Belongingness (Rosh HaShanah Morning Service sermon 5782, Rabbi David S. Widzer, 9/7/2021)

I spoke last night about living with uncertainty.  After a year of spiritual dislocation, and enough ups and downs and spins and turns to give even world-class gymnasts a bad case of the “twisties,” I proposed that we have dealt, and can continue to deal, with uncertainty by being adaptive, changing and growing as needed; by learning to appreciate and be in the moment we are in, rather than continually worrying about something else; and by going through this experience with others, by being “in it together,” by finding a community to turn to for support and common experience.

It’s this last point that I want to focus on this morning.  What does it mean to be part of a community?  Why is this important?  How can we find this in our lives

I am a proud child of the ‘80s, so perhaps I’ll express this desire for community connection in a way that may be familiar to those of you who were fans of TV sitcoms in that glorious decade (and feel free to join in!):

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got

Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot

Wouldn’t you like to get away?

Sometimes you want to go

Where everybody knows your name

And they’re always glad you came

You want to be where you can see

Our troubles are all the same

You want to be where everybody knows your name

Yes, the theme song from “Cheers,” by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart-Angelo, captured for a generation the desire to find a place where you could belong, a place where everybody knows your name.

Historically, for many in the Jewish community, that place was the synagogue.  Going to Temple meant seeing people you had a lot in common with, gathering together for ritual or worship or learning.  You’d belong to the local congregation as a place to meet people, to make friends, to share life experiences.    When you moved to a new town, among the first things you’d do would be to join the local shul.

This is not so true anymore.   Even before the onset of the COVID era, we were in the midst of a major transition in Jewish life when everything is changing, including the idea of synagogue membership.  Rabbi David Wolfman, an expert in synagogue change and transition, believes that we are on the verge of what he calls “Judaism 5.0.”  Roughly speaking, there have been four different iterations of Jewish life in our people’s past, and we today are on the cusp of a new one. [1]

“Judaism 1.0” we are familiar with from the stories in our Torah, the time of Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam.  When we get out of Egypt and settle in the Land of Israel, we create the next form of Judaism.   “Judaism 2.0” focuses on offering sacrifices as the main means of worship, headquartered at the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, and administered by the priestly class.  “Judaism 2.0” ends completely in the year 70, when the Romans conquer Jerusalem, destroy the Temple, and disperse most of the Jews into the wider world.  Then our communal structures evolve:  small local synagogues instead of one centralized Temple in Jerusalem, rabbis and teachers instead of priests, prayer in words and music instead of sacrificial offerings.  We find “Judaism 3.0” in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, like in “Fiddler on the Roof.”  (Don’t worry, I’m not going to sing again.)  In truth, not all Jewish communities looked like Anatefka, but the characteristics of “3.0” are all there.  The community is insular (because we aren’t allowed to live with anyone else) and it has a school, a market, a matchmaker, a mikveh.  There may be several little synagogues, shteibels, but probably one village rabbi.  You belong to the Jewish community by your very existence. You live and breathe Jewish life.   As we know, nearly all of this “Judaism 3.0” in Europe comes to an end in the dark night of the Holocaust.

For “Judaism 4.0,” we focus on post-WWII America.  That’s a bit of an oversimplification, as Jewish life continues in new forms in other places, too.  But “Judaism 4.0” in the United States is Judaism by membership in organizations, “institutional affiliation.”  Many of these organizations had existed previously, but they have a heyday in “Judaism 4.0.”  The Jewish Community Center, National Council of Jewish Women, American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, each of the religious movement’s institutions – it’s a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms and agencies.  And for each of them, membership means paying dues.  You are Jewish based on the places and organizations where you are a paying member.  The synagogue “where everybody knows your name,” is part of this same system, a membership organization.

This model worked for half a century, giving shape and structure to our Jewish lives.  But things have been changing for a while now, heading towards “Judaism 5.0.”  The life cycle of synagogue membership is shortening.  Instead of being a paying member for life, some will join when their oldest child needs to learn Hebrew and leave after their youngest becomes Bar or Bat Mitzvah.   Fewer people feel the need to be a member of a congregation at all when the Internet gives easy access to Jewish knowledge.  You can get Jewish family advice at, purchase an online yahrzeit plaque at, and even get a healthy dose of Jewish guilt at  Ok, I made that last one up, but you get the point.  Just about anything that a person used to do in a synagogue setting can now be done outside the walls of a congregation. [2]

But truly being part of a Temple community is more than just being a dues-paying “member” of a congregation.  As human beings, we have a need to feel a sense of belonging to something beyond ourselves.  The psychologist Abraham Maslow posited a hierarchy of human needs.  Physiological needs, like food, water, and rest, are most fundamental.  Safety and security are next to be satisfied.  But once those basic needs are met, Maslow describes a need for belonging, feeling accepted and loved, being a part of a social group. [3] While some of us may like being alone, our pandemic experience has demonstrated the discomfort of isolation and being separate.  It isn’t healthy for us, physically or mentally.  To survive uncertainty and loneliness, we need other people.  God recognizes this in the midst of Creation, saying “Lo tov heyot ha-adam l’vado,” “It is not good for a human being to be alone.” [4] We need to feel a sense of connection with others.  We need to feel like we belong.

And so, in thinking about “Judaism 5.0” for our congregation, we need to shift the conversation from membership to belongingness.  Membership implies a quid pro quo; you pay your dues and you receive benefits.  Or, as American Express once reminded us, “Membership has is privileges.”  Under a “4.0” membership model, the questions are sometimes asked, “What do I get out of joining a congregation?  What service do I get for the fee I pay? What’s in it for me?”  And the answers are given, “A religious education for your child; a place to go for Shabbat and holidays; a rabbi to officiate at your life cycle events.”  Those answers are factually correct, but I think they miss the point as much as the questions do.  They miscast a congregation as a commodity instead of a community.  It’s not about what you get out of being a member in a congregation.  It’s about what does it mean to belong to a community in “Judaism 5.0.”

First, belonging means having a place of connection to create moments of meaning through Jewish living and learning.   Together we perform acts of lovingkindness, study, and lift our voices in worship.  We honor our elders, we welcome the stranger, we visit the sick, we rejoice with wedding couples, we console the bereaved. [5] We pursue justice together, in local, national, and global ways.  These are sacred Jewish tasks, mitzvot, that give our lives depth and significance.  It is possible to do them on our own, but they are most powerfully done in a community where we belong.  A congregation in Hebrew is a kehilah kedoshah, a holy community, because of the actions it takes together.  And when our community acts in holy ways, adding meaning to our lives, we add another dimension as well.  For as God tells Moses in the wilderness, “V’asu li mikdash v’shochanti b’tocham,” “[When] they make for Me a holy place, I will dwell among them.” [6] Belonging to a community adds holiness to our lives.

Second, belonging also means it is easier to engage in Jewish living and learning.  Sometimes it’s hard to do things alone.  Not impossible, not inconceivable, but certainly not easy.  Can we face the difficult challenges of life by ourselves, the medical crises, the parenting dilemmas, the financial struggles, the angst of existential questions?  Can we survive a pandemic by ourselves?  Sure.  But it can be easier when we have the support of friends and the resources of a congregation to assist us.  We don’t have to do it alone.  Belonging to a community diminishes the weight of any burden by increasing the number of people carrying the load.  It brings more minds to bear on an intractable problem, more shoulders to lean on, more hands to support you, an easier environment in which to be Jewish.  The story is told of the long-time congregant who resigned her membership one winter.  The rabbi went to her house to find out why.  She invited him to sit before the fireplace and talk.  “I can be Jewish on my own,” she said.  “It’s easy enough to do these days.”  The rabbi said nothing for a minute, then took the fire tongs and drew out from the fire a single ember.  He placed it on the edge of the fireplace away from the rest of the fire.  As the rabbi and the woman watched, the ember’s flame slowly diminished until it went out in a hiss of smoke.  “Ok,” said the woman, “I’ll be back in shul next week.”

Third, belonging to a Jewish community means that you have a place for the joy of Jewish living and learning together.  You can’t really do the horah by yourself.  Booing at each mention of Haman when you read the story of Esther alone just isn’t the same as doing it with a community of people.  Judaism can be done individually, but it’s much more fun to do it together.  Whether that’s the happy dancing of our little ones at Tot Shabbat, or the pride of the Confirmation parents when their teenagers speak about their Jewish identities, the glee of our BeaSTYites at a youth group event, the energetic buzz of the Purim carnival, the satisfied soulfulness of a Minyan Makers Shabbat morning service, or the beaming smiles so many of you exhibit upon walking into this Sanctuary for the first time in 18 months, it is good to be together.  Belonging to communities give us a locus for joy, for the shared experiences we celebrate together.

It’s more fun to belong.  It’s more meaningful when we feel we belong.  It’s easier to do things together when we belong.  This sense of belonging should be a hallmark of our community in “Judaism 5.0.”  It’s not about commodification, or fee-for-service, or the tangible benefits that membership provides.  It’s about having a Jewish spiritual home, being connected to others, feeling that you have a place here.  You draw strength and comfort and joy and meaning from the community.  You contribute your gifts, your passions, your energy, your commitment to others.  “Belongingness” means this is our community, together.  I am told it was Past President, Donna Courtney, of blessed memory, who coined the phrase, “It is a blessing to belong.”

To that end, after a skillfully-led process of deliberation and contemplation, earlier this year, the Temple Board adopted a new Vision Statement for our congregation: “To create a sense of belonging through transformative Reform Jewish living and learning.”   Fulfilling this vision will require examining every aspect of congregational life.  How do we worship as a community in a way that is spiritually inclusive?  How do we educate ourselves, young and old, or care for one another and the world around us, in ways that are engaging?  How do we foster the relationships between people that are the true architecture of belongingness?

Some of these topics we have already started to explore and experiment with.  If nothing else, COVID has taught us that we can innovate quickly and meaningfully, whether it’s an online shiva minyan or a drive-through Purim Carnival.  Our Membership Team and others have been focusing on Relational Judaism, making our connections to each other as important a focus of congregational life as learning prayers and celebrating holidays.  Our Board has initiated discussions of the meaning of membership and belongingness, including evaluating research on reimagining temple finances and financial support.   Some of these shifts will be easy and apparent.  Others are a more deliberate change in culture and will take longer to cultivate.  Along the way, there will be opportunities for each of us to engage in this important re-visioning of Temple B’nai Shalom.  We’re just getting started, so the best thing you can do to enhance your sense of belonging is to participate, to share of yourself, to make your contribution to our community, to help shape what it means to belong to TBS.

Maslow taught us that we all have a need for connection.  COVID showed us the benefits of going through an experience with others.  The story of Creation advises, it is not good for us to be alone.  “Cheers” reminds us to find a place where we know others, and are truly known. We know that belonging to a community can bring out the meaning in our Jewish living and learning, and it can make it easier to do and more joyful in the process.

As we shift from the membership model of “Judaism 4.0” to the belongingness of “Judaism 5.0,”

May we each feel ourselves spiritually at home in our congregation.

May we weave a web of connections among us, between us, around us, that bind us more closely together.

May this year ahead bring us closer to one another, to our own best selves, and to God, as we shape a community of meaning and purpose.

May we all feel that we belong.

Kein Yehi Ratzon, may this be God’s will.

And together we say, Amen.


[1] I first heard Rabbi David Wolfman teach about “Judaism 5.0” in June 2015.  His thinking has profoundly shaped my understanding of this moment in Jewish communal life.  These brief explanations of the phases that follow are part of a longer lecture from him.  I am indebted to him for his insight and wisdom.

[2] Dr. Ron Wolfson, Relational Judaism (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2013), pp. 30-31, 52-53


[4] Genesis 2:18

[5] Gates of Prayer, p. 285, based on Shabbat 127a

[6] Exodus 25:8