Shmuel Polin
ניט מיט שעלטן/לאַכן קען מען די וועלט איבערמאַכן

Creating strong Jewish communities in our synagogues

As lay leaders, we have a complex responsibility within congregational life. We have a responsibility to strike a balance within the community in order to bring everyone together, without alienating anyone. In other words, we have a responsibility to create an open community. Everyone should feel at home within our community, and I believe the best way to create an open community is through empowering all our voices to be heard.

Minorities within our community must be given a voice to speak. Jews of color, Jews in the LGBTQ community, Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union/Russian speaking Jews (an important demographic in the Philadelphia area), converts, patrilineal Jews, and Jews with different political orientations, notably Jewish Republicans (a vocal minority) and Jewish voices critical of Israel, do need to be represented in synagogue life. We must give voice to the minority, even if our political orientations differ. If the voices of these minority groups are the only voices being empowered, we fail entirely. Every voice must be heard.

What does this representation look like? It means we must create opportunities for minorities among Jews to speak, to teach us, to lead discussions and to educate us (congregations) about themselves and their lives. At the same time, the largest group of Jews, who are not represented as being within the ‘minorities’ of ‘minorities’ need not be overwhelmed by events, speakers, and dvar Torahs only about creating an inclusive space for minorities. There needs to be regular programming also so everyone (including those who find a genuine connection to Judaism in other ways) feels at home and is not alienated from the experience of synagogue life.

Are their boundaries to inclusiveness? This question is troubling. It is not unheard of for Rabbis to turn away converts or ask congregants to leave congregations or for a Hillel to close its doors to students.

I abhor such positions. We cannot have floating around our congregation bigots, sexists, homophobes, and other people who seemingly attempt to undermine the process of creating an open space for all people. We must actually be able to identify homophobia, racism or sexism when we observe it and not misidentify something else. I have found many white, straight people who are not openly identifiable as Jews in public have the hardest time actually identifying this. Having never typically being on the receiving end of anti-Semitism, racism or homophobia, they often misidentify these things and miss it entirely when it is obvious.

When/if we actually come across a congregant who is going around and appears to undermine the process of creating an open space for all people, the person needs to be spoken to in private further. It should be our duty to direct these people onto the right path and get them the help they need so we can build an open space for all people.

About the Author
Rabbi Shmuel Polin is the Rabbi of Etz Chaim Congregation - Monroe Township Jewish Center on Monroe Township, New Jersey. A New Jersey native, he completed his B.A. at American University in Washington D.C. where he studied Jewish Studies and International Studies. He also completed both an M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and an M.A. in Jewish Studies from Gratz College of Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. His thesis focused on the depiction of European antisemitism in 1930's-1940's American and foreign cinema. Subsequent to both of masters programs, Rabbi Polin graduated with a third Masters in Hebrew Letters and received his Semikhah (Rabbinic ordination) from the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio. Shmuel has years of experience of teaching Hebrew School at Kehillat HaNahar of New Hope, Pennsylvania, leading as a student rabbi at Beth Boruk Temple (Richmond, Indiana) and Temple Israel (Paducah, Kentucky), and also working for Israeli non-governmental organizations.