About a week after the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11, I walked through Ground Zero. It was during the Days of Awe. Before me was utter devastation: a wasteland of smashed buildings and shattered windows; hideous, fantastic pillars of twisted steel; plumes of smoke rising eerily from the rubble.
As a law enforcement chaplain, I talked to cops, agents, firefighters, and rescue workers from dozens of agencies and cities. I remember one K-9 unit, a sheriff’s deputy and his dog. Even though by that point all they were pulling out were bodies, his Labrador retriever wouldn’t let him sleep. Everyone there, whether human or animal, was focused on their work, on trying to serve.
I was moved by the acts of commitment and expressions of love that permeated that hellish place. And I was astounded by the vision of so many people finding their deepest, most beautiful selves in the heart of such an immense void.
That experience was mirrored when my congregation, The New Shul, held our Rosh Hashanah services in Greenwich Village only a few blocks north of the terrorist attack. Several of our households had suddenly become homeless and were living out of luggage. Our children were stunned and scared, many having witnessed with their own eyes men and women leaping to their deaths onto the streets in front of them. Our adult members clung to their cell phones tightly, as if they were guard rails, waiting anxiously to hear news about missing friends, colleagues, and family.
Rather than preaching sermons, I joined others as we shared our collective feelings and thoughts. People spoke, embraced one another, and wept.
Yet no one was alone.
As downtown Manhattan’s youngest synagogue, we had been in existence at that point for only a couple of years, but the fact that we had created a community—and a sanctuary, a true safe haven—for those who now so desperately craved one was as palpable as it was profound. I felt a sense of intense pride in what we had accomplished in such a relatively brief period of time.
After the horrors of 9/11, lower Manhattan began to undergo great change, development, and growth—and that applied to the Jewish community, too.
Those who had been made homeless by homicidal Islamic extremists gradually began to return to their damaged homes. As new high-rise residential buildings started to go up, Jews from around the city began to move down from other areas. With more Jews now in need of more Jewish activities and communities, there was a slow but steady increase in Jewish life and institutions below Fourteenth Street, as well as a vitality and dynamism that I had rarely seen in my years of working as a New York rabbi. In close parallel with our own philosophy when we founded The New Shul pre-9/11, most of these post-9/11 initiatives strived to reflect both the creativity and the sensibility of the Jews who were attracted to these neighborhoods.
A few years have now passed. And with the shift in downtown demographics, a marked shift in mindset is also evident.
Most of the new initiatives share certain traits, characteristics that we had already deliberately lined into the fabric of our own community years before: a “come as you are” attitude, with a focus on inclusivity for all, regardless of belief or background; a grassroots, egalitarian approach to Jewish life; a decentralized leadership structure; a tendency toward non- or postdenominational Judaism; multiple and diverse paths for expressing Jewish identity; an eclecticism in vision and in mission. At the core of all of this, of course, was a general disaffection with, and a detachment from, the Jewish status quo.
Why else build something new?
These new Jewish institutions and initiatives have made some of the founding members of my community (and, to be frank, myself) feel a bit like grizzled pioneers—a very strange sensation for a young congregation like ours. But they have also made us feel that we are not alone in craving a new kind of Jewish community, one that more closely reflects the kinds of Jews we actually are—and that we want to be.
I have written about my own experiences and observations about the role that religion and religious life can and have played in our post-9/11 world. Although, as a rabbi, I have written from a specifically Jewish vantage point, most of the reactions and responses I have witnessed (both in New York City and on my speaking engagements around the United States and among other faith traditions) reach across the spectrum of American religious life and have far-reaching and important implications for our congregational leaders—both clerical and lay—and for our spiritual institutions.
One thing that has become crystal clear to me is that men and women are looking for communities, not congregations. Most people care very little about denominational labels or theology. Some don’t even care about the institution of religion itself (I know some individuals who actually belong to two or more different congregations of different faiths and move with ease between their respective worship services and programs).
The icons, symbols, and images of the past no longer hold power for this new generation of Americans. Some of the largest and most dynamic megachurches, for example, do not even have crosses in their facilities, let alone fixed pews or pulpits. What people seem to crave is a sense of community, a feeling of being wanted and known.
Ultimately, we want to be loved, and to find protection through that love.
I believe that we need to rethink our congregations today less as houses of worship than as sanctuaries in the true, etymological meaning of the word—a place of safety and security. These are troubling times, and offering Americans a safe haven amidst the maelstrom around us is a very appealing gift. A sanctuary is different from a church or a synagogue. A sanctuary is not about symbols, rituals, sacred texts, or holy days—it is more about, as the Jewish evening liturgy states, being “guarded under the shelter of Your wings.” We have a military to guard our bodies. Who will protect our souls?
If we can transform congregations into sanctuaries and safe havens, we can begin to offer the shelter that so many people yearn for but cannot seem to find. But then new questions will arise that we must confront:
- With less emphasis on prayer, study, and theology, and more on interpersonal connection and inclusivity, what is it exactly that our spiritual institutions stand for?
- Are we simply giving the people what they want, or are we holding fast to age-old values and principles?
- Is it possible to strike the proper balance between creating innovative projects and initiatives and conserving the traditional pillars of our rich and ancient faiths?
These are difficult questions that are appropriate for these difficult times. In an age of shocking religious extremism, how do we as religious leaders present our respective faith traditions as relevant, meaningful, purpose driven, even edgy?
In this post-9/11 context, nothing will ever be the same—or, as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed thousands of years ago, nothing ever is. That ought not be a cause for us to despair. Rather, it represents an opportunity as well as a challenge. As religious leaders for this new millennium, our task is to provide authentic spiritual anchors that will make the members of our many and varied faith communities feel safe and secure, while simultaneously offering them exciting, eclectic, and innovative approaches to living religious lives that will speak to them in a language that they will find accessible, enriching, and, in the end, transformational. We owe them no less.
Niles Elliot Goldstein is Rabbi Emeritus of The New Shul, where he served as its spiritual leader from its founding in 1999 until 2009.
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Adapted from “Downtown Judaism: In Our Own Image,” by Niles Elliot Goldstein, in Living Our Story: Narrative Leadership and Congregational Culture edited by Larry A. Golemon, copyright © 2010 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
The Narrative Leadership Collection
Edited by Larry A. Golemon
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Sacred Strategies is about eight synagogues that reached out and helped people connect to Jewish life in a new way—congregations that had gone from commonplace to extraordinary. Researchers Aron, Cohen, Hoffman, and Kelman write for synagogue leaders eager to transform their congregations, federations and foundations interested in encouraging and supporting this transformation, and researchers in congregational studies who will want to explore further.
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Seminar with Lillian Daniel and Craig van Gelder
August 20-22, 2010 Shalom Retreat Center, Dubuque, Iowa
Like prayer, the Bible has lost its central place in the life of many of our congregations; in large part it has simply become a repository of narratives, poetry, or teachings, or it has become a tool that we use to make our point. This session will help participants unleash Scripture’s power to renew and revitalize the community in faith and mission. This involves both active listening (to Scripture and sermons) and interactive storytelling (our own stories and God’s stories intersect).
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