By Rabbi Ben Greenberg and Andi Rosenthal
In the long, holiday-free stretch between the end of the High Holidays and Hanukkah, it is easy to lose sight of one’s sense of purpose in the Jewish world. The commitment and inspiration of the New Year and the Day of Atonement fade with the transition of days from the high and holy to the typical and ordinary. For families it may be the seemingly endless Hebrew school and school pickup and drop-off; for seniors, the glow of seeing old friends at Shabbat services competes with the tyranny of cold weather and early nightfall. Not least of all, Rabbis, cantors, lay leaders, and synagogue professionals can fall prey to this period of malaise. While many draw energy from seeing their synagogues operating at full capacity, others may feel letdown during this particular time in the Jewish calendar. Without holidays to inspire and sustain us, it is easy to question why we continue to toil, year after year in the face of disconcerting results:, synagogue communities struggling for survival and sustainability, overworked and overtired leaders, and members who, lacking inspiration and motivation, accompany us on the treadmill of the typical, week in and week out.
In Simon Sinek’s well-regarded book, Start with Why, he argues that all too often our businesses and organizations sell themselves to the wider community with primarily what they do or what they produce. Apple makes excellent computers, but that is not why it is the industry leader in personal electronic devices. It doesn’t market its iPhones as simply great phones or its MacBooks as simply great computers; rather, Apple invites the consumer to “think differently” – an invitation to join in fighting against the status quo. Apple’s first and primary message is why they do what they do, and only after conveying the why do they tell you the what it is they actually produce.
Hanukkah is the Jewish holiday most dedicated to change and to overcoming unimaginable obstacles – in essence, to fighting against the status quo. In this season of dedication, we pose the question: What would it look like for our synagogues to rededicate themselves to thinking differently? What if we tried to put forth the why before the what? Would it enable our members and leaders alike to once again feel that sacred sense of purpose, not merely for the cause of bridging the holiday periods, but also to enable us to rededicate ourselves to WHY we do our work and WHY we chose it in the first place?
Would putting the why before the what encourage synagogue boards and leaders to ask themselves WHY we choose to exist as a synagogue community and WHAT is it that we believe as an institution? Perhaps, putting the why before the what can enable us to understand our purpose, which is really the foundation of our myriad programs.
Imagine a synagogue website welcome message that looked something like this:
“Thank you for visiting our synagogue. We are a congregation that believes in the vitality of the Jewish people. We believe in working toward a better world and cultivating personalities that are deep with spiritual intention and Jewish wisdom. We do that by offering daily services and adult educational opportunities. We offer empty nesters and seniors groups because we are committed to building the fabric of community that connects one person to another and breaks down the walls of loneliness and isolation. We would love for you to visit our community. Please stop by or send an e-mail to our staff to schedule a time to come by for a conversation on how you can join us in impassioned Jewish living.”
May the season of rededication inspire and re-energize our synagogues and Jewish institutions to re-organize around the why as a powerful vehicle for the revitalization of Jewish engagement.
Chag urim sameach.
Rabbi Ben Greenberg and Andi Rosenthal are SYNERGY Planning Executives at UJA-Federation of New York.