Temple Beth Torah


There are several ways to measure a person’s health. When it comes to their physical condition, a doctor will take their temperature, and their blood pressure. To measure someone’s financial health, you’d check their credit score, and look at how much they have in the bank. To gauge their mental health, a therapist might look at how they handle anger, or at the quantity and quality of their social relationships.

Similarly, there are ways to judge a synagogue’s health. The Vice President of House and Buildings can report on how the roof is holding up, and if the Heat and AC are working. The Treasurer will tell you how much we spend, how much we take in, and how much we have in the bank. And the Rabbi will focus on how many people come to services. As things go, Temple Beth Torah is mostly doing well. We’ve got a new roof, and we’ve got a little cushion in the bank. But I see something on the tests that concerns me: Temple Beth Torah has about 340 member units – families or singles, and that’s not counting 20 Out-of-Town members, and another 20 Alumni members – grown children of our members who often live in the city and join us for the holidays.

As you’re all aware, on the High Holidays we attract over a thousand people. And yet, on 30 or so Saturdays a year, we only get about 30 people at a Shabbat service – and almost all of them have AARP cards.

What does that tell us about the health of Temple Beth Torah?

Some would say – Not a problem! A Temple is a smorgasbord: You offer many choices, and people take what they want. 20% of the membership has kids in Hebrew School – and those people are interested in a Jewish education and a Bar Mitzvah. 20% of the congregation are retirees, and they’re looking for programs and activities, and they’re generally the ones who come to services. The other 60% are people who have kids in High School, college or who are young marrieds. That middle group – whose support keeps us open – mainly come just for the holidays. This view says: It doesn’t matter how many are here for any particular service or program, as long as there’s something for everyone. But others – including the Rabbi – would say: A synagogue is first and foremost a religious institution. If few people are coming to services, that’s like a test result that shows very high blood pressure. It’s a sign of potential trouble.

If you’re one of our regulars, think for a moment what it is that brings you out on a Saturday morning. And if you’re not, I want you to consider what reasons you’d give.

This morning, I’d like to look at the 18 reasons people give for not coming to services. Maybe it can help the Temple see if there’s something different we should be doing. Maybe it can help you think again, about what Shabbes services might offer you.

Reason #1. I don’t have time! I’m too busy!

“I work hard all week. Sunday is family day, Saturday is the only day to shop, or take care of things around the house, or chill out.” I get it. But let’s be honest. We make time for things that are important. And we all waste a lot of time on video games, and re-runs of ‘Two-And-A-Half-Men’ – and God-Knows what else. I’d make the case that except for family, there’s nothing more important than what happens at a Shabbat service. Reconnecting with you and your family, and your people – and God. You’ve got six other days to get the other stuff done, but Shabbes only comes one day a week.

Reason #2. Services are too long, and they’re boring!

If the only time you showed up at Temple was on Yom Kippur, you’d think all services went from 8 am til 2:30 in the afternoon. Actually, our Saturday services start at 9:45, (though many come just before 10:30) and we end by noon (when I start to get hungry). The radio station promises: “Give us 22 minutes and we’ll give you the world!” Here, we say: “Give us 90 minutes, and we’ll give you the world… to come.” Boring? Like they say, “Garbage in, garbage out.” Some people think Shakespeare is boring, as is the Art Museum, and the Opera. You get out of it what you’re willing to put in. Services are not a spectator sport. You’ve got to suit up, and come ready to play.

Reason #3. I don’t understand Hebrew!

If you want to know what you’re saying just look at the page on the left. With our Mahzor, and our wonderful new Siddur there are translations, explanations, transliterations, instructions and readings. Trust me – you will not be lost. And let me tell you a secret: Prayer is not so much about the words in the book; it’s about the feelings in your heart and the thoughts in your brain. Most of the time the Hebrew is just background music.

Reason #4. I don’t believe in God.

I’ll share another secret with you if you promise not to tell: Some days I don’t believe in God. Sure, some people come to services to talk to God. Other people come to talk to the person next to them. Some come to get away from the outside world, and to sit quietly and meditate. Some come to learn Torah. Some come to sing the songs. Some come just for the Kiddush. God will be happy to see you, whether you believe in Him or not. And if it turns out that there is no God, you won’t have to come in vain, all of those who are here will certainly be happy to see you!

Reason #5. Most Cantors are prima donnas, who think they’re opera singers.

Not here. Our Cantor has always been more interested in congregational singing than in showing off. There’s nothing more moving than when Cantor and congregation are singing together with all their hearts! And these days, without the Cantor leading us, we need your voice more than ever.

Reason #6. Most Rabbi’s talk too much, and you don’t have a clue what they’re talking about.

A High Holiday sermon is about 20 minutes long. But on Saturday morning, the Rabbi’s dvar Torah is never more than 10 minutes. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. He’s often witty, and it’s about what’s going on in our lives and in our world. Oh – and by the way – he’s very good looking.

Reason #7. What will my friends think: “Look who’s becoming Orthodox…”

Coming to Shul on Saturday doesn’t make you Orthodox – not that there’s anything wrong with that… Coming here makes you a serious Jew – something I’d think you’d want to be. Some Jews are worried about being “too Jewish.” Frankly being proud of being Jewish is what we’re all about. Conservative means mixed seating, egalitarianism – (women count and get honors) and the language and the theology of the Siddur are of the 21st century, not the 16th.

Reason #8. I don’t understand the geography of the siddur (what comes where) or the choreography of the Service (when to stand, sit, and bow.)

Our new Siddur tells you a lot of that, but as our regulars will testify, come 5 times and it will all become clear to you. You learn the rules by playing the game. At first, you’ll feel self-conscious. Pretty soon you’ll find that you’re showing the newcomer what to do.

Reason #9. I’d rather be with my kids.

And you should be! So bring them with you. A good synagogue is child-friendly, and kids should grow up being comfortable in the Sanctuary. This year, we’ve gotten rid of “Jr. Congregation before Adult Services.’ We want our kids in the main service, with their parents. If they come at 11:15 – they’ll get 1 credit; if they come at 10:30 – they’ll get 2! And when there isn’t a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, we’ll bring them up on the Bimah to sing the final songs. And like the best shuls, we’ll have a Candy-man to provide treats during the service. My father’s gone 20 years now; some of my most beautiful memories are going to Friday night services with him when I was a teenager.

Reason #10. They might ask me to do something, and I’ll be embarrassed.

First of all, you can always say “No, thank you.” Second, you can say “I’d prefer an Ark opening.” And third, we would be thrilled to help you learn how to do an Aliyah. You can see a short video on our web site that explains it, step by step, and we’ve got a green “cheat-sheet” that walks you through it line by line. And when in doubt, you can always mumble in a whisper. People will think you’re very learned and very pious.

Reason #11. The Shul really doesn’t need me.

Yes, we do. Not so much to make a minyan (although when it snowed 30 inches, this past winter, only 4 people showed up). What we do need is your presence, your energy, your voice, your questions, your jokes, your news. I sometimes think that our prayers try to rise up and reach God the same way a rocket ship tries to reach outer space. More people in the service is like more fuel in the rocket. When a thousand people pray and sing, the combined spiritual energy lifts all of our prayers. It’s much harder with only a dozen or two… And really hard when you’re by yourself, trying to reach God on your own.

Reason #12. I really don’t need Shabbat services.

Yes, you do. We all need some down-time from work and from the crass material world we live in. That’s why they call this room a “Sanctuary.” No phones, no computers, no TV. Just you. And the Jewish people. And the Torah. And God. Some people think the word “Shabbat” comes from the Hebrew word for seven-sheva. Not likely. Other say it’s related to the word for “sitting” – Shevet – because we sit at the table for meals, and in the synagogue for services. The real meaning of Shabbat is “to stop”. It’s the day we stop our regular routine, try to take a breather and take stock and get our bearings.

Reason #13. It’s too uncomfortable.

Maybe if you’re sitting in a hot tent, on a small plastic chair. But here, on a Saturday morning, we’ve got cushioned pews, heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. And no waiting to get to the bathroom.

Reason #14. I’d have to get all dressed up.

No, you don’t. The clergy wear a suit and a tie, but you don’t have to. I would suggest you not to come in a T-shirt and shorts and flip-flops, but having you here – and dressed comfortably – is much more important than not having you here. And yes, women can wear pants. The Jewish dress code is based on modesty, and modesty, as we define it in Jericho, is not the same as they define it in Boro Park. Don’t come looking like the Kardashians, and you’re fine.

Reason #15. I get hungry.

On Rosh HaShana we don’t serve food, and on Yom Kippur you’re not allowed to eat any food. But here’s the good news: After Shul on Shabbes there’s always food. So if you’re worried about fainting from low blood sugar, relax. By noon, we’ll feed you. On a slow day, we’ve got rugelach and rainbow cookies. On a good day, we’ve got a whole spread from Bagel Boss. And the Kiddush club meets for a schnapps by the bar right after Adon Olam.

Reason #16. I can’t afford it.

It’s true that you have to be a member in good standing to get in on the High Holy Days, and relatives of members can get tickets that cost a pretty penny (though not as much as front row center at Hamilton). We’re not proud of that, but we do it to keep the place open (do you know what PSEG charges us for electricity, and how much Meenan charges us for oil?) But here’s a secret: You can walk in 362 days a year, and we don’t ask for a ticket, and we don’t care if your dues are current, or if you bring somebody with you who isn’t a member. Everyone is welcome. And we’re happy to have you. And because it’s Shabbes, we can’t even pass a collection plate like they do in church!

Reason #17. I’m not religious.

You wanna hear something funny? Everybody here thinks everyone else is religious – and they’re the only one who isn’t. I must hear it 50 times a year from different people: “Rabbi, I’m not really religious…” Hey, the truth is that I may be the only one who is religious! But what does ‘religious’ mean, anyhow?

Observant? Listen, there are 613 commandments, and even I can’t keep track of them all. Yes, I put on Tefilin 6 days a week, and I keep Kosher, and I don’t drive on Shabbes. But do you give Tzedaka? That’s a mitzvah. Are you honest in business? That’s a mitzvah? Do you go to a Shiva house to comfort mourners? That’s a mitzvah. So you are observant, in your own way.

Or when you say “I’m not religious” do you mean “I don’t care about spiritual things.” Yes, you do! You do care why you were born, and what you’re supposed to do with your life, and how you can make yourself a better person, and how you can connect with a higher power in the universe, and what happens after you die. We are all seekers, and this is as good a place as any to begin your spiritual journey.

Reason #18. People go to Temple to talk to God; I can do that anywhere.

True - but that’s only part of what happens in Temple. There’s a famous saying attributed to Professor Louis Finkelstein: “When I pray, I talk to God; when I study, God talks to me.”

Part of a service is pouring out our hearts to God. But another part is hearing the Torah read, and learning what it has to say to us – in the Cantor’s chanting of it, or the Rabbi’s explanation of it, or in the Humash’s commentary to it. We come to shul to reconnect with Jewish values and teachings, with the wisdom of the Jewish people. And that happens best here – in the presence of the Torah, surrounded by other Jews.

We’re all concerned these days about our physical health. We try to watch what we eat. We go to the gym to work out. We see our doctors regularly. We take our medications. We spend time with family and friends. We try to stay mentally alert by taking a class or doing some serious reading. Maybe we go to a therapist. Perhaps we meditate or do yoga to alleviate stress, and to be able to focus mindfully on what’s in front of us.

I want to suggest to you that Religion, in general, and coming to shul for evening minyans or Shabbes morning services – can also play an important role in your spiritual health, and that can impact your physical and emotional well-being.

You’ve given yourself plenty of excuses why you can’t or won’t come. I’ve tried to give you 18 reasons why you should. Eighteen, of course, stands for Chai in Hebrew, which means Life. Ask someone who comes here regularly, and they will tell you that it’s become an important part of their life. That it has improved the quality of their life.

And, the Rabbi will tell you that your coming here is very critical to the life and the future of this Temple.

If even one of those 18 reasons speaks to you – then come. We can’t wait to welcome you – with open arms – into our very special club. You don’t even have to RSVP; just come!

I’ll tell you what: Just in case all of you decide to take me up on my invitation, we’re going to leave all 750 chairs up for the coming Saturday – to make sure we’ve got enough room.

We’ll save you a seat.