Rabbis Reform Judaism

I Didn’t Build It

I reflect on the daily affirmation we recite when practicing the middah (soul-trait) of anavah (humility) in programs of The Mussar Institute: “No more than my place, no less than my space.”

Showing visitors or newcomers around the synagogue, I hear the compliment, “What a beautiful temple!” I respond: “Yes, and I can brag about it, because it was all here, just like this, when I got here a couple years ago.”

Congregation B’nai Israel was founded in 1866. I was called to Little Rock as rabbi in 2013. I am responsible for none of the congregation’s many blessings, the edifice being only one. Whether marveling at the congregation’s outstanding youth engagement, magnificent worship music, or extraordinary level of volunteer commitment, I am constantly reminded that I have very little to do with what makes this synagogue terrific. No, nobody else says, “You didn’t build it.” Those words come from a voice inside my head, in contrast to how I regarded my role at my previous congregation.

That other synagogue had been serving its community for 118 years before I came on the scene. Still, by the time I left, 21 years later, I wrongly viewed the congregation as largely my creation. I could even cite examples: By 2013, even the historic edifice had been altered substantially since 1992. I had been significantly involved in the building’s development, and certainly in dramatic changes that ranged from worship style to youth engagement.

But I didn’t build that other congregation, either. Its magnificent Sanctuary was constructed before even my parents were born. Its worship style would surely have evolved with a different rabbi in my place during those two decades.

We rabbis regularly refer to the synagogues we serve as “my congregation.” If challenged, we would defend ourselves: After all, members refer to the place as “my temple.” Why shouldn’t we? The possessive pronoun doesn’t really designate possession in this case. Or does it?

Because of what I’ve learned from my study of Mussar with Alan Morinis, I recoil from referring to Congregation B’nai Israel as “my congregation.” Yes, I feel at home here, perhaps even more than I did in my previous congregation, a development I couldn’t have imagined in 2013. I hope to be here until retirement. Still, I reflect on the daily affirmation we recite when practicing the middah (soul-trait) of anavah (humility) in programs of The Mussar Institute: “No more than my place, no less than my space.” I don’t call B’nai Israel “my congregation,” because I have come to believe that it denotes an unhealthy level of rabbinic ownership, taking up “more than my space.”

This past summer, Congregation B’nai Israel remodeled its offices. Now, one corner of the building looks different than it did when I came. I had something to do with that: The rabbi’s study wasn’t sufficiently private – not so much for me, as for those who come to meet with me. Still, I am acutely aware that two volunteers did not execute my vision, but rather turned a problem I articulated into a solution that addresses issues I hadn’t even noticed. The result is both beautiful and functional in ways I couldn’t have imagined. The same is true of positive developments that range from worship style to youth culture. (Sound familiar?)

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.

4 replies on “I Didn’t Build It”

Beautiful piece Barry. Kol hakavod! In a sense it is yours too. Bertrand Russell once noted that each human being is a unique particular logically in that the place in space and time we occupy no one else occupies. A logician/mathematician’s approach to Buber, Torah et al. In that sense you are a part of it as it is a part of you forever in space and time.Kol hakavod! Chag sameach! Moadim l’simcha! Shelly Zimmerman

Yes, Barry, certainly you are right. There is another way to approach ‘my congregation.’ I didn’t build it; I am not the cause nor the sole agent. My congregants also say ‘my congregation.’ It’s where they belong, where they connect, where they feel part of the community and, hopefully, where they make a contribution to the success of the enterprise. They are not thinking that they might take credit for something. I think it raises a different but important question for us as professionals: Is it, indeed, ‘my congregation’ in that way? This is a tough question for many of us!

This presents a new way of looking at an old situation. Thanks for writing this. Always important to see new perspectives.

Thank you, Barry! Here is a variation of “my congregation.” When I retired after 23 years at the same congregation, founded in 1853, as its 4th Senior rabbi, I moved out of town so that I could provide full space to my successor. I can’t accept credit for what I did. My predecessor, who had served for 40 years prior to my arrival, provided the model when he retired and moved away. I vowed then to do the same when my time came. His imprint was on far more than the building created during his tenure but in the lives of our congregants. I am returning this Shabbat to celebrate my 50th anniversary as a Rabbi and I feel humbled going home to thank “my congregation” for how they impacted on me and my family because they live inside of us.

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