Growing up in Georgia, one of my favorite excursions was climbing Stone Mountain, a large granite formation about twenty miles from Atlanta. It’s not too big or hard to climb, but on a clear day, its summit yields stunning vistas: gently rolling pine-covered hills, the big city skyline. Looking out from that mountaintop, I always felt that I could perceive what my normal vantage point would never allow. I felt that I could finally discern the big picture, discover previously hidden challenges and solutions, and envision what lay ahead. See, that’s the thing about mountaintops: they facilitate broad thinking and big dreaming.
Of course, I am painfully aware that some of us here today haven’t needed to climb mountains to get that kind of lucidity. We got it in the hospital room, or at the funeral home. Confronting mortality can offer the same kind of clarity, invariably impacting our perspectives, our priorities, and our deeds. As Rabbi David Wolpe teaches, “By facing death, we are spurred to life.” Recognizing the stakes can drive us to live more fully and become who we are most called to be.
The drama of the Akeidat Yitzhak, the Binding of Isaac, fuses these experiences. By setting its harrowing scene on a mountaintop, the Torah makes the mountaintop a metaphor for transformative visions borne of encounters with death: “And Abraham called the name of the place ‘the Holy One shows,’ as they say today, ‘On the Holy One’s mountain there is vision’” (Genesis 22:14). Abraham could only have found the ram that would replace his son by ascending the mountain where he would come within inches of losing everything that mattered. And Rashi adds that only from the peak of Mt. Moriah, only after facing the mortal moment, could Abraham see a grand vision of the future: That one day, the Holy Temple would be built on that place; that generations of his grandchildren would worship on that place; that one day, the Messiah would come, and all people would gather in peace, security, and love on that place. Being on the mountaintop, being thrust face-to-face with mortality, being “under the knife,” to use Rabbi Brad Artson’s idiom, helps Abraham and Isaac see what they wouldn’t have otherwise.
We read this story on Rosh Hashanah, a day of introspection and transformation, to invite us to imagine ourselves climbing that symbolic mountain. In this way, we won’t wait until it is too late to fashion lives inspired by our vision.
In that spirit, I want us to imagine what would happen if we, as a community, ascended that proverbial mountain. Would we, like Abraham and Isaac, encounter our own mortality? Would we, like Abraham and Isaac, more clearly see our challenges? Would we, like Abraham and Isaac, see a magnificent, dynamic, vision of a future that can be ours if we take hold of it? Climb with me today atop this mountain of vision. The view is breathtaking.
From this majestic peak, I can see a flourishing and, to borrow a phrase from Pastor Rick Warren, a purpose-driven, synagogue. Being purpose-driven means having a laser-like focus on our reason for being: We exist to improve peoples’ lives through the power of Jewish wisdom and practice.
Propelled by this mission, I see a Har Zion that works relentlessly to illuminate and inspire, and that strives to do this better than anybody else. Our worship and learning are emotionally dynamic, spiritually resonant, and personally relevant. And we never stop experimenting and innovating in order to better fulfill our purpose.
I see a Har Zion that knows its purpose requires a community committed to two axioms: all are created in God’s image, and human dignity outweighs all other commandments. People of all ages, relationship statuses, genders, sexual orientations, and even religious affiliations feel fully at home at this Future Har Zion. We measure our success by the quality and quantity of relationships we help to form, and the extent to which everyone feels valued and included. Members embrace newcomers with as much zeal as they show regulars. And in this community, all of us without prejudice encourage each other’s spiritual journeys, enhance each other’s joy, hold each other in times of need, and help each other answer our deepest questions.
To achieve this atmosphere, membership looks different at the Future Har Zion. More than dues, becoming a member entails a process of learning and relationship-development. And members are held accountable for their adherence to the community’s inclusive principles.
I see a Har Zion propelled by its purpose to look outward as well as inward. We bravely address contemporary issues and catalyze action. We work to alleviate the plight of those urgently in need through gemilut hesed, loving deeds; and we strive to build a more equitable and peaceful world through the active pursuit of tzedek, justice.
I see a Har Zion that knows its purpose demands it go to where the people are, removing barriers to access and providing many points of entry. The Future Har Zion is a synagogue without walls. It seeks new ways to bring meaningful and relevant Judaism to people, wherever they may be. It doesn’t feel that all its programming, even its religious services, must happen in its building, or for its members. Nor does it define success by how many people belong, and how many people step foot on the campus. It defines success by how many souls it touches, and how deeply it touches them.
As it did for Abraham, this mountaintop vision responds to the mortal challenges our community and as a movement face. Since 2001, six percent of Conservative congregations have closed their doors for good. The remaining synagogues have declined. Membership in large Northeastern congregations, for example, has dropped 30 percent in the last decade. Since most synagogues’ budgets are tied to membership, it is no wonder that many Conservative Jews say their synagogues face “serious difficulty” financially, a problem intensified by the Great Recession.
Like Abraham, we cannot build the future we see from the mountaintop without first clearly seeing and fully understanding this unwinding.
First, we are moving back into the cities. So are many Americans. In 2011, urban population growth outpaced suburban growth for the first time in a century. But Jewish re-urbanization doesn’t have to be a threat. Recognizing where people are gives us the opportunity to bring meaningful Judaism to them.
Second, new technology has sparked radical, world-shrinking, and democratizing changes.
Today, we expect personalized consumer experiences, instant access to exactly the service or product we want, and paying for nothing we can get cheaper or free elsewhere. In this environment, many Jews are leaving behind the pricey, one-size-fits-all model of the traditional synagogue, and are opting instead for an a la carte, D.I.Y., pay-as-you-go approach to their Jewish lives. This helps explain how growing numbers of Jews participate in Jewish activities while synagogue affiliation has dropped. Jews want to be and do Jewish, but view synagogue membership as unnecessary.
I can effortlessly find a freelance Bar Mitzvah tutor. I can readily rent a rabbi to officiate my family’s lifecycle events. I can access all the Jewish information I could ever possibly need, for free, on the Web. Want to take a Jewish class? Just log onto the iTunes store. Have a Jewish question? Just Google it.
Synagogues haven’t adequately understood or responded to these shifts. Meanwhile, Chabad gives away what we charge for, and outside the Jewish world, meaning-making is a boom industry: Oprah plays rabbi to millions. Jews who are otherwise not engaged Jewishly seek spiritual experiences like meditation and yoga. Even the cheese section at Wegman’s doles out life advice. There is widespread hunger for meaning and faith. This can only mean synagogues have declined, to quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, because we let ourselves become “irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.”
But we can compete in this marketplace. We can work relentlessly to ensure our product is worth the extra expense and better than the competition. We can be better, faster, and more flexible at addressing people’s spiritual needs. We can harness the timeless and relevant Torah of Conservative Judaism to offer unparalleled illuminating, inspiring, and transformative experiences.
Third, synagogues throughout our movement are struggling to foster meaningful community. In his new book, Relational Judaism, synagogue expert Ron Wolfson observes that most synagogues funnel resources into “big events, concerts…[and] highly touted initiatives to get more people into synagogue on Shabbat.” We measure success by attendance, thinking a lot about how many people will show up, and very little about how many meaningful relationships will be formed, or how to nurture those relationships after the program ends. The result is a calendar bursting at the seams, but a membership roster far from capacity.
I know that this claim might sting for those of us who are synagogue regulars. To us, the synagogue is very much a real community center. We show up because our friends and family are here, and we still hang out with each other even when we aren’t here.
Those relationships are a beautiful thing that I don’t want to diminish. But when we ascend the mountaintop, we can see that not everyone shares our warm communal feelings. Studies show that the number one reason people leave their synagogue is because they were unable to form a network of meaningful relationships. And newcomers, looking on from outside or attending the occasional service or program, often feel excluded.
But here’s the truth: People today are more in need of community than ever. More of us tend to live away from our families and our childhood friends. More of our lives are online, away from human contact. Suburbanites especially have few natural opportunities to encounter and interact with others in person. We live in the most connected age in history, and yet, ironically, we are deeply lonely and disconnected from each other.
Knowing this, we can flourish once again. We can double-down on relationships, prioritize people over policies, and channel our resources to community building. We can change what membership looks like, from a fee-for-service exchange to a vigorous communal commitment. And we can start the transformation today.
Fourth, we aren’t engaging young people. Only about 8 percent of the average Conservative congregation is between the ages of 18 and 34. And disaffiliation rates among the young are rising. Today’s young Jews are not even joining synagogues when they reach the life stage that, in previous generations, would have commonly been associated with affiliation.
So I want to say this as bluntly as possible: Our youth problem is our membership problem.
Part of the problem synagogues have engaging young people is cost. Of course, people of all ages struggle to pay dues, but for a handful of historical and sociological reasons, today’s young adults are struggling disproportionately. They aren’t affiliating because they can’t afford it.
At the same time, expense is really only a small part of the story. After all, many synagogues offer deeply discounted membership to young people, and they still don’t join. And any advertiser will tell you that young people gladly pay for goods and services they value. The reality is that today’s youth don’t see value in the expense of synagogues, for all the reasons outlined above, and yet a few more:
Today’s synagogues cater primarily to families and do not meet the needs of young Jews. Of course, it is also worth noting that many parents feel excluded from synagogue, too. They feel unwelcome with their children in services, and they cannot attend programs at hours that are not family-friendly or when no childcare is provided. But the problem is worse for young, childless, Jews. They feel synagogues aren’t built for them. And as young people marry and have children later than did previous generations, we are increasingly losing our young people for good.
Additionally, traditional synagogues tend to have rigid boundaries, entrenched hierarchies, and complex bureaucracies. To a generation that embraces rapidly evolving norms on wedge issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, same-sex marriage, and religiously blended families, synagogue culture seems too political and stagnant. To engage a mobile, egalitarian, and inventive generation that has looser ties, gravitates toward innovation, and expects to be heard, synagogues have to shift their culture.
These are major challenges, but surmountable ones. Young Jews still care deeply about their Jewish identities and their spiritual lives. They want real community, deep learning, and vibrant prayer. They may not be ready for synagogue as we know it, and the synagogue of the future may not yet be ready for them, but we can still touch their souls, right now, by engaging them on their terms and on their turf. We need only creativity and will.
Together, we can meet the challenges of our moment and build the congregation of our dreams. Indeed, as it did for Abraham and Isaac, the mountaintop reveals the great strengths we possess that empower us toward that bright future.
We have the robust and compelling Torah of Conservative Judaism. We have the financial means to address virtually any challenge if we are imaginative and strategic about how to utilize those resources. We have a passionate and devoted army of clergy, staff, and lay leaders who are committed to our highest ideals.
We also have a legacy of great vision. We are the congregation that built Har Zion Radnor. We are the congregation that boldly moved from 54th Street to Penn Valley. We are the congregation that helped build Camp Ramah and Perelman Day School. We have mustered our resources to be at the forefront of nearly every significant Jewish issue of our time, from Israel advocacy to the movement to free Soviet Jewry. Har Zion has never been a community that shies away from courageously winning the future.
And finally, most importantly, we have each other. As I emphasized last year at this time, there’s a lot of love here. Don’t underestimate the power of our love. We have each other to hold onto as we boldly step forward into our exciting future. Sure, we have work to do to ensure everyone who encounters this community feels that love, but without the love present in this room, there is no Future Har Zion. And with our love, our possibilities are limitless.
There’s a story told about Rabbi Israel Spira, one of thousands of Jews imprisoned at the Janowska Concentration Camp. According to Rabbi David Gelfand’s telling, on one dark and cold night, all the inmates were ordered to report to a large field in the middle of the camp. When they arrived, the inmates noticed two pits in the middle of the field. A guard barked, “Anyone who wants to live must jump over one of the pits and land on the other side. Those who don’t jump will be shot. Those who jump and miss will be shot.”
It was clear to the starved and sick inmates that they could never jump over the pits. To the officers and guards, this was just another devilish game.
A young man standing next to Rabbi Spira turned and said, “This is hopeless. Let’s just sit down in the pits and wait for the bullets to end our wretched existence.” The rabbi, however, disagreed. “My friend,” he said calmly, “we must jump.”
The rabbi and the youth neared the edge of the pits. Soon enough, it was time to make a choice. As they reached the pit, the rabbi closed his eyes and whispered, “We are jumping!” When he opened his eyes, he found himself miraculously on the other side. And he was standing alongside his young friend.
The youth was ecstatic and incredulous. “We made it! We’re alive! How can that be?!”
Rabbi Spira responded, “I was holding on to my heritage and my faith. I was holding onto the coattails of my father, and my grandfather, and my great grandfather, of blessed memory. Tell me, my friend, how did you reach the other side?”
Fighting joyful tears, the teen answered: “I was holding on to you.”
And so it is for us. Yes, the view from the mountaintop shows that our road ahead has dark nights, deep pits, and terrifying unknowns. But a bright future awaits just over the horizon, and we already have much of what we need for the journey. Let us remember that we can seize that future if we hold onto one another and, for dear life, if we jump. I look forward to leaping with you. Shanah Tovah.
 Heschel, God in Search of Man, 1. A recent study by the Pew Research Center re-confirmed this assessment, saying that people see synagogues as “too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules,” and not enough on matters of spiritual significance.
 Wolfson, Relational Judaism, 2
 As one millennial recently put it in an essay that went viral: “I witness older generations who seem to spend most of their time arguing over the rules and regulations that should govern our congregational life…the message appears to be that above all, we are an institution that places politics above people…No longer willing to shout over the din of institutional politics, many young adults are leaving the pews of rigid and hierarchical synagogues and discovering the essence of Jewish living: community. We are seeking places where our opinions and insight are not underestimated but rather encouraged.”