The Spirituality of Community

by Rabbi Wendy Spears

Lots of people tell me that they are spiritually and culturally Jewish, but not connected to synagogues. It makes me wonder what this is about. As a Jew, it is so important to me to be a part of a community, and the synagogues are mostly the only shows in town. I ponder about spirituality separate from community. I’m not convinced a person can live a Jewish life separate from community.

I’ve written quite a bit about spirituality lately without really putting forward a definition. So here is my current working definition of spirituality. It is my sense of oneness and belonging with all that exists. According to the Hasidic master Dov Baer of Mezritch, we are all individual waves in the ocean of existence (thanks to my mentor Rabbi Ted Falcon for teaching me this). We often feel as if we are separate entities racing pell-mell toward shore; yet, when we turn around, we see that we are connected to the vastness of the waters. In addition, spirituality is my feeling of awe at beholding the grandeur of the natural world. It is also my feeling of wonder when beholding great works of art, both visual and auditory, and the miracles of modern medicine and technology. But Jewishly, these feelings are rather flat without others with whom to share them.

In the biblical book of Genesis (2:18), we learn that it isn’t good for a person to be alone; each person needs a fitting helper who reflects back the individual’s truth, standing opposite yet lovingly with his/her partner. This Jewish value is deeply a part of me. While other religious and spiritual traditions value extended periods of time that a person should spend alone to gain new spiritual understandings (such as taking a hermitage retreat), this hasn’t been an active aspect of Judaism. Life is with people, including all the messy emotions, thoughts, and physical connections. I learn from the wisdom literature to share good food and good conversation around a table, to love one another, and to do work that makes the world a better place. All activities experienced in the company of others.

Personally, I am most spiritually satisfied when I share important moments with others. Holidays, Sabbath, weddings, funerals, baby welcome ceremonies, study, are all more fun and meaningful to me in community. For me, spirituality, community, and Judaism are all interconnected. In the same way that you can’t pluck a wave from the ocean, you can’t really separate these three from each other. Celebrations and difficulties are shared, so the joys are greater and the challenges are less burdensome. What is your experience?

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a long-time community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at
#spirituality #community #Judaism #rabbi #interfaith

The Ten Commandments for Smalls

by Kari Tuling

Having served six different congregations that were each under 100 families, I have become something of a small congregations expert. Based on that experience, I thought I would share the 10 commandments for successful small congregations:

  1. Stop apologizing. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect that your membership will be in the triple digits – but why should that be a problem? A congregation of 1,000 member units will have certain advantages (for example, the ability to run three targeted programs at once all in the same building) but you have your advantages as well. It’s possible for your rabbi to know everyone by name. It’s possible to tailor the religious school around a child’s individual needs. It’s possible to have the entire congregation attend a shiva minyan. And so on.
  2. Enforce turnover in your leadership. What is the fastest way to kill a congregation? Allow certain members to sit on the board indefinitely. You absolutely must – and I cannot stress this enough – create a mechanism for turnover and see to it that your newcomers are able to cycle through the leadership positions. Otherwise, three things will happen, to your great detriment: (a) newcomers will leave because they will see that they have no hope of being heard (b) the ‘perma-members’ on the board will eventually veto any and all new ideas (‘we tried that before and it didn’t work’) and (c) if someone persists and actually tries implementing a new idea, doing so will create an old-guard/new-guard split. New blood is necessary to the health of the congregation.
  3. Decide whether you are a havurah or a congregation. A havurah is a collection of families and/or individuals who come together to pray regularly and observe the holidays. It has a loose structure, without significant dues requirements. Usually, it is entirely lay-led. A congregation, on the other hand, offers a fuller range of community services, such as a calendar of religious education and support for lifecycle events. A congregation requires a much greater commitment of time and money to be successful. And a congregation requires a rabbi, even if it’s just for a handful of times a year, to do lifecycle events and provide expertise for your educational program.
  4. If you are a congregation, your biggest regular line-item expense should be the rabbi. This is true regardless of whether it’s a High Holiday pulpit or a full-time position. The quality and quantity of rabbinic time that you are able to offer your community will also define the quality and quantity of the education that you are able to offer. So, if you are spending more each month on the building than the rabbi, it’s time to sell the building.
  5. Consider splitting your treasurer in two. Have one person balance the accounts and another write the checks. It’s easier to recruit someone for half the job (eliminating the perma-treasurer problem) and you are much less vulnerable to embezzlement. You might think that your accounts are too small to be worthy of embezzlement, but you’d be surprised – I remember hearing of one case where the treasurer of a high school’s band booster club stole $20,000 over the course of six years. It can happen.
  6. You will need to hire someone to keep track of the office work. At minimum, the clerical aid sorts mail, checks messages, and copies things for the rabbi.  It does not need to be a large allocation of time or money, but you need someone to do it. But you should not rely entirely on volunteers to take care of the clerical needs of your congregation. This is true for the same reason you don’t rely on volunteers to clean the toilets – you need to keep these things on a regular schedule or else they start to stink.
  7. Do not allow your rabbi to do clerical work. Your rabbi is your biggest expense and your greatest resource. Do not waste that big money expense on something a high school senior can do. Every moment the rabbi babysits the copier is a moment the rabbi is not in front of a class or next to a congregant in the hospital – so insist that this resource be used well. While you are at it, also be sure to create a system for answering the office phone that does not rely on your rabbi.  One possibility is to have an answering machine or voice mail with a number that may be called in case of emergency. Another option is to hire an answering service, like what physicians use – these services are surprisingly inexpensive. 
  8. Establish regular office hours. Even if it’s only once a month, it is useful to have a clear time and place for doing Temple business. Have both the clerical/administrative person there as well as the rabbi. For example, I serve my congregation on a full-time basis; my assistant and I are both in the office four weekday mornings each week, for a total of 12 hours. The outgoing message specifies when the office is open and informs callers as to the timeframe in which they might reasonably expect a return phone call. 
  9. If your rabbi is part-time, then your president will need to run interference. Most people have an idea in their head as to what the rabbi does. But that image may or may not line up with what you have actually hired your rabbi to do. The demand is infinite whereas the supply is quite limited – and people who are hurting and in need of pastoral care might act out in strange ways. So your president’s first priority should be to protect the rabbi from unreasonable expectations.
  10. Identify potentially major donors in the community, create a defined vision for your congregation’s future, and go and ask potential donors to help make it happen.  Chances are there is someone in your community who has the kind of money to be a game-changer for your congregation. You must overcome your shyness and inexperience in asking for money and go ask in person for a staggeringly large amount. I’ve worked for communities where they have a significant endowment and for communities that do not. There is a world of difference between the two.  If you want to create continuity in your community and ensure a Jewish future, then first you need to learn how to go and ask for big money.

Kari Tuling serves full-time as the rabbi of Temple Beth Israel, a small congregation of about 70 families located in Plattsburgh, New York. She also teaches at SUNY Plattsburgh, thanks to a congregational endowment.

Having it all

English: Fall Maples in Nara, Japan Português:...

English: Fall Maples in Nara, Japan Português: Bordo Japonês (Acer palmatum) durante o outono em Nara, Japão (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Kari Tuling

Tuesday being my day off, I took the opportunity to go pick out plants for my backyard landscaping project. I bought a Korean maple – one that looks like a Japanese maple, but with green leaves that turn rather than continuously-red leaves – and a bunch of grassy perennials. Today, Wednesday, the nursery will be delivering the tree along with 60 cubic feet of slate rock and 45 cubic feet of cedar gravel. I am going to make a Zen-garden-like dry riverbed that winds through a grassy flowerbed. Because I like to dig.

Tomorrow, of course, I will return to the office and do all the usual rabbi things: teach, attend meetings, set up events in the community, write a sermon. I am hoping that I might have a break in between meetings and picking up my son from school to dig a very big hole for the tree – but the project could end up waiting a few days if something comes up that demands immediate attention. Even so, I am not worried; now that the High Holidays have passed, I should be able to get back to it.

My life here is like that: an intermingling of rabbinic meetings and hole digging; of representing the Jewish community by giving a prayer at the Kiwanis club meeting and then being a mom while explaining the High Holidays to my son’s teachers. In a town of this size, my full persona is on view: not just my congregation, but also the whole community knows if I walk the walk.

Lately we have seen much in the way of discussion about women and having it all. There are genuine problems facing women who wish to take on challenging, interesting, and high-paying positions. The assumptions surrounding these positions are built up around the assumption of a worker who can commit everything to his or her position, relics of the days when positions were rigidly assigned by gender. Really, we could choose to structure these things differently. It is not necessary to insist that only people who work incessantly can be successful.

And there are those folks – there are many in my generation (Gen X), for example – who choose walk away from these assumptions, wishing to find a different path, one that is more humane in its structure. But that act of walking away is seen by many as a loss, as a less-ambitious approach to a career. It appears that there are no paths back to the fast track once you make your exit.

But is it necessary to define success in these terms and these terms only? What about those careers where the human touch is most valued? What, for example, qualifies as a successful rabbinical career?

One known and accepted career path is to take an assistantship at a large congregation right out of school, then move or get promoted to take on an associate rabbi position or a solo position at a mid-sized congregation, and keep moving up in size and scale until the summit is reached: senior rabbi in a truly large suburban congregation. A select few then move on to accept national positions within the movement itself, which is no small achievement.

Once upon a time, of course, all of these positions were held by men who were the primary wage-earners, who were married to women who was the primary home-keepers. So, much of what constitutes success in these roles is defined in those terms: success is measured in the size of the congregation, the size of the paycheck, and the size of the community. Bigger, of course, is better.

Similarly, rabbinical job listings are posted by size: to apply to congregations of X size requires Y number of years of experience.  As the congregation gets larger, so does the number of years required. It is indeed a convenient way to organize the information. But perhaps it also gives the impression that one should necessarily move up in size as one gains in experience. To choose to be small – would that not indicate a less-ambitious path?

If measured solely by size, then I suppose my current position could be viewed as ‘less than.’ I am in a small town, with a small congregation. Our school is small, our building is small, and our budget is small.

But that kind of assessment misses so many things. Specifically, it misses that this congregation has an active, educated, and involved population that gives the rabbi respect and autonomy. It misses that this congregation sits next to a major university campus, and that ideally the rabbi here should be willing and able to engage in genuine and sustained academic study. It also misses that this particular position requires that the rabbi be a community rabbi in the fullest sense – that is to say, the rabbi must be fully comfortable with the pervasiveness of the role itself, and that role requires a lot of emotional intelligence and interpersonal poise.

And it misses that this position offers extraordinarily rich non-monetary compensation in the form of time and flexibility.

In other words, I don’t just get to be a rabbi; I get to do that while also having time to think. And, of course, time to dig up my yard.

I have not always taken this view. At one time, before I became a rabbi, I had the impressive title (“Senior Manager of Marketing Communications”) and the impressive car (BMW 318ti) and the impressive address (Laguna Niguel, California).

Yet somehow, in this most lovely small town with a long winter, I feel so much more successful here. Why? Because I am living on my own terms, according to what it is that I value most: I have found a position with time to think, time to be involved in my family life, the opportunity to really make a difference in a community, and the opportunity to write.

Impressive? Perhaps, perhaps not. Satisfying? Yes, in the deepest sense.

Rabbi Kari Tuling serves a most wonderful small congregation in Plattsburgh, New York, where she is also working on her dissertation, learning to play piano, and digging up her backyard lawn. Not necessarily in that order.

Sadness in Wisconsin

This week we mourned yet another outburst of hatred against people of faith as a lone gunmen opened fire on a gathering of Sikh worshipers at a Sikh Temple is Oak Creek, Wisconsin killing seven people and wounding many others. The perpetrator of this crime was apparently so ignorant of the world that he thought he was firing on Muslims at a mosque. Yet despite his ignorance about anything to do with real Muslims or Sikhs and probably much more, he knew enough about the world to be filled with hatred and to methodically plan to legally amass the armaments necessary to carry out this horrible crime.
This attack hit me particularly hard as it took place in my home State especially because it opened up long buried wounds of being subjected to the vicious ignorant hated I was subjected to as the usually lone Jewish child in school in my Northern Wisconsin town. People who knew nothing about me, families who had never actually ever spoken to a member of my family would not have anything to do with us because we were Jewish. There were clubs from which we were barred and groups we could not join. There were taunts at school and people actually searching to find my horns! I heard more than once that if I accepted Christianity I could be forgiven the sin of murdering Jesus. Even my best friend, who was going through an interesting time of her life, gave me condescending pamphlets entitled “Why I love the Jew.” (Today she claims credit for having driven me to become a rabbi).
In truth these experiences did help me become the person I am today. I learned to strive to be more tolerant of others and to always identify with the oppressed. I also learned how easily racist thoughts and words could escalate to hatred and violence. The Torah reminds us to always treat the stranger as a citizen and to help the oppressed because we know what it is like to suffer oppression. The attack on the peaceful gathering of Sikhs in Oak Creek shows us that we are still far from reaching this ideal of our Biblical ancestors.
May the families of those killed know that we mourn with them. May this horrible crime remind us to continue to work together to bring acceptance, education and love to all around us. Perhaps sometime soon we will truly live in a America which truly honors the diversity and beauty of the rainbow of people who make our nation great.

The Godzilla Problem


Godzilla (Photo credit: SebastianDooris)

Atheism is in fashion these days. About a quarter of my Intro to Judaism students worry that I will find out that they do not believe in God.  Another quarter are deeply suspicious of something they call “organized religion” because it is “the source of all the trouble in the world.” They are all serious, thoughtful people, and something has brought them to my class despite their misgivings: a need to explore Jewish roots, an important relationship, or a profound feeling of connection to Am Yisrael, the Jewish People.

And yet there is this god thing: I have begun to think of it as The Godzilla Problem.

A young friend of mine recently commented on Facebook that her phone now autocorrects “God” to “Godzilla.” I sat and looked at that post, and it dawned on me that THAT was a perfect distillation of the problem: the god that my students refer to so distastefully is a monster god who blasts and condemns and punishes very much like the Japanese monster with whom it shares three letters. Like Godzilla, he is scary but not real.

I don’t worship that god. There are people who do worship it. They believe that there is a Big Person who will blast and punish evildoers. They talk with relish about that god’s opinions and predict his actions at some future time. They act in the name of that god and do terrible things to other people “for their own good.” Those people espouse many different religions; they cherry-pick the Torah and other scriptures for proof-texts. Unfortunately they are noisy people and for many, they have become the voice of religion.

The God I worship, whose title I will capitalize, is more enigmatic: this God shines through every experience that leaves me with my jaw hanging open. I witness God in the smell of a newborn baby, in the power of an earthquake, in our questions at at the side of an open grave. I witness God in acts of selflessness and acts of courage. Abraham Joshua Heschel described this notion of God much better than I ever shall when he wrote about “radical amazement.”

Torah is the process of Jews trying to wrap their minds around the Wonder: it is a dance between the amazed People and the Object of their amazement. I believe that the best way our ancestors could come up with to relate to Wonder was to personify God, to construct a metaphor that would allow them a way to explore holiness. They made a covenant with God, with commandments to make them holy, that is, more in tune with the amazingness of the universe. At the same time, our tradition warns against falling in love with mere images.

Heartbreaking evil has been done and continues to be done in the name of someone’s deity. I believe firmly that such acts are acts of idolatry: that so-called “god” is indeed  “Godzilla.”

As a rabbi, as a teacher, my challenge is to wedge past the monster and lead my students through the door to amazement and questions. In our amazement with this world, with the questions of love and death, we may indeed approach the truth of Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy Blessed One.

Facing the Future

By Rabbi Ellen A. Greenspan

When I signed up for a turn to write a post for this blog, I was in a different place than I am now. I have thought about starting a blog and saw this as a great opportunity to try out blogging. I did not expect that my first post would be about my own “current events.” But…here goes.

Let me be upfront – I know I am infinitely lucky. I have a beautiful 19 year old daughter who is beginning to make her own way in the world. I am fortunate to be healthy, and I am connected to a wide circle of supportive friends, colleagues and family members.

But, at the same time, I am filled with trepidation since I just deposited the last pay check I will receive from my part-time congregation of twenty years. Leaving Temple Micah of Lawrenceville, (NJ), is my choice, but that doesn’t make the leave-taking easier or less sad.

I feel ready, as my daughter begins her sophomore year in college, to open the door to the next phase of my career. But the scary part is not knowing what lies behind the door. From the time my daughter was about two and throughout her growing-up years, I always had a 2nd part-time job in addition to Temple Micah, so that I was able to manage the equivalent of an almost full-time salary. I worked for a secular social service agency; I worked for two different day schools, and I worked for our local Federation. I have always worked for non-profits, but always on the education and program side of things. I recently made a brief and disastrous full-time foray into development. Although it was not a good fit from the day I began the job, I have renewed respect for my colleagues in the non-profit world who work so hard to raise money for the wonderful institutions and programs on which we all depend. But…I thought I had a job that would see me through the transition as I leave Temple Micah – and now I don’t.

So…what am I going to do now?

First of all, I am not going to panic. I am going to remind myself that although I was not successful in this attempt at working in the field of development, I am not a failure. I am a competent, respected rabbi – with a whole congregation of people who are going to miss me.

Second of all, I am going to network with everyone I can think of and send my resume to all the jobs that I can find that interest me – but I am going to be selective and only apply for jobs I think I can actually do and would enjoy. No more jobs that require a good deal of fundraising, that is for sure.

And finally, I am going to use this time to do things I haven’t had time to do in the past. I signed up to volunteer with Limmud NY. I am going to look into working for the Obama campaign. I plan to advocate for marriage equality and a woman’s right to choose.

I am NOT going to wallow in self-pity or dread about how I am going to survive without a pay check. And hopefully, by the end of the summer, I will have a new job.