In 1825, Mordecai Noah, who was arguably America's best-known Jew at the time, stood at a dais in Buffalo, New York and established the city of Ararat, New York to be a city of refuge for the world's Jews. He had a vision of establishing a place for European Jewry to escape from struggle and persecution, establish themselves in America, and take advantage of the society that would embrace them. Despite the grand ceremony and lofty invitation to his fellow Jews, Ararat failed. In fact, it was ridiculed in the European Jewish press and the only remnant today is a plaque placed by Mordecai Noah himself.
At the same time Noah made his grand invitation, the American Jewish community was growing exponentially. Between 1820 and 1840, the population increased from 3,000 to 15,000 and from 1840 to 1860, it increased to 150,000. The Jews of Europe were emigrating, but not because Mordecai Noah had established a community for them. Although he was correct about many of the factors that brought people to America, it appears that personal connection was the vital catalyst in encouraging Jews to move from Europe. In his book, American Judaism, Professor Jonathan Sarna includes excerpts from letters of invitation and writes, "Letters of this kind not only provided information and reassurance, they also served as an important spur for emigration."
The personal connection is what encouraged many of Europe's Jews to leave behind the lives that they knew and establish themselves in America. These letters were vital in sharing first-hand accounts about what life in America was like, and they were significant factors in the growth of the Jewish community.
As clergy, we may be like Mordecai Noah making pronouncements that the synagogue is open and that we welcome people to come back in person. But we know from experience and our communal history that a personal invitation is the key to bringing our Jewish community back together.
As we look out from the pulpit, we know there are good reasons that some faces that were familiar before March 2020 are now missing. We have embraced technology at every opportunity. The quality of our livestreaming worship, even in smaller synagogues, is excellent. Many congregants have grown accustomed to praying from the comfort of their couches. We also know that the pandemic itself is not over. Many of those faces we would see in our pews every week must now stay at home to stay healthy or keep a loved one safe.
While we welcome virtual attendance, those who attend virtually experience services differently than those who attend in person. Your rabbis miss your faces, but we can reach out to you. Your fellow community members also miss your faces. Recently, due to weather and other factors, a synagogue that averaged 75-100 attendees at worship had three clergy at the pulpit, a technical engineer, 50 people online and just one person in the pews. That may be an extreme case, but it highlights the loss. When 50% of a congregation is not in the pews, that also means that 50% of our congregants might not be engaging with each other. They are not standing together with a mediocre cup of coffee while they learn who had a grandchild or who has been in the hospital. Worship can be accomplished virtually. Knowing each other well and caring for each other happens best when we are "back in the building" together, and back "in person" in each other's lives.
If history is our guide, we also know that our invitation to return to the synagogue will not be enough to bring people back.
Please invite your peers to return with you to the Jewish community that, so far, has been strong enough to survive the pandemic. If you've come to services in person and felt the magic of being together in community, please let a friend know and invite them to join you.
If you've participated in one of our learning programs, bring a friend. If you're watching services via livestream and are comfortable, consider inviting some friends to a "viewing party" and experience together.
We're not expecting people to write letters like they did in the nineteenth century, but maybe send an email, write a text, put up a social media post, or even pick up the phone and call someone.
Synagogues have done amazing work during the pandemic to remain open and to continue to provide a place for people to connect despite all the challenges. For the most part, we've done an excellent job with our digital offerings, but we know there is no substitute for in-person experience. We're asking you to spread the word that our doors are truly open. We'd love to see you back in our communities, our classrooms, and our sanctuaries.
Will you be away from your regular synagogue during the High Holidays? Use our High Holidays Courtesy Seating Request Form to request complimentary seating at the URJ-affiliated congregation of your choice.