I serve a Bay Area suburban congregation that is predominantly secular with a smattering of Jewish searchers and seekers. For many years, we had a community dominated by families with young children. At one point we had about 280 member units and approximately 235 children in our Religious School (through B’nei Mitzvah). Because B’nei Mitzvah was the climactic Jewish experience in synagogue life, we developed a very dynamic B’nei Mitzvah journey for both the young person and his or her family.
There were years in which we had about 45 B’nei Mitzvah a year and this work took the lion’s share of my time and energy as rabbi. The journey involved meaningful tikkun olam projects, immersive experiences in tefillah and Torah. The young person would lead the shabbat morning service, chant about 20-25 verses of Torah, chant a smaller section of Haftarah, and offer a substantive d’var Torah. The d’var Torah would emerge from a chavrutah with me for about 3-4 months of 45-minute sessions each week.
The learning challenge for our children usually left their parents and other family members in the dust.
I felt somewhat conflicted by the disparity of Jewish knowledge and literacy, but figured that we were planting good seeds, even if the Jewish grounding in our homes was suspect. The young people were challenged to see themselves in their Torah portion and hold the question, “What does this teaching have to do with me in my real life?”
Gradually, I found that as the last child became a B’nei Mitzvah, many of our families who were very engaged in communal life when their kids were young, began to drift to the periphery and then often disappear altogether. I made endless efforts to engage parents in nourishing spiritual experiences for them as adults, but there usually wasn’t much bandwidth. They were simply too busy.
About eight years ago, I stepped back and took stock. I came to the conclusion that my experiment in suburban synagogue life did not live up to my hopes and expectations. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.
I thought it might be time to move on to other things and allow some new, younger rabbi with more energy and a new perspective come and see if he or she could accomplish something where I had seemed to fail.
Then, out of the blue, a shift began to happen. It began at a Men’s Retreat. We did a Torah study in which men were invited to speak their truths around a compelling question that came from the Torah. For several hours, men felt safe enough to share fears, doubts, and very personal experiences. There were tears and powerful mutual support. A number of men came to me afterwards and admitted that some of what they shared had never been spoken of before. I received numerous requests to do this kind of Torah study on a monthly basis.
Around the same time, several women in the community decided that they wanted to restart a Rosh Chodesh group that had been led by a women assistant rabbi who had left a few years earlier. The women wanted to lead it themselves on a rotating basis. I met with everyone who wanted to facilitate and we brainstormed ideas that they might be comfortable working with. The women incorporated art projects, writing exercises, and a whole range of creative activities into the gatherings. As with the men, the key element seemed to be to create a sanctuary in which people could share what was in their hearts and be witnessed and affirmed by the other women.
These groups seemed to light a fire in the community. Soon we had a pool of about 80 men and women who were regularly attending our Rosh Chodesh and Men’s Torah study. We began opening other experiential learning opportunities and before we knew it we had more adults attending regular groups and learning opportunities than we had children in our Religious School.
The adults in our community were so hungry for places to tell their stories and speak their truths. We keep creating more opportunities for this sacred storytelling and this has led to so many deeper connections and meaningful relationships in our community. People had no idea how much they yearned for opportunities to be genuine and authentic with one another.
This past January, 43 men got together for our annual three-day retreat in Lake Tahoe. This is the 21st year we have held this retreat and it is the cornerstone event of the year for the men in our community. This year we had several sets of fathers and sons attend. It is our deepest experience of shabbat during the year. We ski and snow mobile; we eat our meals together and spend much of the three days talking together in constantly rotating small circles. We had 12 men under the age of 35 and it led to some wonderful intergenerational connections. Existing relationships deepen and new relationships come into being.
Our shabbat services are extraordinary and the highlight of the three days is always our Torah study on Shabbat afternoon. This year I began the Torah study with the whole group. We explored Moshe’s encounter at the sneh and then raised the question about the efficacy of some of the pivotal experiences in our own lives. We had to split up into two groups of 20 or more. Some of the stories that were shared were simply breathtaking. I moved between the groups, silently supporting and encouraging the process.
As much as I honor and love the Torah study, I am even more moved to watch the men gather afterwards around other men who have become vulnerable and gently and generously offer their support.
I think that for so many in our synagogue community, the greatest gift that we have provided are places where people can be seen, and heard and cared for by one another. People have agreed to come to many synagogue gatherings to share their truths and hold the space for others to do the same. This is the mishkan we have somehow managed to create together. This is the kedusha that we have been drawn to summon. For so many in our community it is a gift beyond measure.
Rabbi Dan Goldblatt has been the spiritual leader of Beth Chaim Congregation in Danville, CA for 24 years. He serves on the Boards of both OHALAH: The Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal and ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal and is a Past President of OHALAH.