Covenantal Community is a Realistic Reach
By Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Covenantal communities, as outlined by Rabbi Sid Schwarz here last week, indeed can be powerful places. They offer meaning to their members, and stability and energy to the larger Jewish and civic communities around them. He contrasts such rare and dynamic places with the more prevalent suburban synagogue-center, described as “primarily a transactional institution with relatively low expectations for membership (except for the payment of dues) and, consequently, low buy-in from members.” But perhaps the gulf is not so wide.
Nine years after Rabbi Schwarz and some devoted pioneers founded Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Maryland’s DC suburbs, I followed him into this pulpit, making me the lucky beneficiary of his early efforts. In the subsequent two decades of my and Hazzan/Rabbi Rachel Hersh’s tenure, this community has continued to flourish; new arrivals share the ethos of rolling up our sleeves, participating, and contributing to the collective in various intensive ways, as part of a ‘social compact’ through which members find themselves in turn held, supported, and feeling at home with one another.
It has made us a true “covenantal kehillah” – liberal, and serious; personal, and communitarian. Members may wax poetic in describing what this community means to them, and the unique role it plays in their lives. Yet treasuring one’s uniqueness can too easily border on triumphalism, even disdain of other communities. (That very concern is what led Mordecai Kaplan to replace “election” with “vocation,” re-branding Jews as not the chosen, but the choosing, people). Just as we should treasure our own holy heritage while respecting all religions – or for that matter, take delight in our nation’s strengths, without the dangerous delusion of American exceptionalism – so too should members of every congregation be humble, yet proud.
Thus, currently ‘covenantal’ communities must remain humble, and open to criticism and improvement, even from more conventional corners. Likewise, even the oldest-school shuls will find much to build upon, as they seek to bring today’s “best practices” to their institutions – after all, every synagogue keeps ‘covenant’ and ‘community’ in its DNA. Again, the gap is not so great. Like Passover’s four children properly understood, “covenantal” and “transactional” are not separate entities, but characteristics we all share at different times. Most kehillot sport some stodginess, yet embrace some innovation. Most ask a good deal from many members, even as the ‘fee for services rendered’ paradigm remains active. The differences are more of degree than of kind.
So my first augmentation of Rabbi Sid’s message is an optimistic one: any community can become more covenantal, just by re-ratcheting the ratios. Kaplan (borrowing from Darwin) emphasized the evolutionary aspect of Judaism; Jewish institutions, synagogues included, also evolve. Even in low-expectation locales, high-test initiatives can be introduced along the way.
A second amplification: getting specific. Some of what covenantal communities do well is structural, like Adat Shalom’s signature, carefully organized, rotating co-op oneg system. Every member signs up to cook or purchase (50 vegetarian/dairy servings each), set up, run, and clean up after two Shabbat lunches per year. This enables a full sit-down lunch for the 100-400 folks who attend each and every Shabbos, and it builds community as people schmooze, linger and bond over the repast. “Oneg duty” is fun and meaningful for many, if occasionally onerous; still, it’s a key covenantal practice, and a potentially replicable one.
Much else is even ‘simpler,’ if deceptively so, by being embedded in the culture: An ethos of non-judgmental inclusivity and acceptance, practiced in the pews as well as preached from the pulpit. An open and flexible approach to the perennial balancing act of ancient with modern, timeless with timely. A focus on substance over status, and community over cliques. A norm of reaching out, where few first-timers leave without meeting future friends. A place which members call their “community” more than their “synagogue.” Every shul can embody these attributes, if they share the desire.
One final addition: Rabbi Sid noted today’s erosion of “social capital.” Going deeper, sociologist Robert Putnam differentiated between bonding social capital, operative inside a tightly-defined group, and bridging social capital, building connections between and among groups. Judaism’s other perennial balancing act is between its particularist and universal impulses; we’re strong on both bonding (kashrut, Shabbat, landsmenschaften, etc), and bridging (tikkun olam, multi-faith and community relations, etc). The key to communal ‘thickness,’ in Adat Shalom’s experience, is to bond and bridge with equal intentionality. Numerous members will join together in each other’s living rooms for Shabbat or a shiva, and for a service mission, or marching on the National Mall under our synagogue banner.
One reinforces the other. “Community” means being there for each other, when it’s convenient and joyous, and even (or especially?) when it’s not. “Covenant” means being part of something huge, holy, and values-driven. The words adjoin, for a reason: with intentionality, we can make all our communities truly covenantal.
Since 1997, Fred Scherlinder Dobb has served as the first and only full-time Rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation (Bethesda MD); he is also the chair of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.