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A Mentoring Congregation

One of the main insights I have gained is that our congregation is going through a period of redefining its identity. There are diverse and opposing opinions within our membership on what we stand for not only as a local congregation, but also as a synagogue identified with the Conservative Movement. In this short essay, I want to begin to suggest a new way to articulate an identity for Congregation B’nai Israel which helps distinguish our place in the community and aligns us with dynamic changes occurring in the Conservative Movement across the country. This new articulation also reflects the approach I have taken and will continue to take while I serve as rabbi of CBI.

Thursday, March 11, 2021, 27 Adar, 5781

Dear Friends of CBI and Those Concerned about the Conservative Movement,

I have now been with Congregation B’nai Israel for a year and one half.  I have learned a lot about the congregation during this time. The arrival of the pandemic gave me further insight as I observed the congregation face the stressful challenges caused by Covid-19. The adaptations that we eventually chose also revealed many insights about the capacities of the congregation for change and preservation during an unprecedented situation. 

One of the main insights I have gained is that our congregation is going through a period of redefining its identity. There are diverse and opposing opinions within our membership on what we stand for not only as a local congregation, but also as a synagogue identified with the Conservative Movement.  In this short essay, I want to begin to suggest a new way to articulate an identity for Congregation B’nai Israel which helps distinguish our place in the community and aligns us with dynamic changes occurring in the Conservative Movement across the country. This new articulation also reflects the approach I have taken and will continue to take while I serve as rabbi of CBI. 

I propose that we describe our community as a “Mentoring Congregation”.  By mentoring, I suggest that our congregation places a strong emphasis on mentoring our members to grow Jewishly. We grow Jewishly in different ways and depending on our stage in life. As rabbi, I have conceived my primary role to mentor members to grow Jewishly in some way.

The Rabbi as Primary Mentor

The rabbi of the congregation serves as the primary mentor.  For example, I mentor families to grow Jewishly in their home practice or in building sacred relationships.  I mentor teens to become more conversant in synagogue skills and communal leadership.  (This mentoring transcends Bar/t Mitzvah tutoring with an emphasis on learning lifelong Jewish skills.) Through the Miller Introduction to Judaism program, I mentor Jewish participants to learn more broadly about their Jewish heritage. The same program affords me the opportunity to mentor adults pursuing conversion to Judaism. I mentor other adults to help them acquire stronger Hebrew knowledge to open for them many avenues into Jewish culture and religion. I mentor other adults in Torah study to connect or reconnect them to this central mitzvah.  I mentor other adults toward building a meaningful prayer practice or refining their character and interpersonal relations (Mussar).

I mentor in various contexts: in formal classes, in tutoring, in informal settings, and in one on one conversations. This is the secret to my effectiveness and my passion as a rabbi. My presumption is that every one of us can grow Jewishly throughout our lives. My other presumption is that the Jewish way of life opens many paths of meaning and purpose for each of us. The core of my mentoring work is to help people find their unique paths with the Masoret מסורת (Hebrew for tradition) that provides continuing enrichment and inspiration.

Mentoring as a Path for Congregants

While the Rabbi serves as the primary mentor of the congregation, I see my task as inspiring other congregants to mentor family members, friends, and fellow congregants. Here are a few examples

of my approach.  One of my goals since arriving here was to find a way to inspire teens to emerge as mentors for younger children. I created the “Madrichim Program” as a path for motivated teens to advance their Hebrew and synagogue skills and to encourage them to teach their growing  Jewish knowledge to younger children and to others. My intention was to groom young persons to serve as Jewish mentors and to give them the training and lifelong skills to emerge as tutors and teachers for others. 

Other examples of my commitment to empowering mentoring in our congregation is encouraging fluent Hebrew speakers in the congregation to help others in make progress in their Hebrew studies.  Another example is my working with motivated conversion students to prepare them to mentor other persons considering conversion. 

What makes the mentoring approach unique for us locally? First, making mentoring central to who we are reveals to the community our strong commitment to personal and communal Jewish growth as a feature of being part of CBI. For instance, one new benefit to belonging to B’nai Israel is that our nationally recognized Miller Introduction to Judaism program is tuition free for new members.  Learning and growing Jewishly is made into a clear priority and benefit of belonging to CBI. 

Second, our congregation is aware that people who may be interested in getting involved in the community come from a wide variety of Jewish and even non-Jewish backgrounds. With our mentoring approach we are saying that we will help each person to gain the skills for full and meaningful participation in the religious and cultural life of the congregation. Our congregation is accessible to all. We are not a congregation that is only interested in people with specific Jewish educational backgrounds, with only Conservative Jewish upbringings, some presumed level of Jewish literacy. We are a congregation that offers a path into a more engaged Jewish life and is willing to impart the skills and practices to all our members. We are also a congregation who welcomes and utilizes members who wish to be mentors. 

What makes this approach align with our identity as a Conservative Jewish congregation? Conservative congregations across the country have discovered that a dynamic approach to mentoring is key to sustainability and to flourishing.  The term Conservative implies that our purpose is to “conserve” our religious and cultural heritage. Every Conservative congregation faces a unique challenge to the conserving and keeping vital the Jewish way of life.

In Albuquerque we cannot rely on a vigorous stream of identified and educated Conservative Jews moving into our community. Instead, we must rely on offering to our diverse congregation ways to grow into our greater Jewish commitments whether it be learning, praying, repairing the world, or building community. CBI should be known in the community as a congregation with great Jewish learning and growing.

Please send your comments to this link where this essay is also posted.

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