The Gift of the Mosque at Ground Zero

by Yoram Samets

Synagogues and other Jewish membership organizations have received many “opportunities” lately to enhance the relevancy of our Judaism and to engage constituents, prospective members and the community at large.

Whether it is the BP oil disaster, the Turkish flotilla, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to the White House, women at the Wall, the Knesset debate on who is a Jew, or, now, the mosque at Ground Zero – we have been handed circumstances with which to reflect on matters of particular Jewish interest.

These are key issues that leadership should be engaged in with members through on-line and off-line connections, learning opportunities, and communications in general.

Too often, synagogues and member-based organizations are lacking a point of view. They are concerned about offending members, so they say nothing. Or they develop a “one-size-fits-all” message. Neither of these directions will help to retain membership, let alone grow it.

Our Judaism demands a point of view. Our Judaism demands that we study, discuss, deliberate and take action. And leadership has the responsibility to lead in this learning and conversation. It is an opportunity to reach within our own community and to reach out to a larger one to share our Jewish perspective.

By and large, most of us live these events through media, whether it is CNN, Fox, You Tube, or Twitter. While many go no further than the headlines, most people are searching for a greater understanding and a context. If your synagogue or organization is not providing that context, members or potential supporters will find it elsewhere.

There is no better opportunity to teach Jewish values than through current issues. During recent Shabbat services, my Rabbi talked about the Gulf oil disaster prior to the Torah reading. He created a new way for me and others to look at crisis, and he found a way to make the synagogue a place of serious engagement and discussion on issues people are talking about over dinner.

In Evanston, IL, Rabbi Brant Rosen of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation is known by his community and others within his movement as an active blogger who offers online perspectives and resources on current issues, such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, and the Gaza blockade.

And in Arizona, Temple Solel in Paradise Valley is holding a “Civic Academy on Immigration” later this month to engage members and the community on this very current topic from a Jewish perspective. “While the immigration issue is being used as a political football by almost all seeking elected office, Temple Solel is in a position to offer leadership of a different kind,” the synagogue blasts on its website. “There is a need to take a step back and have a civil discussion that looks at immigration in light of Jewish texts and in a historic light.”

So, is your Rabbi or leadership blogging about current issues? Is your Facebook page engaged with current topics? Does your website lead members to the vast amount of information on issues available on line? Are you creating local meet-ups to discuss how these issues impact the lives of American Jews?

Are you inviting expert speakers to talk about these issues with members? Are you creating family events to help parents and kids talk about current events? Or are you only focused on the next book club meeting, or recital night, or bingo night, or Shabbat service or board meeting?

Leaders at our Jewish organizations – synagogues, JCC’s, educational institutions and others – have an opportunity and a responsibility to create a vibrant, passionate Jewish center for all of us. Using current events to stimulate learning, conversation, and engagement should be considered a gift. Websites and digital technology make it easy to engage and build community beyond an organization’s walls.

I once heard that Judaism is a conversation that goes back in time. Our Jewish community institutions and synagogues must help us enter that realm again.

Yoram Samets is the Founder of Jvillage Network in Burlington, VT. He is a frequent writer and blogger on using digital technology to grow membership and engage and build Jewish community.