People, Programs and Relational Judaism

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Rabbi Boris, March/April 2014

One of the most powerful experiences many of us have are those moments of entering into a new relationship; that point when we discover a shared interest or passion with a new friend, when we first hold hands with our loving partner, or when we gain new insights from a powerful teacher, a spiritual service or a group of like-minded people. These are the times when we connect with others and want to stay connected because of the ways that these relationships give our lives strength and meaning. In our Jewish community, we depend on these relationships, and while we need good programs and meaningful services, it is the relationships that form out of all that we do at TBI that keep us coming back.

“Relational Judaism” is a hot concept in the current conversation about the state of Jewish institutions and congregational life. As the recent Pew study on American Jewish life showed, Jews are connecting less and less with not only Jewish community, but also with each other. While it may seem like common sense, Relational Judaism is the idea that our communities can only survive and stay strong if we focus above all on building relationships within all that we do; it is not only about creating exciting programs, increasing membership, or “bringing more people in the door.” Like so many other synagogues and Jewish institutions, we do need money to survive, and we should continue to have great programs and classes. Yet, even more, we need each other.

Dr. Ron Wolfson describes the religious roots of Relational Judaism in his much-talked-about book of the same name. As he describes it, Judaism does not see joining a Jewish community as a “contract” as you would have for a health club or cell phone service, but instead, as a “brit” or covenant. A contract is an agreement to complete a task or obtain a product, yet when the task is complete (or a newer, better phone comes along) the relationship is over. A covenant, however, is about relationship, and it is about the long term vision. Like the covenant of marriage or the deepest of friendships, one hopes the partnership is lifelong.

We are in the midst of a rabbinic search, which will not only determine the future leadership of this community, but will also help us lay out a vision for the kind of relationships that we hope to build in TBI’s future. Personally, I am excited about the opportunities that the community has to examine what we are doing well, and also what we can improve as we set goals and move closer to creating our ideal community. The parlor meetings and the many upcoming conversations are just the beginning. While it is admittedly a somewhat odd time for my family and me, it is also a time for me to be proud of what I have accomplished so far as one of your rabbis.

Many of the programs that I have helped bring to TBI have been been above all about this vision of Relational Judaism and promoting a true covenantal relationship among all of us. In addition to all of the wonderful havurot and social groups which already have brought such strength to our community, we now have seasonal Shabbat potlucks, weekly summer picnics and many new opportunities for meeting others. J-Net, our growing group of Jews in their 20s and 30s is allowing those who might not have found a place in synagogue life to come together to socialize and connect. The Brotherhood has made a place for an often underserved group in our community and allowed them to learn and support each other. The Melton School is going strong, and has allowed the diverse set of students to explore their Jewish identity and learn from the core of Jewish tradition. No’ar Hadash (our new youth group), the summer camps, family and all-school programs that Gretchen and I have organized are working to create community and build relationships among the younger members of our community. In addition to these groups, our new website allows social networking and promotes easier and wider outreach, as it acts as an extension of our “real world” family here at TBI.

There are so many great ideas for new programs and ways of engagement as we look into TBI’s future, but thankfully our task does not necessary mean only adding something new. We simply need to work on building the relationships we already have and finding ways to allow more people to connect in meaningful and authentic ways. I support the ongoing rabbi search because it allows for opportunities to gather together to hear each other’s stories and vision for TBI’s future. When each of us can share our experiences and learn from each other, then we can grow closer together as a caring and holy mishpacha, a family. Wherever the next few years may lead, I hope that it can bring us to a place of greater connection, and build the kind of true and enduring relationships that will guide our community and keep it strong.