Why Should Your Synagogue Exist?

…when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame the Greeks and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks. And there was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day.   A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it eight days. The next year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays with recitation of hallel and special thanksgiving in prayer and blessings” (Bavli Shabbat 21b).

When the Maccabees entered the Temple in Jerusalem, the Talmud teaches that the most important priority for the conquering heroes was ensuring that the candelabrum could be lit once again, hence the Hanukkah miracle described in our rabbinic tradition.   Whether or not this miracle actually took place is largely inconsequential to me, as the more important lesson from this rabbinic text is that the Maccabees wanted the Jewish people to return to the everyday, ordinary rituals that create sacred space. Our remembrance of the Hanukkah is as much about the Maccabees’ commitment to that space as it is about the miracle that took place inside of it.  

Of course, remembering an event from the Jewish people’s mythical past is important throughout the year, whether remembering the ten plagues during the Pesah seder, or the destruction of the temple during Tisha B’Av.    However, our rabbinic tradition takes the miracle of the Hanukkah story and constructs larger narrative about the value of re-dedication as a spiritual practice and how lighting candles fulfills a halakhic obligation and transforms the mind.    This idea is best expressed in this commentary of Azariah ben Moses dei Rossi, otherwise known as the Meor Einayim:

God searches for ways that we not be utterly cut off from Him; he miraculously brings the divine presence down…right to where we stand, so that He might restore us and bring us back to YHWH.  The oil of the candles refers to wisdom…teaching us with higher mind, enabling us to serve God in a more mindful and contemplative way. All this takes place through the mitzvah of lighting the Hanukkah candles; just as it was then, so it is in every generation when the time for this commandment arrives” (Meor Einayim, in Speaking Torah, ed. Arthur Green, 194).

To paraphrase a beautiful teaching by my teacher Alan Mittleman in Hope in a Democratic Age (125-126), every year Hanukkah re-acquaints us with our connection to God through publicizing the miracle, directing us on a vertical axis, while the act of lighting candles reaffirms what matters to us as Jews, directing us on a horizontal axis.    We cannot thrive only by remembering the great moments of the past, but providing us the clarity to create great moments in the present.

Reaffirming what matters to us is a constant challenge for Jewish leaders, particularly during times of financial struggle.    The cheap and easy criticism of synagogues is that they spend too much time thinking about membership and money, and yet my sense is that congregational leaders would prefer to think about anything else other than membership and money.  However, when leaders are forced to deal in an era of crisis, it should not surprise of us that the institutional lifeblood necessary to keeping the lights on and the staff paid becomes a zero-sum focus.    

Hanukkah presents an opportunity to use the simple act of lighting the Hanukkiyah for eight nights as an opportunity to give attention to the power of ordinary, daily work at sustaining our congregations.    To put it another way, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik teaches that,  “It is not always necessary for an event to be miraculous in order to be great, and not every miraculous event is a great event.”   Miracles inspire us and lead to transformation, and they can be found any moment, as long as we take the time to look.

One of the things I find most disheartening when visiting synagogues is when the leadership cannot think past the specter of impending failure, what my colleagues who teach the curriculum for Sulam Leadership colloquially call congregations that “fear to hope.”   At the same time, a part of me does not blame congregations that develop a sense of learned helplessness, because it can be frustrating to serve a community day after day and reach the point where it feels like nothing will turn the ship around, yet feel trapped and crestfallen if the leaders were to walk away.

Hanukkah encourages us to break this cycle, to remember that renewal and reaffirmation of what matters to us is an essential spiritual discipline to running a healthy organization.   In How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey argue that inspired leadership requires using ritual to bring people back to mission, vision and purpose.  They write:

“…A ritual can be a vessel in time by which we remember what is important to us.   Inspired leadership helps the members of a group to “re-member,” to once again take out membership in what the group values and stands for; to “remember,” to bring the members back to one cooperating whole” (194).

This Hanukkah, take a momentary pause from the treadmill of budget shortfalls, policy recommendations, and staff searches in your congregation to ask, “Why should your synagogue exist?,” and reaffirm your core purpose as one community.   Re-dedication to your mission and vision will not solve every problem, but it will raise the mindfulness of the community. And in a time of great transition and change, that shift in mindset can make all the difference.

Hag Urim Sameah.

About the Author
Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Director of Innovation at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), where he is also the Program Director of the USCJ Convention. Prior to USCJ, Josh served as the Rabbi-in-Residence of the Schechter School of Long Island from 2011-2014. Josh received his rabbinic ordination and Master of Arts in Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2011, where he served two terms as student body president. Josh attended the University of Maryland, College Park, where he graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and Jewish Studies. Josh obtained a certificate from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, completed facilitator training in design thinking from the Luma Institute, and is a recipient of the Wexner Field Fellowship. Josh lives on the Upper West Side with his wife, Rabbi Yael Hammerman, and their children Hannah and Shai. You can read more of Josh's writings by visiting www.joshuarabin.com.
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