In my summer reading I came across a little piece about the American family, then vs. now.
Households consisting of a married couple and their children:
1970 – 40% 2013 – 19%
Adults who are married
1970 – 72% 2013 – 51%
Births to unmarried women
1970 – 5% 2013 – 41%
These are eye-opening figures. It is clear that what I call the Normal Rockwell household is growing less common in an era of new and shifting family configurations. The article “blames” it all on the baby boomer generation. It rewrote the rules for families. It fought for a woman’s right to pursue rewarding work outside the home – and a man’s right to be a full partner in parenting. And while a great many boomers embraced traditional values, the generation as a whole turned divorce and cohabitation from taboo to commonplace. Boomers also demanded respect for all kinds of familial bonds, including interracial and gay partnerships, single parenthood and interracial adoption. As a result, the very definition of family in this country has changed. A single parent with a child is called a family; an unmarried couple with a child is called a family; a same-sex couple with a child is called a family. Among all these changes, by the way, love of family and seeing family as the center of our lives have remained constant.
What does this have to do with a synagogue, especially one like Beth El where the Norman Rockwell family is still quite common? Well, for one, our leadership needs to look at these trends and make sure that what we do is reflective of these new realities – everything from membership forms to the way we talk about “family.” Second, we need to assume that change will be the only constant going forward, and we can’t ignore it or let it get too far ahead of us. Third, we need to look in different ways to grow our community – not so much anymore to the latest teardown to see who moves in. As I drive through downtown Bethesda and see all those new high rises, populated in good part I presume by the 81% and maybe the 49%, I know that we have to develop a recruitment strategy different from anything we have had in our first 63 years of existence. Fourth, trends like these and new ways of seeing the world often render meaningless ways of doing our business that nobody ever questioned; for example, it’s not clear if “synagogue membership” will continue to be a relevant term twenty years from now.
I think what I have written makes sense and is accurate. I wish I was as sure that there are responses to these kinds of realities and questions that will leave us anywhere near whole, vouchsafing that “whole” may mean something very different down the road. Beth El, and the Jewish people, have not been afraid to embrace change, and now is not the time to start being that.
Ponder all this, have a good Wednesday and a Hodesh Tov. Yes, it is the first day of the Hebrew month Elul. Four weeks from tonight we will be ushering in Rosh Hashanah. Do use the month to think about the year past and what you want to do with the next one that will be good for your own neshamah (soul) and for our fractured world.
Best, Bill Rudolph
P.S. Gail and I have hosted four barbecues for members this summer, but none matches what Beth El has planned for September 7th. The “Back to Shul BBQ,” 4:30 – 6:30PM on the parking lot (don’t panic – parking is available on Old Georgetown Road on Sundays), has something for all demographics and age groups. It will be a great way to catch up with old friends, help welcome our many new members, and eat some great hamburgers and hot dogs from our new mega grill. More information and advance registration can be found at www.bethelmc.org.