By Rabbi Jason Bonder
For so many of us, the pace of our lives before 2020 was like a runaway train racing forward on a track with no end in sight. On the rare occasions when we had a moment to look out the window of our speeding locomotives, we would see blurry images of our world whizzing by.
Along came this global pandemic and, for many of us, our trains came to a screeching halt. Living in these times have been chaotic and unsettling at best and for some of us it has been a time filled with extreme pain and loss. Yet as we adjusted to our new normal, something amazing happened. We looked out the windows of our newly stagnant trains and saw the world in a new way. This year of 2020 is really living up to its name. What was once fuzzy at best, we are now seeing with 20/20 vision.
Among the many things caught up in the blur of our pre-2020 lives was the American synagogue. Over the past few decades, without a moment to slow down, the synagogue withdrew into the background of all the other places along our track where we momentarily slowed down to pick up passengers. I can imagine the conductor of our trains saying, “This is the train to home, stopping at: religious school, soccer practice, dance lessons and the school play. The next stop is religious school. Please feel free to do your homework in the quiet car between stops.” As passengers on our ride through life, all the stops have looked and felt similar for a very long time. The synagogue became yet another place where I got off my train, picked up a good or service, and got back aboard.
In this time of renewal — and candidly, I do not mean the renewal of the Jewish calendar; I mean the renewal of synagogue membership and religious school tuition — I hope that this newfound pace of life restores a 20/20 view of our religious communities. Houses of worship are not like other businesses. Every time I pay at my gym, cleaners or grocery store, and each time I order from Amazon or Audible, I immediately get something tangible in return. So it’s understandable that if I pay my dues to my synagogue and I get nothing back instantly, I may be inclined to think that it’s not worth it.
If you’re thinking that way, it’s not your fault. Our trains have not only been traveling at blinding speed, but they have been traveling in a direction away from President John F. Kennedy’s era of “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” We have been moving away still from the era of the famous Israeli saying “Livnot ulehibanot — to build and be built.” Our trains have been moving toward lives of increased isolation and instant gratification on a track that was built in our consumerist society.
Our pre-2020 pace precluded us from seeing the distinction between our synagogues and the rest of our stops along the track. If your train has come to a halt this year and you are in the process of reevaluating your habits, routines and memberships, please remember to take a look at your synagogue through this new, clear lens. The question when considering being a part of a synagogue is not, “Does my synagogue provide a particular good or service from which I, or my family, immediately benefit?” The question is, “As a Jewish person, what are my obligations to my community and to the greater world?”
Jason Bonder is the associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen.