Thursday, 21 April 2011

Big Fish, Small Community

I have spent my life working at and being a member of small synagogues. Why, you may ask? Small synagogues have big challenges. Money, volunteer involvement, money, engagement, money, logistics-- did I mention money? All true and all extraordinarily frustrating for people like me who have devoted our lives and careers to attempting to make the Jewish experience relevant and meaningful for our communities. These monumental mountains can seem like Everest at times, especially when we inevitably compare ourselves to our Big Brother and Sister congregations in a thriving Jewish centre like the Greater Toronto Area. Over the many years of my career, I have worked for quite a few of our larger brethren. The money is better, there are fewer organizational headaches, and yet I find myself returning time and again to the more satisfying and rewarding (my opinion to be certain) work and lifestyle associated with small synagogue congregational life. I have known this fact to be true for me for many years now, but recently a few very personal events have reiterated it.

  • Nothing rallies my community like families in need. A dear and beloved member has fallen ill and her family has spent months caring for her in and out of hospitals. For the past two months, her family has spent almost 24/7 at her bedside, all the while eating nothing but hospital cafeteria food and food court fare from a neighbouring subway station. Our Chesed committee, under the direction of our interim rabbi, quickly organized and began preparing meals on a regular basis to take down to the family at the hospital. The menu demands weren't easy. There were vegetarians, meat eaters and gluten-free needs to be met. No worries. Members quickly and readily volunteered to cook, pack and shlep all of the food downtown-an hour trip from where most of us live. Most of the food was homemade! On many days, one lovely gentleman who works as a physician in the area, agreed to act as "food mule" so that the transportation of the meals might be simplified. The response has been overwhelming and the family was dumbfounded. I realize that this type of behaviour exists in many other congregations, but there was a personal touch and a connectivity that could only be felt in this particular way in a small community. These weren't people calling caterers. These were friends opening up their kitchens to help. Remarkable.
  • Two weeks ago, my congregation ran its annual Scholar-in-Residence program. This event is a highlight of our adult education year. The Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat morning services are organized to the last detail, with our choir singing, and music acting as a tremendous catalyst for the entire weekend. We knew early on that we would have no rabbi on the bimah given our interim status. I was assigned service leading duties for the entire weekend, along with my regular musical involvement, and I volunteered to chant Torah on Saturday morning. It shouldn't have been a problem, except for the fact that I came down with a raging case of laryngitis on Friday afternoon and could barely utter a squeak. April showers possibly bring May flowers, but for me it brings allergies and asthma related issues. I was beside myself, embarrassed beyond belief, and truly devastated. I shouldn't have worried. Two wonderful members of my choir jumped in to fill my solos and they sang with such clarity and grace that I was reduced to tears. Two other dear friends rallied on a dime (one kind gentleman volunteered an hour before services!) to act as "rabbi" for Friday and Saturday so that I could concentrate on just the songleading and Torah reading without over-taxing my fragile vocal chords. I was so overwhelmed by their generosity of spirit and friendship, that I publicly declared from the bimah that I owe them both dinner after Pesach. My small congregation isn't blessed with extra staff to fill in when one of us is sick, but rather we rely on the kindness and capabilities of our own members. I had a true Scarlett O'Hara moment where I was forced to rely on the kindness of others.
I truly believe that success in our synagogues cannot and should not be measured by the number of members on our rolls, but rather by the engagement and involvement of those members already within our midst. Believe me, the challenges are great and sometimes can seem overwhelming. But when the people like the ones in my community are dedicated to the cause, the climb seems a little bit easier.


  1. Too many small congregations strive to become big, believing that the more members they have is an indicator of their success and health. When small congregations spend all their effort on membership and fundraising they risk losing what is truly important. They divert effort (and sometimes funds) from core programming, which is undoubtedly what attracted their current membership base.

    If a congregation is determined to measure their success somehow, then how about counting the number of people at a Shabbat service or a study session rather than the number of names on a roster.

  2. Thank you, Dawn, for saying what so many of us feel!

  3. Dawn:

    It's true. There's a lot to be said for the "big fish, small pond" life. I left my hometown of NYC 38 years ago and have spent most of that time working and living ins mall communities. There are lots of good things about that, including the examples you cite of mutual support and strong sense of community. For years, I have advocated that Jews make aliyah to the rest of America outside our modern urban ghettos like NY, LA, Chicago, Montreal, Miami, etc. I've come to truly appreciate small congregations. I love working where I actually know everybody. I love the warmth, the support. Living in large urban areas it's easy to take being a Jew for granted. Not so easy in a smaller community. Makes you appreciate it all the more.
    Yes, we have to deal with a certain lack of easy access to resources (but the net has changed all that.) Yes, there are monumental challenges, but in my experience we rise to them.
    Yet small town Judaism is a double-edged sword, especially for people like me. I'm a bit of a generalist. Not only do I do Jewish Ed and Jewish Music, but a wide range of other things. Every congregation I have worked for has enabled me to utilize all these varied skills in their service. And therein lies the catch. One, small congregations with fewer resources become dependent on the generosity of their staff with their time and skills-and when it is time for staff to move on, they are left with a bigger hole to fill than that which the job description denotes. In addition, as funds get tight, congregations squeeze the staff for more-and for those of us already giving 200% it begins to feel abusive. And, as money gets tight and congregations have to let staff go, there's far less opportunity for that staff to find other work.
    These, and many other reasons, are why I find myself, after 38 years away, returning to NYC to teach music at a day school beginning this fall. It remains to be seen how much I'll miss small community/small congregation life.