After three wonderful months of sabbatical, I have returned to pulpit, desk, and classroom and the full range of my rabbinic duties. I am extraordinarily grateful to the congregation for affirming the cycle that enables me to renew and refresh every four years. I am especially grateful to those who watched over the affairs of the synagogue in my absence, including Nancy Hailpern's lay committee, Iris Henley and, most especially, Hazzan Elisheva Dienstfrey. Elisheva has been an eager student for three years and is now clearly my teacher as well.
I have so much to tell you, I hardly know where to begin. So allow me to pick up where I left off, however briefly. I solicited your input on three questions: our strengths, our shortcomings and our approach to the issues surrounding gay and lesbian Jews. The last of these matters is the subject of longer discussion, and the other two can be treated only broadly in these few inches, but here's what I learned:
A small but diverse sample of congregants responded. Genuinely, they represented every segment of our membership. There was nearly universal praise for our current staff, which was gratifying. There was unanimous praise for the sense of community at Agudas Achim, with one important caveat. Quite a number of individuals expressed the belief that they themselves and, by extension, the kinds of people they represent were outsiders to a full embrace by our community. Mostly, the comment was offered without recrimination. Instead, there was poignancy to it. Ironically, some folks identified as within the circle by others considered themselves outside the circle.
The matter is not a superficial one. My correspondents did not feel ignored or neglected at kiddush or at a barbecue or in a class. Rather, the ethos of the congregation strikes them as one that emphasizes family and youth overwhelmingly and asks everyone else to fit themselves in between the lines. I report this impression to you without judgment; it is worth attention as a perception, independent of whether or not it is fact.
As for improvements, they fall into two mutually exclusive categories. Most people rightly observed how expensive it is to belong to the congregation. They want dues reduced. At the same time, most people want the program of the congregation expanded to include more of what serves their particular needs.
The dilemma is perpetual. However, we have arrived at a crossroad and must now make some conscious choices. Absent a large influx of contributions or endowments from members, we can hold the line on costs only by attracting many more members to share the burden. Of course, the more members we have, the thinner our human resources are stretched, which means less ability to expand programs. Similarly, expanding our repertoire of outreach to members means expanded emphasis on funding. (One member wrote admiring of McLean Bible Church's diverse program; their pastor spends a huge amount of time raising money from the members.)
The good news is that (almost) everyone volunteered to be part of the solution. And that brings me back to the beginning — what a great place Agudas Achim is. We have challenges to meet and choices to make, but we will work together and improve on our past successes.