My brother, sister, and I learned melodies in junior congregation we still sing today. We ran through the synagogue’s hallways after our teen congregation deli lunch and when we got tired running the maze, we went to somebody’s house to hang out, play chess, or toss a ball in the park.
This exact experience doesn’t need to be the reality for everyone, but it makes me wonder what it takes for a community to feel this way. Judaism is not a performance for some to produce; it’s a home for all to build. One of the challenges in synagogue life is for families to feel that kind of ownership of Judaism, an authenticity and comfort to be at home in an ancient tradition, as their full selves. Many synagogues respond to that challenge with programs that reinforce a producer/consumer mindset. Staff produces a program. Congregants consume it. Repeat.
Such programs might be good as entry-level points of connection but not as the foundation for a long-term ownership of Judaism. A collaboration between staff and congregants calls on everyone to pay attention to a diverse Jewish community who have skills to be tapped as volunteers, may have big gaps in Jewish knowledge, and definitely have significant demands on time.
Many people of all ages are over-programmed, spiritually hungry seekers who crave something of substance that nourishes. We all need to be involved in shaping that. Such a mindset should slow the temptation to throw endless programs at the calendar, hoping in vain they stick like a January thaw on Minnesota. Our toddler Tumbling Tot Shabbat, Torah for Tots, and K-4 Junior Congregation on Shabbat ask our kids to imagine their Jewish home from a young age as a dynamic space for learning, drama, and music. They are not an audience who pops in for a show, but co-creators with their teachers. When our synagogue launched Backyard Shabbat, families opened their homes and showed up as they are, not in spite of it, to jump into Jewish texts, Twister, and Ultimate Frisbee.
The parents and staff of Adath and the Northwest Islamic Community Center who created Love Your Neighbor crafted a vision for how we might model for our kids the kind of world we want to see. When collaboration grows between staff and congregants, authenticity and comfort grow with a living and breathing Judaism that draws us to one another in spite of a broken world. That growth may take longer to cultivate, but the result is almost always richer, more sustainable, and potentially life changing.
Congregants are not passive observers who admire the scaffolding of Judaism rise and fall around them. When each person’s soul is part of building something, shul and other centers for Jewish life become a home for all, whether inside or outside the building. A home is open, comfortable, and authentic. We celebrate and mourn, dance and cry, come in and out, and always stand for something. Kids run up and down hallways, as I remember doing as a kid, and develop a sense of belonging. Torah blossoms through the chesed (kindness) of outstretched hands and melodies of open hearts. As we get ready to cross to liberation at Pesach, may we enter that space as our full selves and create what might become a home, a foundation, for life.