Op-Ed: Jewish Communal Life Centered On Social Justice for All
EDITOR’S NOTE: Two weeks ago, the JN published a Rosh Hashanah sermon Rabbi Aaron Starr delivered at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield. Rabbi Starr suggested it was time to “Say Kaddish For Tikkun Olam” and focus on shoring up Jewish identity and commitment. The sermon generated a lot of talk in the community. To keep the conversation about the role of tikkun olam in the Jewish community going, today we are publishing another set of Rosh Hashanah remarks that present a markedly different perspective, these from Andy Levin, president of Congregation T’chiyah in Oak Park, as well as a response to Rabbi Starr’s sermon from some local young adults.
I want to talk with you about belonging. About where we belong. About what it means to belong. What it means to join something. To be a member of a group.
Recently, I read Sebastian Junger’s new book, Tribe. It’s a short book, and it’s gotten a fair amount of attention. Junger’s thesis, essentially, is that the explosion of problems experienced by vets after they return home from fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan reflects not something wrong with them, but rather something wrong with us, with American society, perhaps with modernity itself. He talks a lot about Indian tribes, about egalitarianism and selflessness. About how we feel most vital when in danger, when fighting for others we care about.
How can we have meaningful lives in a society where everything is so comfortable — at least for some of us? When the emphasis is on getting and having, me and mine? When people live isolated lives, driving into garages with doors that close behind them, focusing on electronic devices that mediate all interaction? While Junger seems to talking about PTSD and related matters, he is really interrogating both modernity itself and the organization of American society.
It has been 15 years since Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone, the study that brought the world’s attention to declining participation in all manner of communal activities, from churches and synagogues to PTAs and bowling leagues. And that was six years before the iPhone showed up!
So are we doomed to live in the Bowling Alone century? I don’t think so. We are certainly in an uncomfortable moment, one in which some very loud voices are telling us that the only way to feel good is to go backward and to repel people who look or sound or pray differently than what some perceive as “normal,” in effect, setting tribe against tribe.
But isn’t our challenge precisely this: that we truly need tribal connection, that intensity of mutual affection, that acknowledgement of interdependence; but that at the same time, we know universalism is the only thing that can save us?
The evidence that tribalism can have devastating consequences overwhelms us daily. We, the carbon-gobbling “Tribe of the Haves,” are frying our planet and changing our ways too slowly to maintain life on Earth in the way it has been since the end of the last ice age.
Black people are being shot by public authorities who react so quickly to … to what, if not a difference that’s only skin deep? The last 30 years have seen wars, terrorism and even genocidal activity among people of different religions, races and ethnicities across multiple continents.
I want to build a world in which I can have an intense feeling of belonging to a group that does not set me apart from others, but that supports me in my faith in universal human values — that even demands that I put my best self forward in achieving universal sister and brotherhood across these differences.
That is why we are building Congregation T’chiyah the way we are building it.
We Are One
We say to our brothers and sisters in the Reconstructionist Congregation of Detroit, with whom we are so happy to be sharing services, that we are one. Together, we are the Reconstructionist Jews of this great city and region. We belong together.
I say to all of you sitting here who are not our members, consider joining us. We have turned a corner at Congregation T’chiyah, and we will not turn back. In June, our members voted unanimously to leave dues behind forever. And do you know what happened? That same membership pledged significantly more financial support for this spiritual community than it has ever given before in so-called dues.
However, it’s not just a fundraising strategy, this matter of eliminating dues and asking everyone to pledge from the heart to support this community financially — to whatever extent they are able and wish freely to give. It goes to the core of who we are.
The old model of belonging to a synagogue out of obligation is too tribal, not universal enough for today’s young people. And God bless them. It’s not universal enough for me, either. We have separated the notion of money from the question of belonging completely. Honestly, we have.
But the old model wasn’t too tribal just because of dues and obligation and guilt. It also undersold what our obligation as Jews really is. Which is taking care of the stranger, seeing the other as oneself. It is nothing less than universal human rights for all people. That’s the Judaism my parents burned into me. And I want — no, I need, this is my personal spiritual need — to be part of a group that demands nothing less of me.
So this is what membership in Congregation T’chiyah means today. We are a down-to-earth davening shul, with services every single week where you are welcomed by name and where people need to know whether your granddaughter’s broken leg has healed or how your new job is going. We are the social justice shul, where fighting water shutoffs in poor people’s homes or winning a regional system of mass transit, at long last, can be your way of davening; and that’s just fine.
I recently spoke to one of our members who said, somewhat sheepishly, that the most important thing to her is pretty much our monthly book group.
What a nice opportunity she gave me to say, “Wow, that’s just fine!” That’s what we want. Whether you are looking for a book group, a potluck, a protest, some place to say Kaddish or a place to pray week in and week out, join us.
Join us to build a new kind of Jewish communal life with many doors to enter based on your own needs and wants. A new kind of Jewish communal life that only seeks to help you find your truest self — and to help us all repair our badly broken world arm in arm with each other — and with all people across all the silly categories we humans have created and which our Torah, at this time above all others, asks us to see — right — through.
Andy Levin is a founder and leader of Detroit Jews for Justice and president of Congregation T’chiyah in Oak Park. He gave these remarks on Rosh Hashanah.