Menachem Creditor
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Joyfully answering the call

That moment when it made perfect sense for a despondent punk anarchist to drop by the synagogue

It is a Jewish tradition, on the first day of the month of Adar, to increase joy. (Mishnah Ta’anit)

Importantly, that is not the same as saying one is naturally happier on a specific day on the calendar. Moods seldom follow instructions, and time has a funny way of surprising even the expected. But a mindful dose of recommended joy is a big gift, no?

I’d like to share with you a story, a real experience that occurred today at my shul. A young man came to sit with me. I didn’t know him. He had left a message on the synagogue voicemail about feeling despondent about the current situation in America, and wanted to sit with a rabbi. When we sat together just today I learned that he was a punk rock musician, and an anarchist living in the neighborhood. More than that, deeper than that, he shared with me that he was deeply afraid, not only about threats to free speech, health care, the LGBTQ community, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, and others (each of which he named).

What scared him? He was afraid of his own response to a proposed Nazi march in town this week (not worth linking: it’s hateful garbage, and deserves repudiation, not amplification. We will address it by being a louder, prouder, publicly engaged Jewish community). He was afraid of his own rage and fear and hopelessness, not sure where to turn. So he looked for a synagogue, a safe place. He looked for a rabbi, someone to sit with and trust. It’s not that there were any “fixes” for the things that worried him. But, when we had spoken for a while, he looked at me and said something we all should hear and take to heart:

Thank you for being here. I’m so grateful this synagogue is here and open. I haven’t been to shul for many years. I feel a little less afraid now.

Friends, I’m sharing this with you because the thought that there is an “out there” and an “in here” when it comes to the work of a synagogue is a misperception. No, we can’t care for everyone everywhere. Yes, we  all struggle with budgets and staffing and volunteer energy and fundraising. Yes, a shul is always in the process of becoming, delineating between what some feel is urgent and others feel is important. Yes, all of this is (potential) blessing, pure and profound.

Yes: it is important that we see the work we do “inside” the shul as being in service with the world “out there.” How can we be communal healers if we don’t visit each other when we are ill? How can we effectively pursue a just society if we don’t build the strength of our shul? Where would that young man have turned if my community’s founders hadn’t built a shul?

There is much to do. Again, Jewish wisdom helps: Ours is not to complete the work. Our is to start. (Pirkei Avot) 

We should celebrate what we’ve built here, synagogues and JCCs and day schools and Jewish start-ups. And we should see the strength we continue to build as being in service of this fragile world we share. That kind of purpose is what some might even name “a calling.”

How blessed we are to answer that call.

About the Author
Rabbi Menachem Creditor serves as the Pearl and Ira Meyer Scholar in Residence at UJA-Federation New York and was the founder of Rabbis Against Gun Violence. An acclaimed author, scholar, and speaker with over 2 million views of his online videos and essays, he was named by Newsweek as one of the fifty most influential rabbis in America. His 31 books and 6 albums of original music include "A Year of Torah," the global anthem "Olam Chesed Yibaneh" and the COVID-era 2-volume anthology "When We Turned Within." He and his wife Neshama Carlebach live in New York, where they are raising their five children.