A week ago, we read about Avraham trying to dissuade God from going ahead with his plan to destroy the city of Sodom. Avraham audaciously but respectfully pleads with God, reducing, by increments, the number of righteous people it would take to save the city from annihilation. God finally announces that He will not destroy the city if 10 righteous people remain.
I thought of this story as I reflected on my recent experience as High Holiday rabbi at the Jericho Jewish Center in Jericho, Long Island.
Jericho Jewish Center was the subject of a recent Times of Israel article on American Jewry and the Conservative movement (NY synagogue’s looming demise highlights Conservative Judaism’s struggles to survive by Cathryn Prince, August 9, 2022). I had never heard of the JJC, but I read the article with a great deal of sadness. I had taught in Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist institutions in the US for years before teaching in their Centers here in Israel. The ‘looming demise’ headline conjured up images of a synagogue struggling to stay alive, a depressing reality I was familiar with from American synagogues I have attended in the past.
I imagined the Jericho Jewish Center as a despondent community bowing before the headsman’s axe, a Jewish Titanic, sinking under the waves of inevitable demographic change. It saddened me that, to quote Ms. Prince, “the number of unaffiliated US Jews [is] growing, forcing congregations to compete for a dwindling pool of possible members.”
However, nothing could have been further from the truth.
Let me backtrack. I was looking forward to staying in Jerusalem and spending the holidays with my wife and kids after three years of being away from them in New York. That’s why, when the opportunity to take a holiday position “somewhere on Long Island” came along, I was hesitant to leave them here. But my wife and kids knew that I enjoy leading services, and this was an opportunity to see family on the other side of the pond. We agreed that I should give it a shot.
A couple of e-mails and a phone call with the synagogue’s ritual committee soon made it clear that I was talking to the JJC. Several monitor-to-monitor meetings with committee and congregation members over Zoom made me realize that the members were open, understanding and knowledgeable, and that the congregation was, in fact, a harmonious blend of Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions which promised a singular Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur experience. Moreover, the members were not accepting demise as an inevitable. They were, as I found out, fully able to lead inspirational, even aspirational, tefillah with or without rabbinic intervention. I sang with them, I danced with them at the end of Yom Kippur and davened with them, grateful that I could share the ‘highs’ of the holidays with them.
I cannot comment on the fate of American Jewry or the Conservative movement. The dwindling numbers of committed Jews, the changes in demography, and the ever-growing expressions of anti-Semitism certainly do not bode well for their future. Besides, what does an expat outsider like me know? However, I can say that if I, like Avraham, were to advocate for American Jewry’s redemption, the Jericho Jewish Center would be at the center of my defense.
The future is ultimately in God’s hands, but after spending time at the Jericho Jewish Center, I know there are more than 10 righteous people. There are hundreds.