We Believe in Synagogues

by Andi Rosenthal and Cantor Adina Frydman

Dear Friends,

It is astonishing to consider how deep our connections are to our five thousand year old ancestors in the Exodus story. With the approach of Passover, we imagine them, somehow connecting to the tectonic shifts of peoplehood, tension and anxiety characterized by the Pesach narrative. We cannot help but feel their sense of displacement, liberation, and awe at the miracles that awaited them.

But to imagine how they experienced this sense of ‘disruptive connection’ without smartphones, without a daily email update hitting their inbox every morning, without a text message alerting them that it was time to up and leave the narrow place of their slavery, truly takes a feat of imagination. And as we are commanded to see ourselves, as if we, too, are being taken out of Egypt, we must accept that in this time of our own communal tension and displacement, our links to the past are more than mere metaphor. For we, too, are in a moment that commands us to see ourselves in this moment of change, anxiety, and yet – ultimately, connection.

For the professionals, clergy, and lay leaders at SYNERGY: UJA-Federation of NY and Synagogues Together, our statement of purpose is a simple one: We believe in synagogues. We have faith in the founding principles that rooted and established synagogues as what they were; we honor the sacred, guiding communal lives that continue to thrive in what they are; and we joyfully welcome the evocative and holy energy that enables them to evolve toward what they will become. Synagogues and their communal lives are experiencing a moment characterized by both innovation and caution. And we as a Jewish community are bearing witness to the life cycles of synagogues and the simultaneous momentum and elevation of the synagogue field. In the past two weeks, we have watched synagogue innovations make headlines in The New York Times; we have read about the optimism of synagogues and their futures in eJewish Philanthropy. And yet, we have also been saddened and sobered by the closing of the Alban Institute, one of our fellow sojourners on this journey of congregational change.

And so, this moment leaves us, like the Exodus itself left our ancestors, both exhilarated and bewildered. Buoyed by the excitement around our sacred work, will we dwell on what was or be moved to action? We, like our ancestors, look to a future in which we are liberated from the narratives of scarcity, paralysis, and fear, which keep us from embracing the possibility of our synagogues changing, adapting, and continuing to foster communities which inspire, care, and create meaning across the life and holiday cycle of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Norman Cohen, in his book Moses and the Journey to Leadership: Timeless Lessons of Effective Management from the Bible and Today’s Leaders, shows us a perfect analogy for our communities in this moment of transition. He writes: Moses believes with his entire being that God will intervene on behalf of the Jewish people… and enable His people to cross the Red Sea. Yet after telling the people that God will do battle for them, nothing happens. The Rabbis in the Midrash say that one person, Nachshon ben Aminadav, the head of the tribe of Judah, is brave enough to jump into the Red Sea. When Moses sees that Nachshon is drowning, he begins to cry out prayerfully to God to save him, and by extension, all the people. It is then that God finally responds to Moses, saying, “Moses, my friend … the sea is closing in upon him, the enemy is in close pursuit, and you stand there praying? Do something!” The Israelites will not be saved if they merely stand idly by and wait for God to act. There is no such thing as passive redemption.

At UJA-Federation of NY, we, too, believe in the notion of active redemption. We are ever grateful for the many fearless Nachshons among our synagogue leaders, who characterize our work through their bravery, trust, and willingness to risk their own comfort and security for the sake of the Jewish people. Each day, we are blessed to encourage our synagogue leaders, no matter where they may be on the continuum of change, to take even the smallest steps forward so that they may experience an exodus from the narrow places that keep their congregations in stasis as the world changes around them. And most of all, recognizing that there is always fear involved with change, we cultivate relationships both within and among our leaders, both lay and rabbinic, across denominational lines, so that our communities can learn from and be inspired by one another, and move forward together, just as we did so long ago, at the shores of the sea, as one people – am echad.

In this liminal moment of transition, leaving the known for the unknown elicits a mashup of emotions from fear and wonderment to miracles and momentum. We at UJA- Federation of NY continue to walk alongside synagogues as they navigate the rapidly changing landscape, embracing the aspirational vision of what tomorrow’s synagogues can be by ramping up our efforts, with the continuation of our Connected Congregations initiative and the launch of our NY Rabbinic Fellowship for Visionary Leaders.

SYNERGY remains committed to the sacred work of synagogue change, to the potentiality of what might be and to the redemptive power of aspirational vision. As Pesach approaches, we encourage a collective, communal embrace of this aspirational vision, and the courage required to acknowledge the sacred and sacrosanct connections of one people, poised at the very brink of transformation, ever linked, through time and trial, to those who stood before us at the edge of an ancient sea.

Wishing you and your families a sweet and ever-meaningful Pesach,
The SYNERGY team, of UJA-Federation of NY
Adina, Kate, Andi, Ewa, Leora, Neely and Sarah