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March 2022 Rabbi Arnow's Article

Purpose or People?
Is Kol Rinah about purpose or people? Is our mission fundamentally about living out certain Jewish values and principles, regardless of whether anyone is interested in them? Or, in contrast, should we be focused entirely on people, serving those who are members of our congregation, as well as those who are not yet members?
As a Conservative synagogue, should we not be upholding the ideals and values of Conservative Judaism—kashrut, observance of Shabbat, daily prayer, taking halakha (Jewish law) seriously, changing law when we feel morally compelled, but otherwise maintaining (i.e. conserving) inherited Jewish practice?
As a member-driven congregation that relies on philanthropy and volunteerism, we need to meet our members where they’re at and be responsive to their interests. We should strive to engage our members not with what we (rabbis, let’s say) are interested in, or what we rabbis think our members should be interested in, but rather, in what they are, or maybe could be interested in. Congregants, clergy, staff and volunteers should be partners in creating the experiences and community that we long for.
Ideally, there would be no conflict between purpose and people: the people would embrace the purpose. But what happens when they grow apart? What happens when the original ideals of a community, that are still in some way the community’s norms, are no longer in line with the interests of most of the members?
One response can be to lecture, preach and teach, to guilt, inspire and educate members, to make them interested in what they’re not (yet or any longer) interested in. “If only people understood the words or the structure of the prayers, better, then they’d be more interested in coming.” Have you ever tried to interest someone in something they’re not interested in? Has that ever been done to you? In my experiences, it’s rarely successful, and winds up frustrating everyone.
Another response is to just do whatever people want, without regard to the organizational purpose or core values and principles, and only do what people are interested in. If hiking and poetry-writing (which are not permitted on Shabbat) are engaging to people, but three prayer services on Shabbat is not, then we could follow people’s interests, and have much less prayer and more hiking and writing.
Even harder is when there are some people in the organization who themselves hold true to the original ideals, and who want the organization to do the same, while there are others who can’t understand why the organization is so unresponsive to the needs of the majority of the members.
Of course, we’re about purpose AND people. But it is hard when we have to negotiate between competing impulses and needs, especially with limited resources: limited time, money, space, people, leaders, and energy.
Over the coming years, we’ll need to negotiate some of these challenges. How do you think we should respond?
Mon, December 11 2023 28 Kislev 5784