Why I Write to Half-Empty Pews

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09 May 2018

When we moved to Charleston, we knew we were looking at a very different community than the large community of Houston, which we had just left (and certainly from the very large communities of the Five Towns and Skokie, where we came from).

Among the many differences was that Jews in Charleston often do not show up en masse to shul on Shabbos. It took me a few years to realize that some of these people are actually very engaged in shul life and feel very passionately about our shul, and even Judaism. They just show it in different ways than I am used to.

Our shul is very large (built to hold 500 people) and probably one of the most beautiful and majestic shuls I’ve ever seen, with grand pillars and the most gorgeous stained glass windows that I sometimes stare at when I should be davening. Our shul, BSBI (Brith Sholom Beth Israel)  is actually a consolidation of two shuls (Brith Sholom and Beth Israel) and the balconies were transferred from one building to ours in the 1950’s. But because our shul is so large and not that many of our 200 members go to shul every week, the shul is often far from full on Shabbos.

And what this spells out is that often on Shabbos, as is common in synagogues in Charleston, my husband is giving thought-provoking and inspiring drashot (lectures) to mostly empty pews.

We came to Charleston fully armed with information and we knew this would be the case. Before we arrived, Rabbi David Radinsky, who had been the Rabbi at BSBI for many years, gave the following advice to my husband: even if one person comes to a class, you are there to build him/her. Each person is an entire universe to him/herself.

And so, my husband’s approach to his job has always been to build individual neshamot, souls. We’ve been so blessed that, in our 6 years in Charleston, with the help of Hashem, he’s brought a number of neshamot back to Judaism and, inadvertently, truly built community and our shul. But the work is slow. I won’t lie and say it’s never frustrating. And often I have to repeat his words to myself, it’s all about building neshamot. Those words (when I remind myself about them) have kept me grounded and reminded me what it’s all about when community life becomes political.

Despite the growth of our shul, despite our concentration on individuals, the Shabbatot with many empty pews can be disheartening. And although my husband shares every drasha with passion, I know it can’t be easy.

I know because sometimes it seems as if I write to empty pews.

I’ve always been an impassioned person. And along with passion comes the desire to share that passion. To make others see the world the way I do. To effect change. And this is why I write.

I put my heart into my writing, hoping to impart to others the beauty and relevance of Judaism, to open their eyes to new ideas and to invoke a love of Israel for those who don’t have the same exposure to Israel education that I have had. I wonder, though, how many people actually read what I write and, if they do, if it resonates. Do they read and just not respond? Or do they just move to the next item given the overload of posts? The reality is, in today’s world, when so many organizations and bloggers have a platform with the democratic opportunity of social media, many impassioned messages get lost in the mass of information. How many of us read the plethora of announcements from our shuls and schools and organizations? How many of us read the blogs of all of our Facebook friends?

And I get it. Because on the other side of being a writer and hoping people will read my material and the newsletters I work on, I live another life of harried working wife/mother/rebbetzin who often crashes on a couch at the end of a long day in exhaustion. I honestly don’t read many of the newsletters that come in my inbox or all of my friends’ blogs. With the juggling acts that we all have with work, home, general life and hobbies, there isn’t much head space left. When we are exhausted after a long day, most people would rather watch a Tasty video with a recipe (that by the way, never turns out the way it does on the video) than read an impassioned piece about why we need to improve or challenge a view we’ve always had. Who has energy for that?

And as much as I understand, this can all lead to the disheartened feeling of why try so hard when it’s just shouting against the wind. I ask myself, why do I continue writing? Shouldn’t I spend my time doing more practical things, like cleaning my disaster of a house and tackling my mile-high to-do list, rather than typing away on a computer?

So many of us experience this: the psychologist whose patient won’t heed his/her advice, the teacher whose students tune out his/her impassioned lessons, the cardiologist whose patient with high blood pressure keeps eating high cholesterol foods, the parent whose child just won’t listen.

Why do we still keep trying? Why do we give impassioned speeches to half-empty pews?

The answer for us impassioned people, is because we need to. Or to quote a line from Newsies, an amazing movie whose message is ironically, about the power of [the messengers of] the press, “There’s a fire inside you that won’t stop burning.”

Maybe I am not impacting the world with my words and thoughts, as is my dream. But there may be one unknown person reading, and, to them, perhaps my words resonate. In the world of the Internet, that face is mysterious and I may never know who he is or she is, or if this person is a figment of my imagination. But I plug away because I need to do my part in trying to make a difference.

And so, learning a lesson from Rabbi Radinsky, and from my husband who is my teacher in life (not because he happens to my husband, but because his calm and sincere approach to life is a lesson for anyone who knows him), I write because one person, sitting quietly on his pew, contemplating my words, is worth my efforts.

Ariela Davis is the Director of Judaics at Addlestone Hebrew Academy and the Rebbetzin of Brith Shalom Beth Israel, the historic shul of downtown Charleston, South Carolina. She writes and speaks about issues related to Israel, the Holocaust and Jewish thought. She can be reached at arieladavis@gmail.com

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.