Friday, May 2, 2008

United We Stand - YIOP Bulletin for May 2008

Two men are sitting in a park in Munich, reading newspapers. One is reading the Yiddish newspaper, and the other is reading Der Sturmer (the Nazi paper).The first one looks at the second one's paper and asks, "Why are you reading that trash? Can't you see how biased and anti-Semitic it is?"

The other one answered, "Look at what you're reading. Nothing ever in there but bad news. I already know how bad things are. I don't need to read about it. So I pick up the Sturmer, and what do I see? The Jews have all the money. The Jews own all the factories. The Jews are in control of the entertainment industry. The Jews can dictate the actions of governments. The Jews are the most powerful people in the world... I read all that, and I feel so much better!

As I approach the final months of my time as rabbi of YIOP and the shul finds itself in the throes of a rabbinic search, I find myself worried about the future – not just my own, but of our shul. While I might be leaving, I have invested my heart and soul into what I believe is a crucial institution in our community. But the future holds great danger for our shul that I feel must be discussed and addressed if YIOP can continue to grow and prosper.

The great challenge of any representative organization – any school, shul, club or group – is to grow large enough to be able to offer the services that people need, without being so large that it no longer reflects the values of its members.

Halachah embedded in our tradition the notion that no man is an island. I cannot begin to approach God on my own with the same power, quality and intensity that I can in a community. Without the company of others there is no kaddish, no kedushah, no Torah reading – none of the elements so critical to connecting with God. In establishing these rules, our Rabbis ensured that we understand and appreciate the power of the community to further our personal and spiritual growth.

Today we live in an era of specialization. Instead of reading a newspaper written for everyone, I only read the news I want to read on the internet. I only watch the news that agrees with my point of view. We live in a time of individuality, where the only important question is “what’s good for me?” “What’s in it for me?” “What’s most comfortable for me?” While it might be uncomfortable to share experiences with people unlike ourselves, it’s through those very encounters that we grow and develop.

In the Jewish world, the specialization has become known as shtiebelization. On every block a shtiebel pops up in a home or basement, meeting the needs of a small but specific group. It’s either a group of friends, or a group that likes davening in a specific way. For whatever the reason – even the proximity of the shtiebel to their couch – the shtiebel works for the small group it serves. And when Shabbos ends, so does the allegiance to the shteibel, until next Shabbos.

Even larger shuls have gotten into the act. In many major cities, large shuls have become conglomerates housing numerous smaller shuls and minyanim, from hashkamah early Shabbos morning to the main minyan to the teen minyan to the “young married” to even late minyanim. This way, every group is happy, but remains under the umbrella of the larger shul.

I dare say that if we had a large enough membership, YIOP would move in this direction. I would love to have a hashkamah minyan at YIOP, and we even tried to get one started, but we could never get enough people to ensure a minyan on a regular basis. We tried coordinating a teen minyan for several years, but could never create a critical mass of teens willing to exert the effort and energy necessary to keep the minyan going. We’re simply not large enough to be a classic “large shul.”

On the other hand, we are large enough to encompass a diverse community of members both demographically and religiously. Our members span from the very young to the very not-so-young; from the non-religious, who have no real Judaic background, to members who learn with a chavursa and daven in a minyan each and every day. And each of these memberships asks: what’s in it for me? Is this the shul that I want to be a member of? How do we serve each subgroup when the group is not large enough to become an independent entity within the shul?

We can’t. While our shul might be centrally located, it’s equally far both from Huntington Woods and Southfield. Other than the members who live in the Jewish apartments, every single member of our shul passes at least one – and sometimes many other shuls on their way to YIOP. Unless we learn that we have more to gain from strengthening each-other and remaining united than we do pursuing our own needs, YIOP’s future seems bleak indeed.

We must therefore focus on the positive aspects that our shul brings to the community. We are the only shul in Oak Park that holds an appeal for two different yeshivas during the year. We invite speakers from across the Orthodox spectrum; we take part in Modern Orthodox symposiums and Yarchei Kallahs at the kollel. And we do all this while being true to ourselves, celebrating Yom Haatzmaut and taking pride in our support of the State of Israel. Our shul has a full-time rabbi who promotes the interests of its membership throughout the community, through teaching, speaking, writing and advocacy, as well as broader communal involvement. What shtiebel can make that claim?

And finally, our shul is large enough that anyone – really anyone looking for a spiritual home to help him or her grow – can find a place. And this place is not only comfortable; it’s warm, nurturing, genuinely caring and devoted to its members. We would never have that feel if we had four minyanim. We would never know each other well enough to create the sense of family that we have developed over so long.

So the next time something happens in the shul that upsets you: whether someone wants the shul to take a position more right-wing than you’re comfortable with; or perhaps there’s an event or a class that you don’t think is really appropriate for our community, instead of asking yourself, “Is this really my shul? Is this a shul where I want to belong”, try and look at it another way: I am proud to belong to a shul that represents a diverse and unique group of members.

After all, isn’t that what Klal Yisrael is really all about?