On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Response to “Community” from Wesley Gardenswartz

Thirty years ago, while a junior in college, I was saying Kaddish for my father. One January day I walked to a synagogue in Greater Boston to make a 4:30 p.m. Minhah minyan, and on the way, it started pouring. By the time I got to the synagogue, I was soaked. When I walked into the building, vulnerable and bedraggled, one of the minyan regulars took one look at me and snapped: “Why do you come here looking like this? You look like what the cat dragged in.” I never went back to that synagogue, but 30 years later, I can still feel the sting of his words.

He was neither the rabbi, nor cantor, nor the executive director. He was just a member. A minyan guy who was there on an ordinary weekday afternoon. But for me, at that moment, he was not the face of the shul; he was the shul.

I thought of that experience as I read the Chancellor’s powerful and personal description of how our communities are the place where we can experience life in all of its fullness and texture. Births and funerals. Getting married and getting divorced. Making partner and getting fired. Rapturous days and dull days. Illness and healing. Brokenness and wholeness. We can make sense of our very existence within our sanctuary. That is why community matters. But if our community is to fulfill its potential, all of if its members must own the charge that Ron Wolfson set out in The Spirituality of Welcoming: “Every member a minister.”

I ask every new member of our temple why they joined. The reason is almost never doctrine or dogma or sermons or services. The reason is almost always some version of: “I was shul shopping, and everybody was so warm and welcoming. People came up to me and introduced themselves. I didn’t know anybody. But they asked me to sit near them. They invited me for a Shabbat meal. The shul is warm. That is why I joined.”

One thing is for sure: In every one of our communities, some vulnerable and bedraggled mourner, some radiant bride and groom, some questing seeker, some family moving from one city to another, somebody who just lost their job, some spouse whose marriage is falling apart and has just hit rock bottom, will walk into our community, to gain insight, peace, and strength. When they walk through your doors, what will they see?