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My Idea: Let's Uplift Our Synagogue Language

Words matter. They shape reality.

Consider: Using male language enshrines a worldview of "mankind" in which women are present, but "other." Calling a barrier in Israel a "fence" or a "wall" reveals more about your politics than it does about the object.

The same kind of linguistic framing applies to words used in our religious community. When, for example, we speak of "membership," what are we implying, expecting, and promising?

To many of us, the word evokes images of clubs and cliques, of who is in and who is out. It also has a commercial undertone, implying a fee-for-service transaction. Is that what congregations truly want to convey?

I think not. The fee-for-service model involves a direct quid pro quo, an evaluation of value, an expectation of instantaneous fulfillment. Instead, our relationship with our congregational community should be deep, subtle, soulful, even revelatory in the slow unfolding of time.

And so I suggest we replace the word "membership" with a term that might serve us in a more holistic, holier way.

The English choices, I've discovered, are quite limited. "Builders" seems too focused on the physical. "Owners" raises issues of entitlement and tangled leadershipespecially in a communal context in which we are supposed to be, at least partially, called to serve, beyond the sovereign self. "Partners" implies a shared vision, but also sounds like the language of a law firm or other commercial enterprise.

And so, my recommendation is to replace "membership" with the Hebrew word chaver.

The term literally means "friend" (remember U.S. President Bill Clinton's farewell to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin at his funeral—"Shalom Chaver?"). The plural refers to friends or people connected in a shared enterprise. In Israel the term is also used for "member," as in kibbutz and Knesset members ("chevreikibbutz, chevrei Knesset").

Other Hebrew words with the same root as chaver also imply uniting or bringing together. Chevra means society, a chevruta is a study partner, and a chavurah is a small group of people—often within a synagogue—connected by common interest. Also related is machberet, a notebook, whose pages are "bound together."

If we were to call ourselves chaverim (the plural of chaver), I believe it might inspire us to see ourselves differently: as a sacred society, as friends engaged in a shared venture, as study partners on our individual Jewish journeys, as inheritors of a storied past working collectively to shape a chosen-together future.

"Dues" is another word we use that merits rethinking. It implies something we owe rather than a covenant, partnership, or shared stake in a values-based vision. It is impersonal, does not imply a relationship we wish to build, and has a punitive connotation—think of the library book we are still reading which is "overdue."

Its English synonyms—"fees," "subscriptions," "assessments," "excises," "levies," "duties," "obligations"—are no better at suggesting a kind of sacred commitment or connection from which we draw meaning in our lives.

Here again, I believe a Hebrew word is our best alternative. At first this term may be unfamiliar to some of us, but with repeated usage, once strange words can quickly become second nature; just think of "fax" or "google."

I recommend that we replace "dues" with "terumah" (or, in the plural, "terumot"), meaning "offering."

Deriving from the same root as "to lift up," terumah also has a powerful historic echo: The very first "synagogue building fund" (for the construction of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, as described in the Book of Exodus) is called terumah.

I like how this term is predicated on the idea that everyone is expected to lend a hand, but that different people will contribute in different ways. Today's communities depend on many different kinds of contributions—skills and time as well as funds—and we must honor all levels. Also, some who pay a lesser amount may be contributing a higher percentage of income. Everything given to build a holy community lifts us all.

Let us, then, be chaverim, intimate friends engaged in the building of a sacred community. And let our terumot, our offerings, lift us up, individually and all together.

Michael L. Feshbach is the senior rabbi of Temple Shalom, Chevy Chase, MD.