Mekor Shalom focuses on two of the four propositions that Rabbi Sid Schwarz sets forth in Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Community. About community/kehilla, Rabbi Schwarz writes that “the Jewish community must offer places where people can find support in times of need, communal celebration in times of joy, and friendships to make life fulfilling.” Regarding lives of sacred purpose/kedusha, Rabbi Schwarz holds that “the Jewish community must offer a glimpse of kedusha, experiences that provide holiness, transcendent meaning, and a sense of purpose.”
From my experience, many Jews either are seeking to connect with other Jews in a communal setting that will enrich and enhance their lives and have not necessarily found it, or they have pulled back from (or given up on) searching for Jewish engagement, wishing that a such a community existed where they live.
I founded Mekor Shalom to be that Jewish community for which people are searching, designing it specifically to fulfill the needs expressed about kehilla and kedusha. It is not one or two facets of Mekor Shalom that makes it a model for the two propositions. Every aspect of the congregation is infused with a deep intentionality for building and sustaining a sacred community where, in the words of these core concepts, each person may: “Be Connected. Be Accepted. Be Inspired.”
Every Mekor Shalom Board of Trustees meeting begins with two distinct elements that integrate kehilla and kedusha: First, each person present (whether one is there as a board member, team lead, or a congregant), shares their name with the assembled group and offers a personal update of some kind. It may be finishing a project at work, an unexpected home repair, or celebrating a graduation. We build community when we learn each other’s names and when we learn about and connect with each other. After the group check in, I offer, in lieu of a dvar Torah, what has become known as a “Moment of Holiness.” It is a chance consciously to invite the Shekhina into the meeting through a prayer, sometimes extemporaneous and at other times, composed in advance. It sets the tone for the meeting. The energy in the room shifts, and we are ready to begin the holy work of the evening.
At Mekor Shalom, each person’s presence matters, their participation makes a difference, and their gifts are accepted graciously. With these beliefs applied, Mekor Shalom is what Rabbi Schwarz defines as a “synagogue-community” as opposed to a “synagogue-center.” I fully recognize that, as the clergy, I am not an expert at everything, nor do I (nor should I) be in the driver’s seat of every dimension of Mekor Shalom. The congregant with an eye for design, was the lead for envisioning the synagogue space that provides an inviting and enveloping feeling that is palpable. A team of congregants initiated and implemented the Look Who’s Coming to Shabbat Dinner program. People want to help out and to share their expertise. I want to make sure that I encourage them to do so, support their efforts, and help others to join in along with them.
Meeting people where they are is a key component of Mekor Shalom. It speaks to both kehilla and kedusha. Meeting people where they are makes Mekor Shalom accessible and relevant. To paraphrase Rabbi Harold Schulweis, I am not focusing on having “answers to the questions that Jews no longer ask.”
A commitment to meeting people where they are holds me (and the Mekor Shalom community) responsible to “read the market (the Jews they want to reach) and the marketplace (the social context in which the Jews live).” Meeting people where they are involves finding the people and letting them know that a different kind of synagogue community is available to them. An organized effort to reach people via social media and maximizing search engine optimization is but one example. Online platforms are how Jews are finding community where they live (even if they are not actively looking for it). Answering the call to meet the needs of the Jews in the community, regardless of who is a member, is recognizing both the market and the marketplace. Having everyone introduce themselves at the end of a service, making sure I introduce each person within reach to one another as I greet people, and sharing a point of connection between them, helps to forge the relationships that build and strengthen community.
Being able to shift gears midstream may afford an unexpected opportunity to connect, to find meaning, to add holiness, and to support one another. I share one such example: It the first Shabbat following the horrific and tragic murder of Mekor Shalom’s president, Glenn Selig, z”l, in a terrorist attack in Kabul, Afghanistan. A funeral had not yet been held due to logistical complications, but a number Mekor Shalom friends had decided to come to shul for services. They were seeking both kehillah and kedusha. I could see from their expressions and hear in their voices, that they needed to address what had happened to Glenn and how they were feeling. They were in their own period of aninut, an early stage of mourning. Instead of conducting an entire Shabbat service from Pesukei D’zimrah through Musaf, I made a choice not to do the Torah service that day. Instead, I engaged our community in an impromptu pastoral care encounter. We cried, grieved, and shared. We hugged and sustained one another. We came together as a sacred community of sacred relationships to find solace in kedusha and kehilla.
May everyone who connects with Mekor Shalom always find it to be a true Source of Peace.
Hazzan Jodi M. Sered-Lever is the founding spiritual leader of Congregation Mekor Shalom in Tampa, FL, where the presence of each person matters and the participation of each person makes a difference. A graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary (including its H.L. Miller Cantorial School), she is a fan of all Chicago sports teams.