Having served in small Jewish congregations for five years, I have become increasingly aware of the moral decay found inside the walls of once-great institutions. Over the past decade, with the sharp decline in membership due to a changing religiosity in America, as well as generational fiscal differences, small congregations have become increasingly vulnerable to financial ruin or even closing their doors. Not equipped with large donors, failure to plan long term, and the increased competition from secular activities and non-congregational Jewish institutions, small congregations had before them a choice as to how to proceed in the future.
The harder choice was to reconfigure the congregational model, do the hard work to bring younger members into leadership positions, secure financial security through wills of older and dying members, and to do away with the calcified classical decorum in the sanctuary. The easier choice was, of course, to ignore the problem, blame membership issues on the younger generations, refuse to secure financial security from their wealthy and dying members, and maintain a comfortable but outdated liturgical setup in their sanctuaries. Most (if not all) small congregations chose the latter, and young rabbis (and young members) pounded the desk in frustration in fury as they watched the cold, dark eyes of the boomers around the board table transform their once vibrant congregations into hospices: warm and comfortable places for older Jews to enjoy nostalgia and die.
Jewish values of justice (social or otherwise), tikkun olam, humility, and kindness, are taking a backseat to financial survival and selfish individualism. Congregations are becoming less informed of tradition and history, and becoming more attached to minhag and customs created on pillars of halachic sand. The younger members become increasingly frustrated that the programs and services are not geared towards their families’ needs, but rather to the 70+ year-olds who have secured their place of clout with long-term membership and financial contributions. Insular needs, rather than desires to help the greater community, take precedence, as congregations close their doors and wrap their arms around their bank accounts, refusing to experiment, to change, or follow the prophetic calls to be a light unto the nation.
How is this new generation of rabbis to lead in these congregations, that have already begun to gather the jewelry from each other at the base of Sinai, ready to create and worship the golden calf of money and comfortability? Older rabbis, too tired after decades of work, can sit and watch, but younger, new rabbis, imbued with energy and ambition, enter a lose/lose situation. Young and naive rabbis might think they could embody Moses, yelling and condemning, pulling the rebellious Israelites kicking and screaming into the promised land, smashing the tablets in an act of prophetic anger. They would soon learn, as I did, that congregations are protected on-high by governing institutions that placate to congregations and their money and are more than happy to throw away a “challenging” rabbi like a dixie cup, and let another slide down. In other words, a rabbi no longer has the rabbinic authority to be a Moses character. Even when done with a lighter touch, through acts of pastoral care, congregations have learned to turn their ears from Mosaic rabbis, and instead dig holes to make molds of false idols.
What small congregations really want in this day and age is an Aaron as a rabbi. Reading in Exodus 32, we see Aaron succumb to mob rule, and participate in the destruction of the Jewish people:
When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” 2 Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.
Later, when confronted, Aaron answers in a way that leaders of Jewish institutions (governing and otherwise) have learned to embody, without accountability:
Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought such great sin upon them?” 22 Aaron said, “Let not my lord be enraged. You know that this people is bent on evil. 23 They said to me, ‘Make us a god to lead us; for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.’ 24 So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off!’ They gave it to me and I hurled it into the fire and out came this calf!”
Blaming the people, and accepting their flaws, the Aaronite rabbi listens quietly to the board members as they desecrate Jewish values and ethics, and tell them, “If this is what you want, I am here to serve.” This is what small congregations in America want, and with no Moses to stop them, when the last old Israelite dies, they will turn out the light and sell the building, wondering “where did we go wrong?”
Small congregations no longer have the strength or wherewithal to do the hard work of transforming Jewish institutions to meet the needs of the next generation. They have already built the golden calf, as governing institutions have looked on with inaction, holding on to their own dues for self-preservation. The truth is, small congregations don’t want to survive; instead, they need a death-doula, an Aaron to gather their jewelry and form their false idols, hiding from accountability, and becoming lost in the wilderness for eternity. Let them die, and let a new city be built upon the ashes of a dead planet.