The new rabbi at Temple Emanu-El of West Essex in Livingston is not in a hurry to put his stamp on the congregation. Rabbi Greg Litcofsky will lead them where they want to go, but he won’t set the vision. Instead, he’d like the congregation to take its cues from, well, the congregation.
That’s why he’s initiating a series of conversations designed to build community and uncover the shared vision and goals of the congregants. The “listening campaign” was launched in January.
“It’s like building a Mishkan,” said Litcofsky, referring to the biblical tabernacle built with offerings from all the Israelite tribes.
“People have to bring gifts of the heart to build it. Here the gifts are the stories — stories of how to build a sacred space, stories of hopes, dreams, visions. What made the Mishkan valuable is that it belonged to the people,” he said in a meeting in his office in January that included several of the congregation’s lay leaders.
Litcofsky expects the initial stages of the conversation to last several months. “There are no shortcuts in building lasting relationships and a congregation where people engage in Jewish journeys in deep and meaningful ways,” he said.
This isn’t the first time Litcofsky has taken this approach, which he learned from his mentor, Rabbi Jonah Pesner. Now senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Pesner is credited for bringing to the synagogue world an idea that has significant popularity in the corporate world and community organizing.
At his previous congregation in Massachusetts, Litcofsky used the process to focus solely on young families. “A common thread that emerged in the conversation was that most had stopped coming for High Holy Days because the baby-sitting cost extra and there was no family programming,” he said.
The first thing done by the listening campaign team was to establish a new young families program for the High Holy Days.
“It wasn’t a rabbi’s program,” Litcofsky said. “It was the team’s program. It was their vision,” he said. By the second year, the program expanded, and the group began spending time together at holidays and Shabbat. “I got to lead them through this journey of what it means to be Jewish,” said Litcofsky. “Now I’m doing it on a larger scale.”
The first listening campaign gathering for Emanu-El members was held in January, and two others were scheduled for February and March. Participants, sorted randomly into groups of eight-10 people, share their stories, discuss what is important to them about Emanu-El, and describe the critical moments that established their attachment to the temple and what holds their attachment to Judaism.
After the first round of conversations, the congregation will reconvene as a whole to hear the common themes that will begin to chart the next steps. That fourth meeting will be held in early April.
“The point is to get people engaged with one another and look for ways to partner; it’s not to evaluate a program or a class or a service,” said Emanu-El president Theresa Edelstein.
“It’s about fostering connections among people,” agreed executive vice president Dave Spiler. “It’s about learning how to take personal relationships and build from there.”
As Litcofsky put it, “There are no right answers except what’s genuine.”