement—a relationship that we build first, by extending our tent into the community and inviting and welcoming unaffiliated, interfaith families and individuals from a variety of diverse backgrounds—that will help us grow.

Jewish scholar and philosopher, Martin Buber wrote about relationships, which have been called:
I-Thou. In I-Thou interactions, we place ourselves completely into a relationship, to truly understand and “be there” with another person, without masks, pretenses. Such a moment of relating is called “I-Thou.” Each person comes to such a relationship without preconditions. The bond thus created enlarges each person, and each person responds by trying to enhance the other person. The result is true dialogue, true sharing.

Many people at Temple Judea Mizpah have shared that they have made such good friends in this place and built special relationships that have lasted over the years and decades. It is that kind of relationship, for which we might strive, as we stretch out the canopy of our big tent and engage others in meaningful Jewish experiences. It’s also the kind of relationship that we can look to as we build bonds with one another.

Growing at Temple Judea Mizpah means building and strengthening relationships. Growing at Temple Judea Mizpah means that each one of us be involved in fostering meaningful Jewish experiences with others and more importantly, creating relationships which build our community.

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