In Judaism, we use the word brit when we discuss our most significant relationships. When two people come together in marriage, we call their relationship a brit or a covenant. When a child is welcomed into our people, we call the ceremony a bris, which is simply a different pronunciation of the same word. Indeed, we refer to our people as a whole – the Jewish People – as an am brit, a covenanted people. Most significantly, beginning with our ancestor Abraham, our people’s relationship with God has been referred to as a brit or covenant.
So, too, should the relationship between members of a synagogue be infused with the same spirit of holiness, of special significance, that leads us to call a relationship a brit. For several generations, American Jews have referred to those individuals or families who are part of a synagogue community as members. The use of this English word to describe a person’s relationship with their synagogue was drawn from an American landscape that was filled with associations, clubs, and organizations of every stripe that used the term member to refer to those people who joined these voluntary associations.
To be a member of a synagogue is a wonderful thing. In an era when approximately half of American Jewry does not affiliate with a synagogue or other Jewish organization, membership in a synagogue is an important statement of Jewish identity. It represents the recognition that the Jewish community requires our support for its continuity. It means we can educate our people – young and old, provide comfort for those who are in distress, celebrate our holy days and simchas (happy occasions and lifecycle events) together, and observe the mitzvot (commandments) of our sacred tradition, which can have a profound impact on us, our community and the world. Everyone who becomes a synagogue member should be commended.
But, membership alone must not be our goal. The Hebrew word for a synagogue member is chaver. Chaver can be translated as member. But it connotes more than that. Chaver means colleague, friend or partner. There is a world of difference between a member and a partner:
A member is associated with a group or organization;
A partner is an integral part of its fabric.
A member agrees with many goals of a group;
A partner is a passionate advocate for the group and its goals.
A member likes the services and programs a group provides;
A partner recognizes that these programs are vital and must be supported to grow.
A member is interested in the work of the group;
A partner participates actively in getting that work done.
A member pays money in order to join an organization;
A partner invests in the organization’s future and is invested in its success.
A member is here today but might be gone tomorrow;
A partner is part of the community for life because the community is part of them.
In other words, a partner is a member who recognizes that the bond he or she shares with others in the congregation, in the community, has special significance. A chaver sees herself or himself and the others in the community as engaged in a covenantal relationship, a brit. It is that brit which makes congregational life so meaningful. It is the covenant we share with one another and with God.
L’Shalom U’v’reiut ─ In Peace and Friendship,
Rabbi Jordan Millstein