January 19, 2020

On Starting a Synagogue and Balancing a Life

Two and a half years ago my wife and I purchased the oldest synagogue building in Los Angeles, founding the Pico Union Project: a multi-faith cultural arts center and house of worship dedicated to the Jewish principle to “love your neighbor as yourself.” We are home to four faith communities and, beginning next week, will officially open The Sanctuary@PicoUnion, the first Jewish community to gather in the building in 91 years.

Here are 11 things I've learned about starting a synagogue that can ALSO be valuable life lessons:

1.    It takes a lot of hard work, imagination, and money, but more than anything it takes a ton of faith. It’s opened me up to have long talks where I ask questions like…”Hello God, are you out there?”

2.    Create an OAMObjectives And Methodology. Without a focus, life can get in the way of living, too much analysis leads to paralysis, and the cart gets before the…you know the drill! With OAM, a mission, and a clear plan, you might not always succeed…but you will never be lost.

3.    You need to be thick-skinned and sensitive and authentically humble. In other words, the perfect angel! If you're lucky, at least half the people will love you and the rest will only think you’re nuts. Which is far better than people ignoring you all together.

4.    Call everything an “experiment.” I learned this lesson from Pastor Rick Warren, one of the most successful community builders of this century. New endeavors ruffle feathers, but if you call it an “experiment” it’s easier to embrace your successes and dismiss your failures. That's why we created the Taste of Sanctuary@Pico Union ticket for our High Holy Days services—it's an opportunity for people to “experiment” with our community before making a full-on commitment.

“Doing holy work does not make you holier.

If you're fortunate, it makes you more human.”

5.    Love your Neighbor as yourself. Before you can love your neighbor, you must know your neighbor, and yourself. Most importantly: you need to respect your neighbor and respect yourself.

6.    Being “pro” my approach doesn't make me “anti” yours. There are myriad approaches to Jewish life and to life in general.  Experimenting with one approach does not oblige you to be opposed to a differing approach. We would all benefit in the Jewish community if we refrained from passing value judgments on the other.

7.    Don’t think “out of the box,” think “ought”! I learned this one from Rabbi Harold Schulweis z’l. Think ought. Not “what is” a Jew, but “what ought” a Jew to be. Not what is a synagogue, but what ought a synagogue to be. Not what prayer is, but what prayer ought to be. Not what ritual is, but what ritual ought to be. 

8.    Spend more time nurturing followers than leaders! It may sound counter intuitive, but without followers, you cannot be a leader, and without good followers you will never be a great leader. 

9.    Know your bottom line. My aunt Ruth would often say tachlis, which I thought meant “talk less.” It actually means “bottom line.” While talking less is something I certainly need to work on, even more challenging is knowing my bottom line. One cannot build a community overnight. Healthy beginnings are, as Ron Wolfson says “relational” and built one person at a time.  One needs to know their bottom line, their strengths and limits, when to invest and when to hold back, when to ask and when to listen and finally when to say a yes that is really a yes, and a no that’s a real no.

10.    Building a holy community is a kavod—an honor. Literally, Kavod means heavy. In other words: it’s not something to be taken lightly. Doing holy work does not make you holier. If you're fortunate, it makes you more human.

11.    And finally: Da lif’nay mi atah omed—”Da”—know before whom you stand. There is much to know, and much we don't know. We stand before so many different people all the time, but most of all, we stand with ourselves and God. This knowledge is what matters.

If you're looking for a new community in Downtown Los Angeles, I invite you to stand with us in this grand and holy experiment. You've nothing to lose—we have a money back guarantee!

For more information visit www.picounionproject.org