Of the many inspiring Passover messages that I read this year, the one that most caught my eye was by Rabbi Jill Jacobs,"Where Slavery Ends and Freedom Starts.", March 30, 2015. Rabbi Jacobs, Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, shares "it's not always so clear where slavery ends and freedom starts. Did the Israelites become Pharaoh’s slaves only after he set taskmasters over them? Or did we lose our freedom when we became dependent on Egypt’s largesse? Did we become free when we crossed the sea, or only when we established a homeland of our own? … The line between slavery and freedom is not always clearly marked by a parting sea." Rabbi Jacobs applies this to the context of oppressed workers in the modern economy, people who are bound not by shackles and chains but by poverty, fear, emotional abuse, or lack of education.
Freedom is not only about our physical reality, but also our mindset. Even while the Israelites were physically free, they reminisced that “in the land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of meat, when we ate bread to our fill!” (Exodus 16:3). It’s hard to let go of what we know, what’s our “normal” even if it’s not ideal, or even serving our interests.
People (and collectively, organizations) who think they are “free” can also be “enslaved” by old ideas and ingrained patterns of behavior. Whenever we keep doing things in a certain way because that is the only way we’ve know to do them, we run the risk of self-enslavement. This is especially true when the old ways aren't working anymore, and the need for change is increasingly clear. Let’s look at this in three areas of American Jewish congregational life.
For a hundred years or so, most American synagogues have been organized with a dues-based membership model. This model has been nearly universally adopted, and the norm for multiple generations — such that, just like in Egypt, it’s hard to imagine any other way. But today there is abundant evidence that this model isn't working as well or reliably as it used to for many congregations. There are, however variations, changes, and new and different models that some are successfully utilizing. While different synagogues may need different approaches designing how their communities support them, across the field we are starting to feel the questioning and active pushback that are hallmarks of a new kind of freedom to explore different kinds of synagogue funding models.
Most American synagogues have also shared the idea that if we build the biggest building, create the best programs, boast the most creative religious school, and hire the right rabbi, then the Jews will come running to become members. But for Americans today (and especially for younger generations), the whole notion of membership (to any organization) doesn't seem quite so certain or resonant. Those of us who do care about our synagogues, who do find meaning, purpose, and connection in this kind of social and religious organization have to find new ways to make other people see that value and spark, and to care too. That means seeking out, creating, and experimenting with variations, changes, and new and different models of engagement. Too often our mindset is that “engagement” equals “membership” and “attendance”, but engagement is as much about a mindset and relationships as it is about attendance. Here too, let’s free ourselves of assumptions about our engagement models, and explore a new normal.
Most American synagogues rely on boards and committees, volunteers, lay leaders, and professional staff who spend hours and hours in meetings and parking lots making important and not-so important decisions, and then making them again on phone calls and in more meetings. We struggle to find new leaders and new volunteers in part because our current leaders are feeling over-burdened, and in part because the structures of our leadership (multi-hour meetings on weeknights that conflict with kids’ activities, sports games, and other interests) are out of synch with the ways prospective leaders organize their time and attention. What if, just what if, we ask ourselves to consider variations, changes and new and different models of leadership? Remember when Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, pushes him to think differently? “'The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone" (Exodus 18:17). Let’s free ourselves of these structures, and instead look afresh at what makes the most sense for our needs today.
As we count the omer and move from a celebration of the exodus to the receiving of the Torah, may be take the opportunity to recognize, with 20/20 vision, the places where we may be limiting ourselves, even “enslaving” ourselves to old ideas and previous models that are no longer in our best interests. As the Israelites wandered the desert, there were many questions, few clear answers, and plenty of “figuring it out as they went”. So too are congregations today in a time of pioneering a new era. Let us embrace the questions, explore possibilities, and be free to pioneer the future.
This blog post is cross posted on the Connected Congregations website. Learn more about Connected Congregations here.
Debbie Joseph is president and founder of Debbie Joseph Consulting, Inc. She is a nationally recognized expert in working with synagogues on exploring alternative dues and membership models, strategic planning and leadership development. She is a contributor to UJA-Federation of New York’s “Are Voluntary Dues Right for Your Synagogue?” report and a contributor to “New Membership and Financial Alternatives for the American Synagogue” by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky.