Another Take on ‘A House of God’

October 2, 2012
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Stephanie Kolin

As a wedding couple stands under their chuppah, the first words we hear chanted are, “Brukhim habaim b’shem Adonai, beirachnukhem b’veit Adonai,” “Blessed are those who come here in the name of God; may you be blessed in this house of God.”  Traditionally, the second half of this invitation is chanted only when the wedding takes place inside a synagogue, indicating that outside of a synagogue building is not technically a “house of God.” Perhaps liturgically, we can let this slide, but metaphorically, it should raise some red flags.  In an era in which so many Jews who crave community, learning, doing justice, and prayer do not find God and all of God’s trappings inside a synagogue, it becomes more obvious that we are being called to reassess this limited definition of what makes a sacred “house of God” and, without ignoring those who love synagogue life, how we meaningfully engage those who do not choose to walk through its doors.

One of my rabbinic colleagues (in her 30s) recently told me that if she were not a congregational rabbi, she wouldn’t necessarily join a synagogue; it isn’t a space that really touches her.  This should seriously worry us, yet also ignite within us a burning commitment to acknowledge and respond to this honest struggle.  We have a serious challenge that we can’t afford to ignore: How do we engage those on the outside of this “house” in a Jewish life that is meaningful and relevant to them?

It would be a mistake to assume that those who don’t join a synagogue want nothing to do with Judaism.  Many people who don’t find what they are looking for inside the walls of the “beit Adonai” (“house of God”) are nonetheless longing for Jewish engagement.

As a community organizer, I know that success lies in the preposition we choose to use.  Our sacred work is to reach out — to ask and then to listen carefully to what these folks care about and want, what touches them inside Jewish life.  And then, choosing our preposition wisely, we can build that re-imagined, redefined, re-energized Jewish life with them. With, and not for. The days of creating flashy programs for people with the hopes that they will be enticed into our communities are long gone.  Those overtures are often correctly perceived to be in the interest of the synagogue, rather than in the interest of the individual.

Community organizing teaches us to help people identify what is meaningful, life-changing, soul-touching, brain-engaging, heart-jiggling enough to invest their time and energy. If we have conversations with those outside of our synagogue walls, and build with them something that is relevant to who and where they are, then we may find ourselves with an even richer and more dynamic and networked Jewish community.

There is surely risk in working with unengaged Jews to build something of their own design. It takes more time and money, more staff dedicated to this mission, and a leap of faith that what we create together will be transformative and real — even if what we nurture and build is unrecognizable as a synagogue.

Outreach is not about filling seats or collecting dues (arguably, it never really has been). It is not about delivering a product or coaxing people into existing structures. Outreach is about breaking down walls, breaking some rules, and making a commitment to listen hard to what Jews and interfaith families need in order to live meaningful Jewish lives inside and outside of the synagogue.  And then it is about building something new with them, for it is in the act of building something together that new relationships are made, community is formed, and sparks of new Jewish engagement are ignited.

Perhaps it is also time to recite the full opening wedding liturgy wherever we are. If we believe it is possible to create a house of God wherever people gather — praying in the woods, learning in someone’s home, eating at a park, acting together for justice, creating art, (making kiddush at a bar) — then we should restore the full sentiment no matter what place we are in: Blessed are those who come in the name of God; may you be blessed in this open, expansive, welcoming, engaging, listening, relating, building, sacred house of God.

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Rabbi Stephanie Kolin is co-director of Just Congregations, the community-organizing strategy of the Union for Reform Judaism.

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