One of the important aspects of religion is that it changes very slowly. People like to know that an institution that represents Eternal Truths is consistent, even when tastes and circumstances fluctuate.
Those of us charged with maintaining religion (and that includes you as well as me) face a constant dilemma. If the message of meaning that religion promotes is to be heard, then there must be someone listening. And if the distance between the lives of people and their religious practices becomes too great, then religion slips from a mandate to a museum piece. How do we bridge the gap between the two concerns?
One way is to understand our audience. If we can approach people as God approached Ishmael, ba'asher hu sham, "where he was," then our mission is better fulfilled.
Recently, thanks to the vision and generosity of local Jewish leaders Edward and Irene Kaplan, a comprehensive survey of the Jewish demographics of the metro area was completed. The data are open to all sorts of interpretation and application, but here's what we know: the area served by Agudas Achim has changed significantly. If we are to thrive as a congregation (as we are thriving right now), then we must look to our population of today and tomorrow.
Without going into detail, there are three groups of (unaffiliated) people we have underserved, but who are making up an increasing segment of our section of the community. They include couples with very young children, young adults (single and in partnerships) and relocated empty-nesters. They constitute an increasing segment of the general population, an increasing segment of the Jewish population and, most relevantly, a huge segment of the population in and around Alexandria. And they are also least likely to affiliate with a synagogue, in large measure because our synagogues are so family- and socially-oriented. Absent an existing commitment to worship or a desire for connection to a religious community, most people put off or neglect synagogue membership.
We are trying to reach out to these groups. Our new pre-school will provide a needed service to the community and expose young families to Agudas Achim. Our increasingly diverse program of life-long learning and cultural activities will raise the profile of the synagogue as a place for empty-nesters to meet. And conversations have begun about how to make Agudas Achim more welcoming to the large numbers of Jews not in traditional families who must now make their way into the District of Columbia for their Jewish needs.
As always, your help is essential. Brag about us to your friends. Invite them to join you when you come. Introduce them to others in the congregation.
And when you are in synagogue, whether for worship or a social gathering, a class or a meeting, go out of your way to welcome an unfamiliar face.
You know, as I do, that aside from being the mitzvah of welcoming guests, and aside from promoting our shul's future, you are doing them a favor.