Ten Years at New London – Thinking of the Future
By Rabbi Jeremy Gordon
This year marks my tenth anniversary as rabbi of New London Synagogue.
I have found myself reflecting on where we will be in 50 years time. What does our future look like as a Jewish community – at a time when most us will have passed away? What’s the goal?
I think of this passage from the Talmud, (Masechet Taanit):
One day, Honi was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked him, ‘How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit?’ The man replied: ‘Seventy years’.
He asked him: ‘How do you know you will live another seventy years?’
The man replied: ‘I found trees in the world; as my ancestors planted trees for me so I too plant for my children.’
Honi sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he slept, a rocky formation enclosed him and hid him from sight and he slept for seventy years.
When he awoke, he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and he asked him, “Are you the man who planted the tree?” The man replied: “I am his grandson.”
Honi exclaimed: “It is clear that I slept for seventy years”.
Here are three things that are on my mind when I think of the tree I want to leave for those who will come after me:
Judaism will be driven by that which is felt to be meaningful
We are challenged by the disappearance of stickiness in general culture, and Jewish culture also. It used to be that you would have one job for life, one bank account and one shul – probably the same shul as your parents – because that’s just what you did, back then.
Everything moves so much more quickly today. Judaism’s future will be dependent on whether Jews, and those in love with Jews, find Judaism meaningful in their own lives and the lives of their children.
Jews will engage with Shabbat if they find meaning in stepping back from a society which elevates chasing material consumption above all else.
Jews will come to shul if they find meaning in coming together, to celebrate and mourn and sing: the young and old, rich and poor, healthy and infirm.
Jewish prayer, if it is to thrive, will need to be a point of personal connection and meaning. That’s likely to mean shorter services, more tunes that people enjoy singing along to and liturgical decision-making driven by what draws people towards a feeling of connection rather than being done because ‘it ought to be done.’
Judaism of fifty years time will function as a lever for our engagement with the world around us
By ‘lever’, I’m thinking of Aristotle: ‘Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it and I shall move the world.’
The ideas, the rituals, the pathways of Jewish religious creativity are levers long enough to move us and move our engagement with the world and the people in it.
You want to know how a people can arrive in a strange land and find a way to thrive, not only as citizens but also while remaining confident in their own identity? Ask a Jew – that’s our national story.
You want to know how and why societies struggle with new arriving peoples? Ask a Jew again – we know that story also.
You want ways of thinking about being a consumer of all that is wonderful in the world, and simultaneously serving as a servant and guardian of a fragile eco-system? You want to know how to face mortality, bereavement or sickness – your own or that of those you love?
As vast as the list of challenges of tomorrow appears, the responses of our faith are greater.
Look into the Jewish canon of liturgy and ritual. We have such levers to lift the world and we need to help people to find them.
Judaism needs to be open to all
We’re actually pretty good at one piece of this in Masorti – converts.
In the Jewish community back in the bad old days, converts would be routinely embarrassed and distrusted as ‘proper’ Jews. I think that’s pretty much gone here. Certainly, without our converts, we would be a far, far weaker community than we are today.
But there is much more to do in terms of engaging those who were traditionally shunned by formal Jewish communities.
It’s increasingly impossible to claim, for example, that women can’t and shouldn’t be expected to do the same things as men in any environment. The idea that there is a future for a non-egalitarian Jewish community outside of orthodoxy strikes me as impossible.
We need to demonstrate we are open to all, celebrating difference and diversity publicly and fearlessly because we believe, ultimately, in the value of every human being as created in the image of God.
If we want to be genuinely committed to this openness, we need to get faster at change. A little scary, I know, even for those who intellectually agree with this as an agenda. But the challenge of Jewish life is to think like the man who planted the carob tree.
Jeremy Gordon is rabbi of New London Synagogue