What is the Vision of Agudas Achim?

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

In this period of growth and expansion for Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation, it is appropriate for me as Rabbi to attempt to define my vision for our Congregation. As we seek new members within the growing Jewish population developing in Uptown, Andersonville and Edgewater, as we seek new commitment from our old members and friends throughout Jewish Chicago, it behooves us to define ourselves. Our activities, our religious practices and involvement in community in general, all and more, are informed by the sense of what we strive to be - our vision.

Let me begin by sharing with you the concluding remarks of a paper entitled "All Quiet on the Religious Front? - Jewish Unity, Denominationalsim and postDenominationalsim in the United States," written for the American Jewish Committee by Jack Wertheimer, the provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Rabbi Wertheimer states,

The conventional wisdom in communal organizations is that boundaries tend to be exclusionary and discourage participation. While some Jews may take comfort and guidance from clearly articulated norms, it is argued, others will be repelled because they wish to experiment and construct their own versions of Judaism. Many Jews will not even approach Jewish institutions, let alone Synagogues, that are not open-minded and validating. Hence, some argue that talk of boundaries and norms should be replaced by efforts to offer an inviting and pluralistic understanding of Judaism. The current emphasis in communal thinking is on creating an inviting atmosphere as a means to further community building.
But, while there are certainly virtues to such openness, there is also the danger that the rich and multilayered culture of Judaism will be stripped of its authenticity and meaning. A "nonjudgmentalism" has seeped into the way American Judaism is taught and marketed, promoters of Judaism emphasize the benefits to be derived from religion, but refrain from speaking a language of religious responsibilities. Song and dance have assumed prominent roles within Synagogues of all flavors, in order to enhance the enjoyment of services, but the concept of mandatory prayers and a strict structure of worship services (keva) has become an alien concept. Choreography has triumphed over content.

Rabbi Wertheimer, in his conclusion, aptly articulates the two tensions pressing upon the Synagogue of today. Surely we want to be open, to be accepting of all who enter the Sacred portals of the Synagogue. Yet, that very word Sacred begs the question of relationship with G‑d, both in terms of His relationship with us and our relationship with Him. Our answer at Agudas Achim to this seeming conflict in fundamental direction is to delineate a balance between them that allows for both approaches to find expression within our vision.

Toward a definition of Nonjudgmentalism - When individuals express their sense that they are not as "religious" as other Jews, I always respond that a complete "Jewish report card" would no doubt redefine who is actuality a "religious" Jew, who is truly at the head of the Jewish class of life and that only G‑d is in a position to craft such a "report card" and grade it. This is simply because Judaism is far more than a mere religion - it is a way of life. In the Ethics of the Fathers we read "Turn it this way, turn it that way, everything is contained within it," indicating that every aspect of human existence is considered in Jewish expression. Moreover, the difference in character and ability defining our individuality makes the grading of such a "report card" totally beyond the ability of any human being.

I have for years maintained that I am a struggling Jew - struggling to be a true example of all that our way of life considers proper and just. It is a daunting task - one that should intrigue every thinking, committed Jew. As Rabbi of the Congregation and as a fellow Jew I am in no position to judge anyone's religiosity.

As for Wertheimer's statement that "Choreography has triumphed over content," I would respond that there is room for choreography within content. That is to say that, in my view, a balance can be struck between these two seemingly opposite poles.

Judaism does not exist in a void. It was, according to the long-standing view of our People, a gift from G‑d Himself at Sinai more than three thousand years ago. Its fulfillment requires the partnership of G‑d and humankind in seeing to it that its eternal norms of behavior will remain vital and challenging in every generation. The role of the Rabbi is to achieve this lofty goal through his knowledge of G‑d's Will contained within the Written Law - The Torah and the Oral Law - The Talmud, his reverence for the repository of Jewish scholarship, the responsa and insights of our Rabbis of past ages, as well as the employment of specific rules of precedent and procedure utilized these thousands of years by the Jewish nation and specifically the members of his, the Rabbi's, unique fraternity (Jewish choreography). We arrive at Wertheimner's desire for the maintenance of content and the need for choreography by employing this time honored methodology. History bears out the simple truth that this system works as we have survived in the Diaspora as a minority culture living amongst and subjected to the whims of a diverse array of majority cultures and have not only maintained our own distinctive beliefs and practices but, at the same time, have influenced the very cultures in which we found ourselves.

As for "Choreography," Wertheiumer's sense of creating modalities that will provide the comfort factor many Jews require within the specific content atmosphere of the Synagogue, I believe, is doable and understand this to be a significant challenge for the Rabbi in partnership with his Congregants. Our High Holy Day services, for example, reflect this approach. For while we adhere to the time honored traditions of Jewish prayer, we allow for legitimate additions to the service that make it intelligible, meaningful and spiritually uplifting for everyone.

Agudas Achim stands ready on both counts. We will always impart content, we will make every effort to continue the G‑d given traditions of our collective Jewish past and, at the same time, attempt to fulfill the important requirement of choreography, of seeing to it in all our activities, be they religious, social or cultural, that all feel truly welcomed and part of the Congregation all in a nonjudgmental milieu.

With the above vision in mind, I ask each of you to join me in building a new and vital Jewish community in Uptown, Andersonville and Edgewater; a community which strives to keep the balance of the sacredness of Judaism as it has thrived these thousands of years and the importance of seeing to it that each and everyone of us finds spiritual meaning, comfort and fellowship within the walls of our great Synagogue. This is the constant goal of our Congregation.