I remember very clearly a conversation I had in rabbinical school where I stated (with a healthy measure of pride and defiance) that I would rather say no to a member and lose them as a congregant than bend a rabbinic ideal or Jewish value just to please or accommodate them. “Someone has to be able to say no,” I declared. And who, if not the rabbi?
Of course, I had no idea then what it would really mean or feel like to have my own members and congregants; of all the complicated factors; of the reality that my own livelihood is inextricably tied into synagogue membership; of how it would feel to say no to someone I care about…
But despite the harsh realities of the “real world”, I find myself clinging to the thought: Who, if not the rabbi?
I’m on a plane heading to California for the CCAR convention. Our topic: Rabbis leading the shift in a rapidly changing Jewish world. Who if not the rabbis? Hopefully this is one of the many ideas we will discuss – the tremulous tension between membership retention and values retention. (I sigh as this sentence leaves my fingertips. It is heavy work sometimes. Heavy indeed.)
I’m multitasking as I fly. CNN on my airplane screen is discussing the Catholic Church and whether or not there is a call for reform with the changing of the guards (as it were). I’m listening to discussions about celibacy and women in the clergy and at the same time I’m reading an article that popped up in my Facebook feed about the Episcopal Church’s female Bishop and how their organization decreased significantly when she backed a openly gay male clergyman on being more welcoming of the gay community. “Over the next four years, almost a quarter of a million congregants departed, leaving a church that’s about ten percent smaller – and more harmonious.”
In the values retention vs. membership retention battle for this bishop and her (national) church, values won out big – AND IT’S A GOOD THING. Churches had to close, finances had to be navigated, but at the end of the day, the loss of people who’s values are not in line with those of the community is not being mourned. Nor should it be. That’s what I meant back in rabbinical school. That’s what I was talking about. The need for religious leaders (clergy AND lay) to be unafraid to draw lines in the sand; to dare to lose (or leave behind) others in the noble attempt to save and preserve ourselves and our ideals.
Believe it or not, self-preservation is a mitzvah – not just permitted but obligated by Jewish tradition. The Talmud discusses how one is obligated to survive a life or death situation even at the cost of another’s life (if it can’t be helped)! This is radical, and it should inform not only the life or death choices of Jewish individuals, but also the “life or death” choices of Jewish communities.
The article moves on to examine our own Reform Movement. What difficult choices will our new URJ President, Rick Jacobs have to make with his leadership? What lines will they have to draw in the sand? What or who are they willing to lose to keep us not only alive but also to keep us honest – to keep us us?
Its a little scary to think about but it’s also exciting and inspiring. I find myself hoping that Jacobs is daring enough to brave potential losses for the sake of preserving the values and integrity of our movement. I think he’s up to it. I hope he is.
I hope I am too.
Who, if not the Rabbi?