When people outside of our congregation ask me what is different about our synagogue, I often talk about our Religious School. We have a vibrant school that encourages family participation and a diverse curriculum that provides for many ways to teach topics from field trips to lectures to chugim to music and art. Much of that is due to the vision of Anne Stein and her steadfast dedication to our children. But one other way that we are different is that our Judaica teachers are all dedicated volunteers. In our younger grades, these teachers provide a curriculum based on holidays or life cycle events or history. But as we move into the 7th through 10th graders, the classes become more Socratic, more discussion based and more focused on the role of Jews in the greater world. They learn about topics such as the Holocaust and Ethics.
One of our Judaica teachers, Uli Widmaier, teaches the 9th graders Ethics. He writes an email to the students each week on their topic. Recently, he wrote the following on Ethics within our congregation. I thought it important enough to share. Thanks to all of our teachers who provide such a strong love of learning in our children. And a special thanks to Uli for allowing me to reprint this letter.
Last Sunday, on the occasion of Congregation Etz Chaim's 50th anniversary, I told you about some of the ethical accomplishments of our Congregation. I don't mean PADS and other social action items. Those are wonderful things, and very important. But I want to draw your attention to some different aspects, ones that you perhaps haven't thought about before. I am sending this e-mail also to my students from last semester because I think you may find it interesting.
I want to talk about some aspects of the ordinary communal life of our Congregation - the way we interact, volunteer, engage at the synagogue, attend religious school and teach. Much of this may be completely normal and unremarkable to us. But there are some real ethical gems here, and we should be aware of them and treasure them. I will discuss those that stand out most for me personally.
In many religious congregations, both Jewish and Christian, it matters a lot how much money you have. People who donate a lot of money tend to be more important, have more of a say, and get more respect, than people who don't. For example, big donors often have the best seats and get important readings at High Holiday services, and they strongly influence the many policy decisions that have to be made.
That's not the case at Congregation Etz Chaim. I have been a member since 1994, but I don't know who is rich and who is not. In our congregation, people are not judged by how much money they have which is a good thing, because preferential treatment for rich folks can make the rest of us feel really bad. At Etz Chaim we don't really judge people at all. You are who you are, and you are accepted as such. I've never felt any conformist pressure at our synagogue. Some people are very engaged in synagogue activities, others less so, but everyone is welcomed pretty much the same. And if anyone were to try to show off because they're rich, it would get them precisely nowhere. Not that I've seen a lot of people try.
2. Gossip and factions
Gossip and factions are a big part of congregational life at many religious institutions. Not so at Congregation Etz Chaim. We have remarkably little gossip, and not really any factions (blocks of people who have different plans or ideas and fight each other). People feel generally very comfortable here, and they seem to feel no need to be self-important or try to tear each other down.
All that may sound a bit corny, but it's true. And it's hugely important. Gossip is a horrid thing, very destructive, very corrosive. Factions can tear an organization apart, or make it a miserable place to be. None of this exists in any serious form at Etz Chaim. Think about that. Think about why that is. It's a big ethical accomplishment. It's a culture of good, positive human interaction. How do you create that? It's not a given and should never be taken for granted. It may feel normal to us, but statistically speaking it's not normal at all. It's the result of real effort and hard work over many decades. I don't know how we got to where we are (I suspect it has to do with the outlook of the founding members 50 years ago and with Rabbi Bob's work for the last 30 years), but I'm sure grateful we are there, and I'm trying my best to continue it.
3. Religious school attendance
That's you. You are a real ethical accomplishment, perhaps the most important one of Congregation Etz Chaim. Believe me, you are. Let me explain. In most reform and conservative congregations in the U.S., religious school attendance falls off dramatically after people have their bat or bar mitzvah. I've heard that most congregations retain only about 30% of their post-b'nei mitzvah religious school students. That's pretty pathetic.
In contrast, at Etz Chaim we lose only about 5% of our students after they've had their b'nei mitzvah. Our 95% retention rate is just incredible, outrageous, through the roof, off the charts. But it's not really "our" retention rate. It's you. Most of you feel it's worth the effort to get up on Sunday morning and drag yourselves to the synagogue. Or at least you're not putting up a huge fight to stay in bed. So without any question, the main praise goes to you for voluntarily continuing your religious education even after the "Big Party". You don't have to, yet you do. Be proud of that. Given your commitment, there isn't all that much I have to teach you about ethics. You're already living it.
A lot of credit goes, of course, also to your parents, who are themselves committed enough to at least get you up on Sunday morning and drive you to synagogue. Why do you do it? Why do they? What explains this commitment? I'd love to hear your opinions.
One other thing. Most of the teachers at our religious school are all congregation members, and the Judaica teachers are all unpaid volunteers (the Hebrew teachers get a small stipend). I understand that we are the only Reform Congregation in the U.S. with an all-volunteer teaching staff. That, too, may have something to do with our high student retention rate. Anne Stein deserves a lot of credit for encouraging and maintaining this practice.
Actually, that's probably a big part of the secret here. A culture of warm, open, accepting interaction among congregants and of serious commitment by students, parents, and teachers - that needs to grow, to become entrenched, to be part of the normal way we live our lives. It is a tremendous accomplishment of Rabbi Bob, Anne Stein, and Rabbi Cosnowsky that they have managed to foster and maintain this culture of lived Jewish ethics.
But you are the most important part in all this. In the end, what we do matters not one bit if we don't pass it on to the next generation. But it's tricky. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein put it, you - I mean each of you, personally - have to make a "passionate commitment" to Judaism "of your own accord." We - your parents, your teachers, Anne Stein, our Rabbis - can't do it for you. When I see how many of you still come to Sunday School after your b'nei mitzvah, and how many of you choose to teach at Etz Chaim even after your confirmation, it's clear to me that you are in fact making that "passionate commitment." And that is without a doubt the greatest ethical accomplishment of all. In the end, ethics means a well-lived life.
You're off to a good start.