When I was studying in Cincinnati, I had the pleasure of visiting Temple Sholom, a small Reform synagogue headed by a young rabbi, Miriam Terlinchamp. Rabbi Terlinchamp and I are cut from the same cloth. We consider the rabbinate a place for entrepreneurship and intrapaneurship, a new term used in business today that references the work within a company or organization of taking risks and practicing innovation. Of the many many innovations that Rabbi Terlinchamp spurred at her synagogue, and which I admire greatly, has been the motivating, humorous, and informative online videos they use to attract membership and describe who they are and what they do. You only have to search for “Temple Sholom Cincinnati” on YouTube to find professional quality videos featuring music and singing, satire on Temple Board and committee membership, and my favorite video of all time, “The Way We’ve Always Done It Demon.”
In this, my favorite video, Temple Sholom riffs off of the first-person camera view horror genre (such as Blair Witch Project). The video begins with Rabbi Terlinchamp setting the stage at a congregational retreat to discuss innovative ideas for the temple. Walking towards the lodge, Rabbi Terlinchamp is stopped in her tracks by three congregants who shakily point to the building saying, “Rabbi, that’s where we banished it. That’s where it lives!”
“Where what lives?” asks Rabbi Terlinchamp.
“The most terrifying, debilitating creature known to synagogues, churches, and institutions everywhere!” another congregant responds.
“Seriously! You’re really scaring me!” says Rabbi Terlinchamp, as one of her congregants runs away in fear.
The video goes on with a series of congregant interviews talking about how some members of the congregation insist on doing things the way they’ve been done for years, even if it doesn’t make sense for the congregation to continue it. It features a woman who, for example, despite being told her “Hanukkah Fundraiser” that had happened for many years was no longer financially viable, continues to plan it each year, and shows her sitting at an empty table talking to a hand puppet saying, “This Hanukkah fundraiser is going to bring a lot of money to the Temple!” In discussing these moments, congregants in the video explain “that’s when it got her, that’s when the demon got her.”
In just over six minutes, Rabbi Terlinchamp and her congregation humorously and lightheartedly address a serious, potentially debilitating, topic in all houses of worship: the resistance to change. For example, in the video, when new ideas or changes are discussed, congregants at the innovation retreat turn blue in the face with demon red eyes, yelling “My father’s rolling in his grave!” as the children run away screaming.
I have such great admiration, not only for Rabbi Terlinchamp, but for her congregation’s leadership, who essentially threw away the book and started from scratch, asking intuitive questions of themselves such as “How will we survive?” and “What do we really want?” and “What aspects of our Temple are done because of ‘tradition’ and not because they are essential?”
Years ago, rabbis and congregations used to think that in order for a temple or synagogue to thrive, the young people, meaning those in their 20s and 30s, needed to step up and take a leadership role. But what Temple Sholom, and synagogues like it, have taught is that innovation and openness to change cannot just be a generational one. Rather, the pillars of the community, those who have sat in our pews for decades, those who have contributed so much time, effort, and money, into the sustaining of the temple, need to be the ones to stand with the younger generations, with just as much enthusiasm. You’ll notice in Rabbi Terlinchamp’s videos that the congregants taking part are of all ages, spanning all generations, but all wanting the same thing, something new, something different.
I used to watch Rabbi Terlinchamp’s videos wondering what it would be like to be a part of a congregation that takes those kinds of risks. I watched in admiration as I saw congregants of all ages and backgrounds working together towards something great! What must it be like to be in that kind of community? But now, here I am, and I count myself lucky to be the rabbi of Temple Israel here in West Lafayette, a part of a group who understands that things are changing and recognizes that “The Way We’ve Always Done It” is indeed a demon that feeds upon congregations, slows success, and breaks morale.
I’m not even a year into my tenure and yet so much trust has been put in me and in the board administration. So this week, I don’t have anything major to discuss, no fascinating intellectual debates or commentary on current events. Just gratitude. Gratitude that this week, instead of watching Rabbi Terlinchamp’s videos with envy, thinking, “if only,” I am energized by them knowing that we have the same kind of group, who looks to the future with smiles and passion. Indeed, because of that, we have already begun to see the fruits of our labor. Membership has grown by 10%, we have twice as many Saturday services as before and they are incredibly well-attended, and our participation in adult education rivals that of synagogues ten times our size!
So, from me and from our board, thank you! Thank you for trusting us, even when it is uncomfortable! And thank you for continuing to be involved, even when that involvement looks different! To the future!