Yom Kippur Morning 2017: Finding Faith at the Mall

korotkin_headshotSince Yom Kippur is about taking stock of important things, I’d like to take a moment for a brief survey. How many of you – say, in the last two weeks – have spent a considerable amount of time buying stuff at the shopping mall. Clothes, housewares, appliances. Things like that. How many of you have hung out there recently?

Okay now, how many of you have spent a considerable amount of time doing the same thing on your computer. Amazon, other on-line purchasing options?

Yep, that’s what I thought.

We are, as you might have noticed, in the middle of what some have called a retail meltdown. On-line shopping has taken the place of a lot of the time we used to spend at the mall. It’s easier. It’s quicker. And Amazon Prime – now a fixture in half of all American households — gives us two-day free shipping. What’s not to love?

As a result, of course, a lot of malls are half-empty these days. Major retailers are going bankrupt, or selling off stores, or not paying enough attention to stocking the shelves and having enough salespeople. The Macy’s where I’ve been shopping for several years down in Columbia, South Carolina, is in a dead mall, but it was a great store until this year, when it got dingy and the ladies who always helped me pick out my outfits were gone. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the retail sector in this country lost about 30-thousand jobs in March alone.

So: Bricks and mortar are out. And not just when it comes to retail. The same is happening in the world of religion.

Not a few congregants comment to me about people missing from the pews on Shabbat and even on these days of awe. And it’s true. But it’s not just us. All over the country, large urban and suburban synagogues built in the heady days after World War Two are struggling to stay open and have folded or merged their religious schools in response to the aging of their populations. Even in places with large concentrations of Jews like Philadelphia, offering daycare or early-childhood centers isn’t translating into membership. Younger people these days are less likely to join up anywhere, which implies a long-term commitment. And others have married outside the faith and are not raising children as Jews – or as anything else, religiously.

Every summer, we find out in our interfaith clergy groups who has chosen to move or has been reassigned, whose congregation is closing its doors, and who will be serving two or even three congregations that are merging or sharing a minister. So it’s not just us. But it’s disturbing and discouraging nonetheless, for those of you who love this congregation and honor its history.

As you know, we are on “hiatus” for a plan to bring our community’s two congregations closer together. For many people, the plan was moving way too fast for comfort, and they didn’t see the value in the direction the project was going. But change is inevitable and necessary. So while we re-think what it means to assure a future for the Altoona Jewish community, we can take a look at some suggestions being made to re-think retail and re-use those half-empty shopping malls. These three points come from The Atlantic magazine’s City Lab – a free email newsletter, of course — in a Nolan Gray essay from this past spring called “How to Survive a Retail Meltdown.”

Let’s start with an understanding that dead and dying malls are more than just blights on the landscape. These so-called “greyfields” are a financial drain on cities that used to rely on retailers for a lot of revenue. Cities don’t benefit from Amazon Prime purchases like they did from having a Macy’s or a Sears in town. Not only that, they take up a lot of real estate that potentially could be used for other things, but the infrastructure and the legal requirements – the roads, the parking, the set-backs – make it hard to do so.

In Jewish terms, it’s a way to think of teshuvah, the process of return and renewal in which we engage during these Days of Awe. It’s about getting rid of what doesn’t work in our lives and embracing a different model of living. It requires us to be strong and brave about leaving behind what is comfortable and familiar, for the sake of a life that is more fruitful and fulfilling.

So the first suggestion that Nolan Gray makes is to ease land-use restrictions.

“If you are a local policymaker concerned about greyfields,” writes Gray, “ask yourself: Can an enterprising developer turn that empty big box into a co-working space? Can food trucks turn that parking lot into a lunchtime market? If you answered ‘no’ to either question, it’s time for regulatory reform.”

So what does regulatory reform mean for this congregation? Turn away from what worked in the past but doesn’t anymore. Turn toward other models for using the space we have for other purposes, or re-imagine the concept of sacred space completely.

Release ourselves from preconceived notions about how life should be in our Jewish community – such as the idea that one or the other of our large buildings is essential to our Jewish survival. Because, the fact is, neither may be viable in fewer years than we’d care to think.

A congregation is people, not buildings. Our ancestors who left Egypt survived decades in the wilderness without a permanent address. What they had was each other, faith in God, and faith in their community. They followed God’s instructions to build a portable tabernacle that was beautiful and luxurious – but which could be taken apart and packed up and carried anywhere they went. The Mishkan assured them of something that was inconceivable in ancient times – that a God could be omnipresent and go with the people wherever they traveled.

God is always reminding the Israelites: Do what I say because I’m the one who saved you from bondage. But in today’s Torah reading, God through Moses – in his farewell sermon – challenges the people to think of the future, rather than fixating on the past:

יג וְלֹא אִתְּכֶם לְבַדְּכֶם אָנֹכִי כֹּרֵת אֶת־הַבְּרִית הַזֹּאת וְאֶת־הָאָלָה הַזֹּאת: יד כִּי אֶת־אֲשֶׁר יֶשְׁנוֹ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ עֹמֵד הַיּוֹם לִפְנֵי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵינוּ וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ הַיּוֹם:

“Not with you alone do I seal this covenant, this pledge. Rather, this covenant is with those who are among you today, standing before Adonai our God, and also with those who are not with us today.”[1]

Community endures. God’s promise endures. Edifices do not. If we are truly a kehilat kedoshah, a holy congregation, we must engage in teshuvah today not merely to make ourselves right with God but to make ourselves right with those who will come after us, who will sustain this Jewish community despite demographic and financial challenges.

Maybe it will mean keeping some of our current buildings and maybe it will not. Maybe it will mean sharing our space with other congregations, renting it out for other purposes, investing in enough infrastructure to draw community groups in as renters, who will appreciate and enjoy this beautiful space as much as we do.

Or maybe it will mean moving into a smaller, sustainable space. Maybe it will mean moving around like our ancestors did, from space to space or home to home – a model that other congregations in other cities are now embracing, in which they put their money into people and programing, inspiring younger Jews – those non-joiners – to take ownership of a concept and a faith rather than a building.

And this brings us to Nolan Gray’s second suggestion: Re-think economic incentives.

In the past, shiny new shopping malls were not just a point of pride but also a great way to generate attention and jobs. But that meant cities and towns giving away millions in tax breaks and free land, and building out roads and infrastructure on the edges of town, not in the core. And that cost a lot of money that now is gone for good. For Gray, the lesson of the retail meltdown is, as he puts it,

“not that we should switch from subsidizing brick and mortar retail to subsidizing e-commerce with the same old mixture of property tax abatement and free infrastructure. Rather, the lesson is that cities should be very cautious about plowing public resources into attracting specific firms. Today’s Amazon distribution center could easily be tomorrow’s dead mall.”

Similarly this congregation often finds its resources strained, stretched way too thin. Are we subsidizing what no longer works for us? Are we thinking both short-term and long-term about not only the members we have but potential new members as well, and where they want their investment to go? New speakers? Or guest speakers? A community focused primarily on Shabbat in the sanctuary, or one that thinks, physically and philosophically, outside the walls? This is not an either-or concept, and meeting the needs of the people in the pews is of paramount concern – because you have put your blood, sweat and tears into this building and this congregation. But our future depends less on short-term patches and more on a future created out of well-spun cloth.

But there’s good news in the third of Nolan Gray’s three steps: Think corner stores, not big boxes. “In dynamic urban economies,” he writes, “smallness, accessibility, and a high-quality experience are more important” than large-scale retail development. And if there’s anyone who has done small well, it’s us.

Let’s face it: Like the retail landscape, religious observance in America is changing rapidly, and that’s true in Altoona and Tyrone and Hollidaysburg as much as anywhere else. Pop-up churches are filling up empty retail space on downtown street corners and in suburban strip malls.

It’s a far cry from the “if you build it, they will come” church-building philosophy of the early 20th century downtown and of the 1950s and 60s in the suburbs. Like the half-empty mall on the edge of town, the heyday of institutional Judaism as we have known it is long gone. But we should not be looking back, bemoaning the loss, still trying to duplicate the past. Like retail, making use of the space that already exists, and being prepared to move, shift and adapt more quickly, is now the model.

We have gotten really good at maximizing the resources we do have. And our greatest resource – our greatest strength – is our people. And if religion, like retail, now thrives on smallness, accessibility, and a high-quality experience, then we are in a position to shine.

When we hear of an illness or loss, we come together to share the burdens. When we have a simcha, it’s a celebration for us all. Sisterhood can pull together a joyous reception or a shiva meal like nobody’s business, even on short notice. When Don and I were on Sabbatical last winter, everybody pitched in to help with services and check on congregants who needed to hear a cheerful voice or see a friendly face. While some bigger, wealthier congregations see so many students disappear after Bar or Bat Mitzvah, our students stay through Confirmation, and many teach our younger students Hebrew.

That’s what it means to be in a small congregation in a small community. We’re all in this together, in a sacred cause that does not go unnoticed during these Days of Awe:

ב רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל בְּנוֹ שֶׁל רַבִּי יְהוּדָה הַנָּשִׂיא אוֹמֵר. . ..[ וְ]כָל הָעֲמֵלִים עִם הַצִּבּוּר, יִהְיוּ עֲמֵלִים עִמָּהֶם לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, שֶׁזְּכוּת אֲבוֹתָם מְסַיְּעָתַן וְצִדְקָתָם עוֹמֶדֶת לָעַד. וְאַתֶּם, מַעֲלֶה אֲנִי עֲלֵיכֶם שָׂכָר הַרְבֵּה כְּאִלּוּ עֲשִׂיתֶם:

Rabban Gamaliel son of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch said: “All who labor for the community, let them labor with them for Heaven’s sake, for then the merit of the community’s forebears will sustain them, and their beneficence will endure forever. And as for you [who labor thus], I regard you as deserving great reward, as though you had accomplished it all [on your own].” [2]

One generation sustains the next, a gift that is particularly true here at Temple Beth Israel, where the photos in our center hallway depict the grandparents, parents, siblings, children, grandchildren, aunts and uncles, and cousins of those who gather here today. You are their gift to us.

But even if you don’t carry a familiar last name, it is absolutely impossible to be anonymous in this congregation. Don and I found that out the first time we walked in the door. But it’s also absolutely impossible to be inactive. Or at least it should be. And if you are now, you won’t be for long. Those yellow interest cards we handed out at Rosh Hashanah will be out for break-the-fast too.

We need you. Every one of you. Not just today, but throughout the year. We need your talents, your ideas, your time and attention. Small can be successful, if we, together, our whole congregation, pitches in.

People want attention. They want a place where they feel welcome, where they feel at home, where they feel that they matter, where they have a sense that they are a part of something much bigger than themselves. All of us feel that way – and so do all the people who have not yet discovered us. So let’s share the best of what we are, and together plan for what we can become.

“Smallness, accessible, and a high-quality experience.” We make Judaism come alive in a way that is both highly personal and communally fulfilling – just like the prayers we recite throughout these days of awe. Each of us is responsible for our own teshuvah. But each of us here today gives strength to everybody else making teshuvah for themselves.

Let this not be just for today. We control our own destiny. We are in a position to move this congregation into a future that meets both the expectations and the needs of Jews and their families – both those who are with us today, and those who are not yet with us.

יד כִּי־קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשׂתוֹ

“For this thing is very near to you, on your lips and in your heart, and you can do it.”[3]

Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.

######

©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Deut. 29:13-14

[2] Mishnah Avot 2:2

[3] Deut. 30:14

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