My parents, married 52 years, have a long-standing joke. Sometimes, they would go out and everything would be a disaster. We’d be in the neighbourhood pizza joint and someone would throw up. Or, one kid would spill something sticky all over somebody else. There would be a fly in the soup. We’d have a fight. The car would break down. We’d have an encounter with a terribly nasty person. Then, my mom would turn to my dad, poke him, and say, “Listen, Seiff, if this were a first date, I’d never go out with you again!”
Sometimes we’d all laugh but, often, we’d turn away with a wry smile, because that was all we could manage. Later, we knew it would be funny, because we didn’t base everything on that one outing … but sometimes people do! How often does one bad (Jewish) encounter ruin a first date, a first visit to a new synagogue, a networking opportunity? How can we salvage these awful experiences?
In the Torah portion B’midbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20), which we read last month, there’s a lot of census-taking and numbers. This isn’t counting every person, but those who can fight when assembling a military. There’s order in this parashah, so we understand that a strong army, or even a strong society, needs to be well-organized and administered. We need leaders, as mentioned in Numbers 1:16. Rashi points out that the elected ones, the chieftains of their tribes – “These were those called of the congregation; those who were called upon for every matter of importance that happened in the congregation.” We read edah as a tribe, but it can also mean a social or ethnic group (Yemenite Israelis, for instance) or a congregation.
Numbers matter, and good administration matters – but it isn’t all that matters. When Dr. Ron Wolfson came to visit Winnipeg in April as the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue scholar-in-residence, he asked a group of lay leaders and Jewish professionals, “How many Jewish people live here?” Immediately, there was an undercurrent of talk. Indeed, how many of us are in Winnipeg? My next thought was – does it matter?
In the same Torah portion of B’midmar, Nadav and Abihu are mentioned, in Numbers 3:4. However, because they offered “alien fire” (an unacceptable sacrifice) in the Sinai, they were struck down. Others were counted in their place. Nadav and Abihu made one bad mistake. They had one bad encounter (one bad date?) with the Almighty. That’s all it took for them to be killed and knocked out of Judaism forever.
It takes many positive encounters to reinforce a relationship. So, a Jewish person needs repeated positive experiences in a Jewish community to keep coming back. Some shake off a bad experience or two with a smile, joke or laugh. However, it depends on the person, and what happened. It can take “one bad date” to be turned off forever.
Wolfson described how small things make a huge difference in how we relate to one another. Greeting someone with a smile, offering them a warm participatory musical experience, some honey cake or a hug can make all the difference. These things aren’t expensive. They aren’t hard to do – but for some reason, many congregations still resist any change at all, even if it’s an entirely positive community-building shift that costs little or nothing to implement.
A joke followed. What does it say above the ark, the aron hakodesh, at your congregation? At Shaarey Zedek, it says, “Know before whom you stand.” Wolfson said that all shuls probably should have a different tag line – “But we’ve always done it this way.”
If you are entirely satisfied with how things go in your Jewish community, by all means, don’t change a thing. Keep doing what you’re doing. However, if you’re not satisfied? If your children don’t want to join, or the membership is declining, or people aren’t volunteering or contributing to your organization in the way you’d like, you need to stop and ask if the way you’re doing things is really working. Is your approach still relevant? Is it inclusive? Does it create positive encounters that matter?
B’midbar teaches us that numbers and administration matter – but only if you have committed members or people to count. Negative experiences can strike us down (like Nadav and Abihu) or just be a bump in the road, if you have a healthy long-term relationship. I was struck, at the end of a whole weekend of this Jewish learning and enrichment, by how energized some participants were with many good ideas for the future.
At the same time, I encountered those who said, “Thank you, but …” and wanted to say how they disagreed, what was wrong and what wouldn’t work here. Have you ever found that kvetching – without offering solutions – makes positive change?
Ever read the children’s book Stone Soup? A motivated, positive community can feed many people with a stone, some old vegetables, and maybe a stewing hen. Throw in some donations of flour and yeast and you have bread. It’s not expensive. It’s not hard to do. Yet, one must consistently ignore the naysayers while doing it. Are we willing to step up and make suggestions for building good, long-term Jewish community relationships?
Good. Bring your old carrots and dried up root veggies. Our skills and Jewish congregations can make something delicious together. Inexpensive solutions, kindness, smiles and constructive suggestions welcome. Let’s build our numbers by welcoming folks to the table with what we’ve got. Even a humble soup tastes better, or a song sounds richer, when we make it and sing it ourselves.
Joanne Seiff, a regular columnist for Winnipeg’s Jewish Post and News, is the author of a new book, From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016. This collection of essays is available for digital download, or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her on joanneseiff.blogspot.com.