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.