The Religion Business

Yom Kippur Sermon 2015
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

The Religion Business

“So what do you do for a living?”

We’ve all been there: waiting at the bus stop, train station, airport, in the checkout line of the supermarket or the doctor’s surgery and a well-meaning stranger strikes up a pleasant conversation with you and then they ask that question.
I’ve come to dread answering it. People’s reactions can range from the stereotypical to the inane: ‘are there women rabbis?’ (clearly you’re looking at one!), ‘you don’t look like a rabbi?’ and my all-time favourite (not): ‘where’s your beard! Ha ha ha’.

So I resort to an arsenal of conversational tricks varying from deflection (‘tell me, what do you do for a living?’) to outright deception—yes, on rare occasions, I’ve lied! Still, I love what I do and there’s no denying that I’m in the Religion Business.

Rabbi Morris and I aren’t the only ones in the Religion Business here at Sinai. Everyone here is involved in the Religion Business.  By virtue of you being present tonight, as a member or guest of Sinai Synagogue, by paying subscriptions, volunteering, praying or even just schmoozing here, you are involved with religious life at our community. Now that you’ve been recruited into the Industry, does that sound a little… daunting?

I hope it does.

Being in the Religion Business isn’t meant to be comfortable. As the famous maxim goes (and it’s impossible to credit it to any one author), ‘religion is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’. The business of religion is supposed to unsettle us, prod us, confront us, push us out of our comfort zones (that includes rabbis giving sermons!) We are in the industry of asking questions and finding meaning, of trusting the unseen and unforeseen and surrendering to the mystery—these are our products on the great marketplace of ideas. And this day especially, Yom Kippur, calls us to contemplate the deepest, the scariest, the most poignant, moving, difficult and beautiful of things.

We are also in the business of building community, offering support and nurturing friendships, of being intellectually engaged and having an avenue to express our talents, gifts and creativity. In fact, a synagogue like ours could not exist without any of those things, from designing the High Holy Day tickets, to the catering to the floral arrangements to the choir, wardens and lay leaders.

No operation, however, can run its logistics without stepping back and examining its vision, mission and strategy. Our vision was articulated not so long ago (this is a test to see how many people have read the Annual Report!). I cite:

“Sinai Synagogue’s vision is to be a thriving progressive Jewish community founded on the 4 core values of kehillah (community), tefillah (prayer), tikkun (social action) and limmud (learning).”

A vision statement is useful but does not address the underlying question:

If we are in the Religion Business, then why are we here?

Why do we sit in the pews, open our machzors, and engage in community life? What is the purpose of our venture? And by ‘purpose’ I don’t mean ‘to keep our building running’, ‘to provide services’, ‘create programming’ or ‘to cater to people’s social needs’. The purpose of the religion business is far bigger than that—it is the motivation as well as the justification of this very venture. It is purpose-driven and unafraid to embrace the bigger picture.

Some of you may remember my Kol Nidrey sermon from last year where I imagined our community in 2064. Some highlights were our membership of 2,300 people, three rabbis and a cantor in our employ and a Sinai Primary School. As bold as that dream may be, dreaming dreams should give us a sense of purpose why we do what we do. As the prophet Joel said, ‘Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.’ (Joel 2:28).

So, what does a business do when they are looking for ideas?
They take a look at the competition.

I was ordained by Leo Baeck College in London but I enjoyed my first two years of Rabbinical School in Los Angeles. Not only did I have the privilege to immerse myself in one of the most vibrant Jewish communities outside of Israel, but I also enjoyed the opportunity to be inspired by the wider community as we connected with friends from different faith traditions. So it would happen that I’d get a call on Sunday mornings from my good friend and Rabbinical School classmate:

“Hey Esther, what are you doing this morning?”
“Uhm, no plans really.”
“Wanna go to church?”

I’d always say yes. I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to visit some stellar churches, the way only the Americans can run them. We called it ‘scouting out the competition’ and we’d slide into the pews, my friend wearing his kippah while a Magen David pendant dangled from my neck. It was hardly a covert operation!
We had the privilege of attending some amazing worship services. Beautiful, cathedral-like buildings, fantastic music performed by professional bands, beautifully lit sanctuaries, punchy sermons that spoke to the experience of contemporary life as well as the eternal values of faith, teams of well-trained and ultra-friendly ushers to help us find our way and, dare I say it? Luxurious toilet facilities!
One particularly impressive church was one called ‘Saddleback Church’ in Orange County. Situated on a sun-kissed, hacienda-style campus, it was abuzz with energy and activity. My friend and I attended a Wednesday evening service and witnessed people being baptised in beautifully-tiled pools as they professed their faith. The whole endeavor was one big living, breathing, pulsating testimony to the transformative power and success of religion. Saddleback Church is headed by a visionary pastor, Rick Warren. Rick Warren is a personal friend of a famous Jewish educator, Ron Wolfson, author of a book called ‘Relational Judaism’ which I referenced in last year’s sermon. Warren’s book, ‘A Purpose-Driven Church’ inspired Wolfson to write his book for a Jewish rather than Christian audience. Even so, for pastors and rabbis alike, Warren’s book proves insightful.

Warren identifies a number of pitfalls that many churches—and by extension, synagogues—stumble in that limits their vision and purpose. He cites seven factors, some of which may be very relatable: tradition, personality, finances, programmes, buildings, events and ‘seekers’ (which we may translate as ‘non-members’). I won’t bore you with a large excerpt from the book but here are some snippets for your edification:

Tradition: “We’ve always done it this way”—The goal of a tradition-driven church is to simply perpetuate the past.
Personality: One obvious problem with a personality-driven church [or synagogue] is that its agenda is determined more by the background, needs, and insecurities of the leader than by God’s will or the needs of the people.
Finances: “How much will it cost?” The most heated debate in a finance-driven church is always over the budget. While good stewardship and cash flow are essential for a healthy church, finances must never be the controlling issue.
Programmes: The Sunday [religion] school, the women’s programme, the choir, and the youth group are examples of programs that are often driving forces in churches [synagogues]. No one ever questions if a programme still works.
Buildings: Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings, and then they shape us.” Paying for and maintain the building becomes the biggest budget item.
Events: If you look at the calendar of an event-driven church [or synagogue], you might get the impression that the goal is to keep people busy. There is a lot of activity in churches like this, but not necessarily productivity. Someone needs to ask, “What is the purpose behind each of our activities?”
Seekers [non-members]: The primary question asked is, “what do the unchurched [‘un-shuled’] want?” While we must be sensitive to the needs and interests of seekers [non-members], we cannot allow them to drive the total agenda of the church.”

In your opinion as a congregant and member of our synagogue, how many of these boxes does Sinai tick? Are we as a community driven by the parts rather than the whole? Is our strategy reactive? How do we face the challenge of developing an overarching vision and purpose for our much-loved synagogue? Warren writes:

“What is needed today are churches [synagogues] that are driven by purpose instead of by other forces. There are two essential elements of this paradigm. First, it requires a new perspective. Second, this paradigm requires a process for fulfilling the[se] purposes… The starting point for every church should be the question, “Why do we exist?” Until you know what your church exists for, you have no foundation, no motivation and no direction… If you serve in an existing church that has plateaued, is declining or is simply discouraged, your most important task is to redefine your purpose. Forget everything else until you have established it in the minds of your members.”

In the minds of your members. That’s you, good people.

Now lest you think you’re trapped in a project management presentation, and a Christian-themed one at that, these insights ‘from the competition’ can apply to us: as a community as well as individuals. As Ron Wolfson writes in ‘Relational Judaism’:

“The purpose of Judaism… is to love the other and the Other… When you do, you find meaning—and understanding of the significance of life; you find purpose—an imperative to do what you are put on earth to do...”

This is part and parcel of our Religion Business: relationship, meaning, purpose.  Are you ready to (re)define your purpose? Can you articulate what you want our community to be?

Drawing these lessons back into Judaism and Yom Kippur, there is a Jewish way to frame these insights. We read the Book of Jonah during the Mincha service, ordinarily to highlight the power of teshuvah, repentance. We can see Jonah as the paradigm for many of us Jews. He’s an ‘alright guy’ living his normal life when he gets called as a prophet by God to minister to the people of Nineveh, the world’s largest and most impressive city in the Biblical world. He’s torn—as many of us are—by two conflicting impulses: one, the knowledge that his mission to save the city of Nineveh is a righteous one. He has to do this, it’s the right thing to do. At the same time, he doesn’t want to. He’s skeptical, cynical and burnt out on the disappointing nature of humanity and more content to crawl into his comfort zone (a gourd plant, in his case). We read in the opening of the book:

“The word of the Eternal came to Jonah, son of Amittai: Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgement upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me. Jonah, however, started out to flee to Tarshish [Spain, the opposite direction] from the Eternal’s service.” (Jonah 1:1-2)

A few important truths we can distill from these two verses alone:

-          Jonah’s name: ‘Yonah’ means ‘dove’, ‘ben Amittai’—the son of Truth. Jonah is a Jewish missionary sent to minister to the non-Jewish denizens of Nineveh to get them to return to righteousness. Jonah’s mission in embedded in his very identity, whether he likes it or not. Doves and pigeons were used historically for long-distance communication and have an uncanny ability to find their way.
-          Jonah’s response: he never says, ‘I don’t believe You, God’ or ‘I think You’re wrong, God’. He never denies the veracity of God’s claim or judgment. He knows what Nineveh needs. He knows that God wants to send him as an act of mercy. He knows that life can be about second chances and fresh starts. He doesn’t doubt his mission or his purpose. But he doubts his own ability to fulfill it.

When we find ourselves running our Religion Business, do we dare face up to our purpose and journey towards our Nineveh? Or do we doubt our ability to fulfil it and flee on a boat to Tarshish?
Jonah continues to have many (mis)adventures as he battles with his own quest for meaning and struggles with his depression and disappointment. In the end, God relents and treats Jonah with the same compassion as Nineveh: ‘V’ani lo achus al Nineveh ha’ir ha’gedolah?’ - ’‘Should I not care about Nineveh, that great city?’

Let us formulate our business plan, our vision, mission, strategy but moreover: purpose. As Rabbi Alexander Schindler, a renowned American Reform Rabbi, said at (what is now) the Union for Reform Judaism conference in Texas in 1978:

“Judaism offers life, not death. It teaches free will, not the surrender of body and soul to another human being. The Jew prays directly to God, not through an intermediary who stands between him and his God. Judaism is a religion of hope, not despair. Judaism insists that man and society are perfectible. Judaism has an enormous wealth of wisdom and experience to offer this troubled world and we Jews ought to be proud to speak about it, to speak frankly and freely, with enthusiasm and with dignity.”

These days, I no longer dread the question ‘what do you do for a living?’ I have come to embrace it. I am a Jew and a rabbi, first and foremost, and people’s questions allow me an opportunity to broaden their minds, engage them with meaning and maybe share a little Torah along the way. It speaks of the blessing of the life I’ve chosen and the tradition I joyfully serve. We can all be like a better version of Jonah alongside a better version of ourselves. If we run our Religion Business as well as our lives with purpose, openness of heart, compassion and curiosity, we might have cornered a very nice slice of the Jewish market for many days to come.

Shanah Tovah, G’mar Chatimah Tovah.



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