When our sage Hillel said, “Al tifrosh min ha-tsibbur — Do not leave the community” (Avot 2:5), he was addressing his precept to the intelligentsia, the scholars, those best able to appreciate the value of community, those with the most to offer the community.
Often people who are especially ethically and spiritually sensitive get disgusted with the Jewish community in general and the Synagogue community in particular. They may be personally wronged or they may recognize certain pathologies operating in the community. Such people may let go of their connection to the community and drop their Synagogue membership. Ironically, these are the very people the community needs most, for these are the people best equipped to help the community recognize its problems and to heal itself. It is as if a doctor or nurse, upon recognizing the spread of disease in a community, were to leave town in order to avoid getting sick.
It may be easy — logistically if not emotionally — to walk away from the Jewish community or the Synagogue. One can find community, friendship, religious expression and a sense of identity elsewhere. Those who are critical of Jewish culture can easily find some other place to belong, some community that does not clearly exhibit the same problems. The temptation to walk away may be great; how much more likely to leave are those who are in effect driven away.
I am reminded of two Israelis discussing the hardships of life in modern Israel. “Four weeks a year in the Army Reserves, sky-high taxes, rock-bottom salaries, meshuga drivers, terrorists, corrupt politicians, rampant sexism, poor postal service, rude and lazy bureaucrats — who can stand it?” “You’re right,” said the other, “it’s terrible. As soon as they open another Jewish State, I’m moving!”
While we must recognize that there are certain aspects of Jewish culture and Synagogue culture that ought to be changed, we must also affirm that much can be said in favor of our culture and institutions, and that taken as a whole they are of tremendous value and contribute greatly to our welfare and to the welfare of all humanity. That is, we have a lot going for us even though we are not perfect. Our potential is vast.
In part due to my belief in the essential worth of the Synagogue community, I have encouraged families and individuals to establish, renew, strengthen and deepen their involvement in every area of Synagogue life. It has been a source of great joy to me to see so many people discovering (or rediscovering) what a Synagogue has to offer, drawing closer to God, Torah and Israel through the Synagogue. It is my sincerest hope that this “drawing closer” will be a lasting effect of my tenure as Rabbi at this congregation.
One might escape certain problems by abandoning the Jewish community, but one who does so gives up more than one gains, and one is sure to encounter other (or the same) problems in other communities and social sub-groups. Most of our problems are just the Jewish version of universal human problems. Our own problems may appear more acute to us than they really are in comparison to those in other cultures because as insiders we see and experience our own faults more clearly and feel them more directly.
Jewish society, Israel, and the Synagogue community, though not perfect, are worth fixing. It is mitzva to work toward the spiritual betterment of Jewish communal institutions. Therefore our sage Hillel suggests that if one does not like aspects of communal life and culture, one ought to work to change them.
Your Culture, your Synagogue — Love it or Change it. But please don’t leave it.