Congregation Adapts to Changes While Holding on to Its Core Principles

Written in the Fall of 2017

Nahalat Shalom Congregation, the only Jewish Renewal synagogue in New Mexico, was founded by a core group of members in 1983. “If it weren’t for this place most of our members would not belong elsewhere. Most of us rejected the mainstream synagogues where we grew up and others because of being Hispanic, Gay, politically involved, low income, committed to complete equal participation by women, or part of an Interfaith family wouldn’t have been welcome anywhere else. ” says one of the early members, Meta Hirschl.

How do you create an open tent when money isn’t the focus?  “It’s not easy and it requires listening to your members and holding on to your principles”, says Nahalat Shalom President, Emet Ma’ayan.  Nahalat Shalom’s dues structure is a Pay-as-You-Can, with an original recommended 1% of your income which changed a several years ago to 2% . While it is common for congregation in the US to restrict entrance to High Holiday services to members only, Congregation Nahalat Shalom does not distribute tickets to anyone – the doors are wide open for all to attend.

What happens when principles trump being able to pay the bills? Nearly 1 ½ years ago the Congregation had lost their rabbi and like so many congregations across the country were facing declining membership and at the end of the day, the approximately 100 household membership could not afford to support the building, religious school and rabbi. “Our members are mostly low income and our Pay As You Can philosophy is based on our commitment to being a tent that welcomes all regardless of how much money you have.  Being led by principles of social justice and community mean you do that all the time and not to be skipped when the bills need to be paid; so, we figure out how to live on our $152,000 budget because like most families – that’s your income and you live with it.” says Ma’ayan

According to the Pew Research Center only 39% of Jewish Americans belong to a synagogue at all and the rate at which our next generation is identifying as Jewish is shrinking with only 68% of our Millennials identifying as Jews at all, and the rest claiming they have no religion or that they are Jewish merely because of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.

So where did that leave a small congregation in New Mexico whose foundation was built by people who felt that they didn’t fit anywhere else? The Congregation put it all on the table – and conducted 1:1 meetings with each member asking the questions of what brought them to the synagogue, what was most important in remaining affiliated and how to prioritize the choices ahead -  to be without a Rabbi, to be without a Building, and even to fold completely. In the process, they assessed if there was a capacity to expect more funding from its members.

Nahalat Shalom was founded by the charismatic leadership of Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb who continues to be an advocate for oppression around the world, particularly with the work between Israelis, Palestinians and American Jews who continue to hope for peace.  Perhaps it was her passion for justice, or that she herself was often marginalized as one of the first women to be ordained as a Rabbi.  As someone who challenged the mainstream establishment and stood up for a broad tent and inclusiveness, Rabbi Gottlieb attracted gay and lesbians who had been turned away from their home synagogues, was the first to welcome Jews of Color – both Sephardim and Crypto Jews -  those who for generations within their own family trying to make sense of their pre-expulsion from Spain Jewish heritage.  In the 1990s the first siddur that the congregation purchased was in Ladino so that Spanish speaking newcomers would feel at home.   Similarly, she welcomed mixed race and interfaith families always treating people with respect and encouraging leadership from communities that were most marginalized.  Artists and activists joined and soon Nahalat Shalom was born. Those who had children were raised in a community that Rabbi Lynn called “a spiritual kibbutz” a community that was egalitarian in its leadership, with collective responsibility and a mission to create a tent big enough for the diversity of community of people who previously felt unwelcomed, uninvited and discriminated against.

Rabbi Lynn spent the first 10 years of the Congregation schlepping the Torah and its membership from homes and cafes for meeting space and churches and the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center for holiday celebrations and b’nai mitzvah.   Finally, a studio within an Art Collective was rented for Nahalat Shalom’s first home and in 1998 a delapated church was purchased by the Congregation and renovated by its own members.  It was at this time the custom of “canvasing” the congregation was introduced and each member was interviewed in their home in order for the congregation leadership to ascertain if the interest and support was there to move forward with a building.  The result was that the building was there was a groundswell of people ready to put dollars and time in to purchasing and renovating the building.
In 2006 Rabbi Lynn left to continue her political work and the congregation organized itself to secure a new direction with Rabbi Deborah Brin.  One of the greatest gifts that Rabbi Deborah Brin tenure at the congregation brought was beautifying our campus on Rio Grande Boulevard with a landscaped courtyard, renovated space to hold events and a building that was complete with an art gallery with rotating art, library, religious school wing with a playground and a sanctuary that like the rest of the building, was now functional and decorated with Jewish art.

Under Rabbi Deborah Brin’s ten years of leadership the congregation grew in membership, established itself as a strong partner in the Albuquerque Jewish community, and grew the adult education programming. Not only within the congregation but also within the community, Rabbi Brin’s steady personality proved to be a needed bridge.  A congregation that was previously not included in community events and faced with hostility and a stigma became healed.

The Congregation is no longer young. Like the metaphor once of a kibbutz, most members have children who have grown and moved away.  The graying membership still leads, dances and celebrates but was at a crossroads.  As with any crossroads, the congregation again canvased its membership to learn of its priorities.  There are a few core values for this North Valley congregation and each have remained the same:  a commitment to diversity, keeping its tent wide and open, valuing music and dance as a means for Jewish spirituality, and joy trumping prescription.  
The building is more of a campus with a feel of a kibbutz with flowers and open space that is cared for by a committee of 9 and two artists who provide oversight and care in exchange for trade.  There is no Rabbi and there may not be one for a while.  The leader of the Community Band for the last 19 years serves as the Congregation’s cantor and with its lay leadership and parents, a bustling religious school cares for the 30 children always prioritizing community and joy over prescription. She and the band are also the bridge to the community performing at community events and often the first call when anyone in the community is planning a simchah (celebration) such as a wedding.

Still with a membership that hovers 100 households, the realization that the Congregation cannot build its budget on much more and continues to make the commitment not to make dues more than a pay what you can, suggested one to two percent of your income and there are no tickets for the High Holidays.  “How can we stand with integrity behind a philosophy of being an open tent, there for the most marginalized and have a pay to pray philosophy,” says, Congregational President Emet Ma’ayan.

The Congregation has always employed an administrator and for the first time that position has been elevated to hiring a Jewish Professional for the position. Diane “Dena” Palley is a lifelong Jewish artist and Jewish educator.  
“Some could say we are a Congregation without a Rabbi. It’s more accurate to say we are a Chavurah with a big budget.” says Amy Sweet, congregant, parent and Cheder teacher.

One of the most promising parts of the congregation continues to be its Sephardic and Crypto Jewish community which is referred to as their “Casa Sefarad”. For the last two decades, this group has been meeting for monthly Spanish speaking Shabbat dinners and eventually started a weeklong annual festival – “Festival Djudeo-Espanyol”, art shows, and using social media for awareness and community building.  Members from this group serve on statewide and national Crypto Jewish organizations and the group has attracted the interest of a Sephardic Rabbi who chose NM as his home to be closer to the community.

 “This group of Sephardim and Crypto Jews who didn’t grow up in a synagogue and certainly not comfortable in a mainstream Ashkanazik synagogue was often the fringe group of an already fringe synagogue” says Hershel Weiss.  However, with change comes opportunity and without a Rabbi to lead, the community had to find their own voice and in doing so, the voice of this critical community got louder, says Ma’ayan.  

Congregation Nahalat Shalom is getting ready for its High Holiday services with its Community Klezmer band led by their Cantor Beth Cohen.  The children are preparing a creation pageant for the opening of Rosh Hashanah with costumes and decorated banners as they parade in to the band playing and all eyes upon them.  A local Rabbi will lead the service, paid by a one-time contract, as the rest of the year’s holidays and Shabbat services are led by its members with the support of the band.  No tickets are being printed and all are welcome.   If you wish to learn more about Congregation Nahalat Shalom or attend services, you are most welcome.