Why Do We Exist?


Over the past year, I have been privileged to join with our leadership and with you as we engaged in a thoughtful and transparent process of study, reflection, and creative visioning for our congregation’s future. During this process, our Visioning Team and I sought to hear as many voices and viewpoints as possible from within our congregation; learned from the experiences of those who have left and those who have refrained from joining our congregation; and examined the local and national social, economic, and religious landscape for patterns, trends, and best practices.
Dozens of one-on-one conversations and intimate house parties, investigations into aspects of the congregation’s history and present realities, and insights from the relevant literature have yielded revelations about the past, present, and possible future of our congregation.

For me, this process of discovery verified the biblical wisdom, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). We can only move forward as a congregation if we develop a clear picture of the dynamic future we envision for our congregation; a lucid articulation of who we are and where we want to go that resonates with people’s hearts, minds, and souls; and a clear roadmap for how to engineer such a renewal.

In last month’s bulletin, and at our annual meeting, our president, Ben Lewis, began to outline the building blocks of that vision, starting with a freshly articulated statement of purpose. To refresh your memory, this is how that statement read:

Our purpose is to lead people into growing relationships with Jewish community, wisdom, and practice that help them thrive intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, and that inspire them to build a more compassionate, just, and peaceful world.

We started with a statement about our congregation’s purpose because, as Rick Warren of the mega-successful Saddleback Church outlines in his landmark work, The Purpose-Driven Church, “Nothing precedes purpose.” A purpose, according to Warren, addresses why an institution exists, what it wants to be, and what it wants to do in as specific, memorable, and measurable a way as possible. Identifying our congregation’s purpose is critical because it provides foundation, motivation, and direction.

Ultimately, however, a statement of purpose is meaningless unless we all take ownership of it. Owning our purpose involves coming to see it as an accurate description of why our congregation exists and what compels people to be part of our community, feeling motivated to bring all aspects of our congregation into alignment with it, and seeing it as a useful tool to point us in our future direction.

In that spirit, I wanted to share with you what I see in this statement of purpose:

To me, this statement reflects a congregation that exists to relentlessly illuminate and inspire through Judaism, and that strives to do this better than anybody else. To my mind, such a congregation would feature worship and learning that are emotionally dynamic, spiritually resonant, and personally relevant. And such a congregation would never stop experimenting and innovating in order to better fulfill its purpose.

A congregation with such a purpose would be committed to ensuring people of all ages, relationship statuses, genders, sexual orientations, and even religious affiliations feel fully at home. Such a congregation would measure its success by the quality and quantity of relationships we help to form – between people and people, between people and Torah, and between people and God – and by the extent to which we improve lives and repair the world.

Indeed, a congregation propelled by such a purpose would look outward as much as inward. It would bravely address contemporary issues and catalyze action; it would work to alleviate the plight of those urgently in need through gemilut hesed, loving deeds; and strive to build a more equitable and peaceful world through the active pursuit of tzedek, justice.

Finally, it seems to me that a congregation with such a purpose will always be moved to reach out to people wherever they are physically and spiritually, removing barriers to access and providing many points of entry. It would truly become a synagogue without walls, or at least a synagogue where edifices serve its purpose, rather than the other way around. It would seek new ways to bring meaningful and relevant Judaism to people, wherever they may be. It wouldn’t feel that all its programming, even its religious services, must happen in its building, or for its members, or even specifically for Jews. Nor would it define success by how many people belong, and how many people step foot on its campus. It would define success by how many souls it touches, and how deeply it touches them.

That’s what I think. More importantly, however, I want to know what you think:

• In your own words, how would you articulate this purpose statement?
• In what ways have you experienced TBE live up to this purpose in the past?
• What stories come to mind of moments the synagogue or its members truly embodied this statement of purpose?
• In what ways could TBE do a better job of fulfilling its purpose?
• In your opinion, what would TBE’s future look like, using this purpose as a foundation?
• How, and in what ways, will you partner with me in fulfilling this purpose?

I hope you will take a moment to try and answer one, some, or all of these questions, and share your answers with me, our lay leaders, and fellow congregants. You can do so in the following ways:
• On Facebook in our newly created “TBE Future” group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/tbefuture/),
• By Twitter with the hashtag #TBEfuture (don’t forget to tweet it at me, @RabbiKnopf), v
• Via email to me (rabbi.knopf@bethelrichmond.org), or
• Via regular mail (3330 Grove Ave., Richmond, VA 23221)

There are no wrong answers; after all this is a purpose of, by, and for all of us. So I do hope you’ll share your reflections with me. In turn, I’ll share the most inspiring responses I receive in my High Holy Day sermons! I look forward to hearing from you, and to building a purpose-driven future together!

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