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Lekh L'kha 5782 - Two Synagogues, One Family

October 15, 2021

A joke you may have heard before: 

A Jewish man was shipwrecked at sea and marooned on a desert island. When a passing boat picked him up five years later, the crew was impressed to see that he had built three buildings - one simple hut for shelter and two synagogues. 

“But why do you need two synagogues?” the captain asked.

“Well,” he replied, “There’s the one where I pray, and the one I wouldn’t set foot into!”

Even though the entire Jewish population of Shreveport numbers half the membership of most individual synagogues in places like Dallas, Los Angeles, and St. Louis, our Shreveport Jewish community is still split between two distinct prayer communities. That split makes sense - our preferences differ theologically, ritually, ideologically, and aesthetically. In fact, our community has been split between at least two prayer communities since the 1880s, as more Sephardic and Eastern European Jews settled in Shreveport, joining a Jewish population that had previously been of primarily German and Alsation origin (Susan Gross, Wings Toward the South, 1).

A healthy split between Jewish communities is as ancient as our most ancient text. In Parshat Lekh Lekha, Avram notices that his shepherds and his nephew Lot’s shepherds are arguing. “Please, let there not be an argument between you and me,” Avram says, “between your shepherds and my shepherds, ki anashim ahim anakhnu - for we are brotherly people” (Gen. 13:8). Avram then proposes that they divide the land they possess and go their separate ways. Like the founders of the various Orthodox congregations that would eventually become Agudath Achim - Band of Brothers - in 1902, Avram realizes that family oftentimes functions more kindly and more effectively in separate spaces.

In our Shreveport Jewish community, we have two different congregations, in large part, to avoid harsh words and actions between brothers and sisters. Part of our potential for disagreement stems from theology. At Agudath Achim,  we are a Conservative congregation; we hold the sacred, binding nature of Jewish law. B’nai Zion embraces the Reform movement, which recognizes Jewish law as wise but not obligated. Accordingly, at Agudath Achim, our standards for kashrut are more stringent - we don’t serve milk and meat in the same meal, we don’t serve unhekshered meat, and we look more critically at food packaging. For those who believe that more ease in food preparation is more important than adherence to halakhah, our kitchen can be frustrating. At Agudath Achim, we also intentionally avoid certain acts of creation - lighting fires, writing, building, fixing, and exchanging money - on Shabbat. For some, such avoidance of defined labor is liberating and connects us to our ancestors’ practice. For others, it can make Shabbat seem boring and unmanageable. In Shreveport, we maintain two distinct Jewish communities so that we can maintain those differences in theology without excessive conflict.

Our congregations differ in less theological ways, as well. At B’nai Zion, people tend to show up on time and stay in their seats during services. Here, we embrace a little more chaos and expect a steady stream in and out, allowing for people to show up when they can and leave the room to chat, if need be. The rabbis at each synagogue teach, lead, and guide differently. Our services differ in length and use of Hebrew. And of course, our buildings embody completely different aesthetics. Not every rabbi and not every Jewish congregation can serve every Jew; as such, our community embraces our two separate prayer spaces so that the greatest possible number of Jews can find the place that brings them, personally, closest to God and Jewish community.

We maintain our separate space from B’nai Zion not because they are wrong, but rather, for the sake of shalom bayit, peace in our Jewish home. In order to keep that shalom bayit and that strength in Shreveport’s Jewish community, we must ask what makes this synagogue unique. What is it that we love about this space, and how do we enhance those aspects of Agudath Achim that we would not find elsewhere? How do we not only highlight the best elements of Agudath Achim for ourselves, but also, for other families who are searching for the tradition, humor, and deep learning that we offer? In establishing respect for our greater Jewish family, we must also continue to clearly define what such respect looks like. We must continue to establish concrete policies for what happens when a simhah happens at one building or another during Shabbat. We must continue to welcome B’nai Zion to Jewish Federation events that occur in our building, and we must continue to enthusiastically attend Jewish Federation events that occur at B’nai Zion. Some of our community members even choose to express connection to their Jewish family by maintaining joint membership at both congregations; they find elements of joy and comfort at both Agudath Achim and B’nai Zion. 

We are a tiny Jewish community, with somewhere between 400 and 500 total Jews in Shreveport; we must support each other as much as we can, and yet, one of the best ways we can stick together is to spend whatever time and space we need apart. Beyond those of us already here, when a Jewish family is looking to move to Shreveport, we want to make sure they have enough variety in prayer and learning that they can be confident they will find a spiritual home that feels safe and nourishing for them.

Our first Wednesday of Hebrew school this year, the first year in quite a while in which our students have learned at Agudath Achim, I began class with a tour of our building. Throughout the tour, I did not have to do much talking - those students who had spent their childhood here enthusiastically presented their favorite parts of the building to friends who had never been here before. For me, that half hour of exploration encapsulated the balance of sticking together and establishing boundaries as a Shreveport Jewish family. In religious school, our students know that they can trust each other as family, and they know that as they become Jewish adults, they will have their choice of sacred spaces to call home. I am proud to be a member and leader of Agudath Achim - of our unique, compassionate band of brothers (and sisters), as well as a member and leader of our wider Shreveport Jewish family. Shabbat Shalom.

Sat, June 25 2022 26 Sivan 5782