Thank you to Esther Mack for transcribing this episode.
Note: This transcript has not yet been edited. There may be small transcription errors. Please do not publicly quote from the transcript without checking the audio for accuracy.
Dan Libenson: This is Judaism Unbound, Episode 113 – Embrace the Weird.
Dan Libenson: Welcome back, everyone. I'm Dan Libenson . . .
Lex Rofeberg: . . . and I'm Lex Rofeberg.
Dan Libenson: We are continuing our exploration of spiritual entrepreneurship – specifically looking at organizations that have been working, over the last year, with the innovation department at Clal, trying to develop new approaches to creating meaningful Jewish community and Jewish organizations. Our guest today is Miriam Terlinchamp, the rabbi of a small but growing congregation in Cincinnati, Ohio, called Temple Sholom.
The story of Temple Sholom is truly extraordinary, and we’re excited to get into it. Just to give you a little bit of a teaser, Miriam Terlinchamp was the rabbi there for a few years when she realized that the synagogue had to do some extraordinary things to turn itself around and explore new directions. She led the synagogue to sell its building and its land, put half the money in a lockbox, use the other half to reimagine the way that a synagogue should work without owning a building – and she is now leading the synagogue to become a hub of social justice work.
Temple Sholom has documented its extraordinary journey with a series of equally extraordinary high-quality videos that we’ll link to in the show notes. But I strongly urge you to go and look at these video – they are truly something special. They document the journey of Temple Sholom, from the idea of selling the building and taking a new direction through where they are now. They also include a number of other videos about typical things that synagogues have to deal with, typical things that all organizations have to deal with – all kinds of really wonderful videos. We’ll talk to Miriam about why they started to create them.
Miriam Terlinchamp grew up in Seattle, Washington, at a Conservative synagogue where her mother was the executive director. She took a detour for a number of years to study art and work in that field – she was a graphic designer for a while – but eventually decided to become a rabbi and was ordained from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion of Reform Judaism.
Before coming to Temple Sholom, Miriam Terlinchamp was a chaplain at the Los Angeles County Men’s Jail and the Los Angeles Home for the Aging. In addition to being the rabbi at Temple Sholom, Miriam Terlinchamp is currently the president of the AMOS Project, the largest faith-based organizing body in Ohio, with 55 Cincinnati-area congregations as members. She is active in the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, and serves on several boards and committees within the Cincinnati Jewish community. In addition, she is working to create Just Love – a multifaith movement provoking love and action.
Miriam Terlinchamp, welcome to Judaism Unbound – we are thrilled to explore the story of Temple Sholom and your social justice work with you. Thank you so much for joining us.
Miriam Terlinchamp: Thanks – it’s great to be here.
Dan Libenson: This is one of those cases where our guest is a media star in her own right. We have really enjoyed the videos that you’ve made, and I’m looking forward to jumping into that topic later in the conversation.
I thought it would be really great to open with your professional project – the one that actually, I think, you’re drawing a paycheck from – which is being the rabbi of a synagogue in Cincinnati, Temple Sholom. You have really done some remarkable things with that temple … I think it’s things that our listeners would be really surprised to understand the depth to which a synagogue is going to in reimagining what a synagogue is all about, and how to go about the business of being a synagogue, and how to make some really challenging decisions that help the synagogue make sure that it’s doing what it needs to be doing – and doing it best as it can.
I was wondering if you could walk us through a little bit of the story of, let’s say, how you came to Temple Sholom, and what happened. Our listeners will have no idea what the story of Temple Sholom is – so could you give us a little bit of that story, and then some sense of how you came to go on a path that not too many synagogues yet have taken?
Miriam Terlinchamp: When I took the job at Temple Sholom, I had never been to the Midwest before – I’m West Coast all the way, and grew up in Seattle, and was trained in Los Angeles. When I got to Ohio, I was like, “This is the most foreign place I’ve ever been.” My dad lived in Brazil at the time – so it’s not like I hadn’t been other places. It was just culturally really different.
When I saw Temple Sholom, it was dying by every traditional standard. We had lost … we had bled people, actually – we were half the size that we had been ten years beforehand, or five years beforehand. We were running out of money, and our building, which was 30,000 square feet on six acres, was at the height of its beauty in 1992. It was suffering.
I was fresh out of school, and I thought, “Okay – I might go there and shut it down, but it won’t be my fault. Or I’ll go there and I’ll get to build something great – and maybe it will be because of me.” in the end, it wasn’t because of either of those things, but it allowed me an opportunity to be creative. I took the job, and I thought, “All right, I’ll be here for a couple years and we’ll see how it goes.”
We started changing things immediately, and we didn’t see any change – it didn’t grow, it didn’t do anything. I was visiting my mom … she was getting an award, and my cousin had made a video for her. He makes films in Los Angeles. After watching the movie that he had made for he, I said, “I wish we could do that for my synagogue.” He’s like, “Oh, Miriam, I’ll come out there and do it for you.” At that point, I had been there about three years, and I wasn’t feeling like we were moving at the pace we needed to move.
He came and he tried to research and talk to people and see what our message was, or our branding would be. He comes back and he’s like, “Miriam, there’s nothing original about you guys.” I told my congregation, I was like, “You guys, we have nothing to offer – there’s nothing unique about us, except that, basically, we’re the nerds on the street. Not the cool nerds – the ones that no one wants to have lunch with.” I was like, “We’re never going to be the cool ones – but we could be Portlandia. We could change and embrace the weird and be bold with that, and then figure out how to run with that.”
And then – here’s the aggressive nature of me, is that my cousin and I ended up making this movie, and it was our first movie, and it was about vision. If you don’t have a cheeky sense of humor, you would think it’s the lamest thing ever.
It was a ball passing on. He kept saying, “If you didn’t have this burden or that burden … if you didn’t have trouble getting members, and if your people were younger, and if you had the money, what would it be?” I would joke with him and wax philosophical, and he started filming it. Then we cast people who were a great support to the synagogue, but weren’t so excited about what was happening in synagogue. We cast them complaining about things. If you see the movie, you’ll see parts where I’m interrupted by my amazing president at the time. She’s like, “We just have to build more in our building – that will fix things.” There’s one point where my treasurer at the time is telling me how I should recruit millennials while I’m fixing the toilet. We just joked like that.
We turned it into this movie, and then we showed it to them at the annual meeting. They had no idea it was coming. At the end of the movie, we say that the building speaks and says, “I’m your inheritance – sell me.” That’s how we began that conversation of what would it mean if we had the capital from our building and could use it to invest in the future.
I wasn’t interested in selling and just putting the money into a new place – that was a really big deal to me, that we needed a vision, a plan. We came up with seven mission statements – short mission statements of how we were going to affect the Missional community in the Jewish world, and basically what would set us apart. Basically, all we had the word “spiritual” in front of them – but how do you spiritually spend … At that point, we were, 80% of our budget was being spent on infrastructure – and we wanted to flip the percentage within five years. Everything was based on five years. We wanted to grow as a community, in terms of numbers, but also in terms of differences – embrace Portlandiaand expand our arms really broadly, and not just by putting stickers on the window, but really actively searching out to build a Portland in Cincinnati.
Now we’re in this place where we’ve grown 10% every year. We’ve completely changed our financial model, and our percentage of age and demographics and inclusion are through the roof.
Dan Libenson: My understanding of what your story is, on very basic here’s-what-happened level, is that you came in in 2010 and, as you’ve described, until 2013 it was … you were just going about trying to wrap your mind around being a rabbi of a congregation. Then this whole story began with your cousin and the movie.
My understanding as an outsider is that, essentially, you inherited a synagogue that had a building that was built for about 400 families. Am I right in understanding that what you ultimately … what the community ultimately decided to do was to sell the building and the land, to completely monetize the value of the building. Can you tell us a little bit about the story of exactly what you did, and how it freed capital?
Miriam Terlinchamp: I think it’s the extra part, the weird part of what we did. I was totally uninterested in selling the building and land just to go and buy more building and land – that was uninteresting to me. I actually said, I was like, “You guys, you need to sell this no matter what – it needs to happen. If you want to go do that, and just downsize into another space, you’re welcome to, I will encourage you, I will support you – but I will not be with you. I will leave, if that’s what will happen.” It wasn’t a threat – it was just, “We’re in different ways.” There’s been different points in our synagogue history where we’ve had that conversation really honestly.
What we did is we sold the building and the land, and we took half the proceeds and put them into an account we couldn’t touch, so that it could grow as fast as it could. We put all these protections in it, so if we break it before five years we have some kind of penalty, and at seven years it frees up again. We made it so we protected it from ourselves. The other half, the agreement was that we get to spend all the way down in five years. We planned on a deficit for five years – that we were going to take that whole half of the proceeds and invest into the vision. It’s pretty high risk.
We build in one place at two and a half years – which is exactly where we are at now – where if we weren’t hitting specific measured goals, and it looked like we were bleeding money or something like that, that they could stop the plan, pull the money out, spend it on a building, fire me – all of it out. There was one failsafe in there. But it was a pretty big jump for a congregation to do.
Dan Libenson: When you have things like services and religious school, or whatever your version of that is – and we’ll get to that – where does that actually take place?
Miriam Terlinchamp: I’m going to give you two answers to that question – one is a simple, easy answer, and one is a longer one. We are currently in an office park in a suburban areaof Cincinnati that has a lot of Jews in it. It fits about 130 people for services, it has four classrooms, it has a boardroom and office space. It’s pretty minimal – we rent. We thought we’d be here five years, so we decorated so that we’d have five years of growth in it. We’re at two, and we already know we probably won’t be able to last for another year in here. That’s the probably, like being too pretty – it’s like, “We’re too big for our space now.”
The longer answer to that is that looking at neighborhood and spacing was really difficult. In Cincinnati, all the Reform communities are within about 10 minutes of each other. We actually were on synagogue row – so there’s four synagogues within two blocks of each other. There was this presumed expectation that all the Jewish community lived in a certain area.
I really wanted to go back to Roselawn, which was a Jewish area in the 60s, and then with white flight it became a predominately black area. If you go into the areas, you see mezuzot still on the … you see Jewish scrolls on the doors that have been painted over. There’s this huge JCC – Jewish community Center – with this big pool with a Jewish star in the middle of it that is now a black Baptist church. I really wanted to share space with them. I worked really, really hard to share space with them, and my community, in the end, just wasn’t ready. I said, “Okay, guys, let’s go to the suburban, easy area for now – but I’m going to come back here. We’re going to come back to this area and start this healing process between our communities.”
The most amazing part of our story, I would say, is that when we moved we lost two percent of our population. We lost some people, but not very many – most of us stayed with us. The biggest changes we had, in terms of population affiliation, happened with our justice work – not with a change of our building, not with leaving the dues structure behind, not with getting rid of membership. We didn’t lose anyone at those things. I think it’s because, once we made the decision, we continued to check in with each other. Our listening campaigns went on cyclically – we were constantly listening to each other and saying, “We’re still here, right? We’re still here, right?” We’re in the middle of the seas, and we’re looking for promised land. But it was hard.
I think that we’re in this amazing moment in our Jewish world right now where we don’t know what’s going to happen in the next generation, but we’ve got the next 20 years where we’re moving from this cusp to the next cusp, and it’s our job to imagine this moment – not really what’s going to happen 50 years from now, but just what’s happening right now, and that we actually could do something about it.
I think just saying that over and over again – we’re just going to do this. Not for the next generation, either, just for us. Just for the Jews who are here right now – let’s just figure out for us, in this moment, and then we’ll figure out what’s on the other side. That conversation just seemed to work.
Lex Rofeberg: You used what I love as a metaphor or role model a few times – Portlandia, and Portland in Cincinnati. I want to make sure that for any listeners who, maybe they have a sense what you’re getting at, I’d love to make sure that everybody knows what you mean by that. When you say that you’re looking to Portlandia, and to Portland in Cincinnati, what do you mean by that, and how were you able to start taking steps towards becoming that?
Miriam Terlinchamp: The biggest issue that my congregation faced when I assumed the role as their spiritual leader was that they weren’t proud of themselves – they had a really bad morale about who they were, and so they weren’t recruiting anyone, because they didn’t like themselves, either. Our first marketing effort was really internal – why are you here, why are you still here, why do you want others to be here?
That survey found that a lot of the people who came to our congregation were people from other parts of our country and world – which is a little unusual in Cincinnati. When you ask someone in Cincinnati, “Where did you go to school?” they mean their high school – they don’t mean someplace else. It turns out that Temple Sholom was a place where, if you weren’t of here, you could still belong here, and that our particular niche was belonging … being a new tribe, really, for those who had no tribe.
When I say we’re like Portlandia, I meant to fully embrace the weird, to celebrate it, and to welcome fellow travelers who are like you. When you come to a service here, there are tattoos, there’s piercings, there’s a lot of queer folk, different races, economic statuses. We say we want all those things – all of us say we want those things – but it’s really hard to live it. We were already living it before I did anything about it.
The hardest movie for me to release … actually, every movie we’ve released I have freaked out about, and I’m like, “We’re going to lose our jobs,” every single time. There was one called “The Way We’ve Always Done It Demon.” If you see the cover of it, it’s this guy covered in green – it’s super freaky. I was like, “You know, sometimes you make art and you put it in the world and everyone hates it – but it was your truth, and your art.” I was like, “This is Temple Sholom in a nutshell – we just put weird Gollum freaky movies out there about change, and it works for us.” It turned out that that was the one that got the first time, I think, we had 400,000 viewers. I was like, “Man, there’s a whole Jewish community of weird people wanting to listen to weird and celebrate that. We’re not alone in this – we have a really wide community that wants to hear this message.”
Dan Libenson: It’s so interesting, because it feels like, in a way that I wasn’t expecting to know that we would be talking about it … But when you think about the structure of the Jewish community of the twentieth century, a lot of it was defined by geography. Why do we need to have eight Reform synagogues in the city, for example – there’s eight different neighborhoods. Or I guess in your, in Cincinnati’s case, there isn’t even – they’re all in a row – so I’m not even sure what the answer is. But there’s some reason why our services are a little different, or whatever.
What you’re describing is a new way of organizing Jewish life. I can even imagine that people – and maybe they do, right – people join your synagogue who are not Reform because they gravitate towards the sense of what this community is about, or they like the vibe – and it’s not really about Jewish denominational ideology at all. I guess my question is whether you’re on the cusp of almost discovering through experimentation some new organizing principle for Jewish community.
Miriam Terlinchamp: That would be amazing. I hear this word a lot among my Christian colleagues – they say, “I’m transdenominational.” I’m like, “I want to be that – what is that?” I think that’s probably what we’re all co-creating in our own way. I’m thankful to my colleagues who are keeping the status quo in a really positive way – I don’t mean that with any criticism. Because of them keeping synagogues stable and the same, I am able to experiment in a safe way. If I fail, it’s just me – and my community can still go and join other congregations afterwards, they’ll still have a Jewish home. But if they failed, I don’t think I’d have the foundation to do it.
That being said, I do think we’re working towards something really different. I don’t like organized religion, and I don’t think that many people my age like it either – the idea of affiliating with an institution. If the own rabbi of an institution feels that way, I can’t even imagine the other people, non-Kool Aid-drinking-rabbis, who feel that same way too. I felt like I had two choices – one is leave institutional Judaism and go fly this flag someplace else, or try to change it from the inside. So that’s what we did.
Dan Libenson: That might be a good opportunity to get a little bit in to your story, because I’m intrigued by a rabbi who actually is leading a congregation who says she doesn’t like organized religion, or doesn’t connect to institutions. How did you even get into this business in the first place?
Miriam Terlinchamp: Oh. So my mom is executive director of a very large synagogue – Conservative synagogue – in Seattle. My parents divorced when I was a teenager, and my mom was a single mother. Every day after school, we’d spend the time in the synagogue – we’d do our homework there, and I took my first jobs there, and all those things. I think that a lot of kids grow up – especially in the Conservative world – very separate from their faith … it’s something we use and come back to. For us, the synagogue was this place that had free cake after bar mitzvahs, and we hid in the ark for a great hide and seek – it was home, in its own way.
And yet, I really saw how everything was made. On High Holidays, my mom was getting there at five a.m. and making sure the police were there and that there was toilet paper in the bathrooms and that the light is checked. I thought, “Wow – congregational life is horrible.” I think that some kids rebel and do drugs – and in my family, you rebelled and became a rabbi.
I fought it a really long time – I really didn’t want to do it. I went to art school, I tried lots of other things. I’m a deeply faithful person, and I believe that I was called by God to serve my community, and that call kept getting stronger. I didn’t know what the call of my rabbinate was until about three years ago – up until then, I just knew I was called to the rabbinate, not more than that.
Lex Rofeberg: I want to really hone in on a point that you made briefly, but that I think we haven’t spoken about but is really widespread … which is this lack of self-confidence that you found in your community, and almost a shame around congregational identity.
I’ve had an experience recently … My wife and I, we live in Providence. We shopped around to different congregations when I first moved back here. We ended up deciding to join this dinky little Reconstructionist congregation in Attleboro, Massachusetts. We decided to join, and one of the first times we were … we went there a bunch of times before we joined, but one of the first times we went there after we joined, we mentioned we live in Providence, which is a 20 minute drive. It’s not far, but it’s a drive, and there’s congregations in Providence we could have joined. They were like, “Why did you join us?” It was this devastating, tragic thing to me. This was somebody on their board, or involved very deeply in their community. I’m like, “Because you’re great. Because this is a wonderful, tight-knit little community that supports one another,” in a way that I didn’t necessarily see … not that the Providence congregations are bad. I felt seen in this small little place, and it was nice. I identified all of these wonderful things about this community, and time after time in the oneg conversations, people were like, “Really? You’re the young people, and you’re in Providence, and you’re coming here?”
You can talk about your community a little more if you like, but also, to the general point that exists so many places … what would you say to folks who think of their congregations as something they’re not proud of … they joined because their parents have been there, or whatever the thing is. How would you try to explain to people, or help people identify, what is special in their congregations? Or maybe how did you, in that process you undertook?
Miriam Terlinchamp: I wasn’t very nice about it. I think that lack of pride was just seeing loss instead of a slendering down of an essential part of … part of, I think, why we didn’t lose that many people in the move is because whoever was going to leave left already – so what we had was people who were going to stay, and were committed to what it was going to be.
I said to my community, I said, “No one wants to join us, because no one wants to go on a date with the guy who doesn’t have any self-confidence. If you don’t think you’re cool, then why should I go out with you? You got to go after the greatest looking one over there – you have to believe that you can get that date.” We talked a little bit about that, and I just named it a lot. It’s really not fun to be with people who don’t think that they’re interesting – it’s not fun to be with people who don’t believe that they’re loved, especially when they’re sitting in the land of plenty – there’s so much going on that should be loved.
I think the confidence thing is not just in our congregations – I think it’s a systemic Jewish issue. I run into it with converts a lot. My husband’s a Jew by choice, my father’s a Jew by choice – I’m connected to it. I feel like many Jews are surprised when someone chooses Judaism – they’re like, “Why? Why did you want to convert?” There’s this line in the traditional conversion ceremony that says, “We rejoice in welcoming into our midst one who willingly and devotingly helps replenish the ranks of our people.” I think about that … that in our conversion, in our welcoming, we admit that we’ve lost something in the process – and who would want to be part of us, if we’re the group that gets killed? Why would you want to do this? We have so many freaking holidays, and weird restrictions – why would you want to be part of us? Especially in the Reform community, when you don’t need to convert – you don’t need to. You can just live amongst us. You don’t need to get married – you can just live together. I think that starts at our source – that we don’t know why people actually want to be us.
Lex Rofeberg: I’m flashing to a conversation we had way back when with Pico Union Project, actually – this experimental interesting community in California, in LA. They were talking over and over about love your neighbor as yourself, and they hammer it, hammer it, hammer it. What they were saying is in order to love your neighbor, you have to know your neighbor. But there’s another side of it, which is, in order to love your neighbor as yourself, it implies you need to love yourself. Loving your neighbor as yourself means nothing if you don’t love yourself – it just means you’re neutral to your neighbor. I feel like that’s important to keep in mind in this self-confidence teaching that you’re giving us.
Shifting maybe, but also not shifting … I’d love to hear a little more, what are some of these videos you’ve done? You’ve mentioned that video production has become a big part of what you do – both internal marketing and externally. What are some highlights for folks? We’ll also have these … for those of you listening, these are on our website in the show notes for this episode. What are these videos that you’ve created, and what have been some ongoing themes in them?
Miriam Terlinchamp: I think the important thing to explain, before I go into these videos, is that most synagogues spend one percent or less of their budget on marketing … we spend closer to eight to eleven percent, depending on exactly what we’re doing that year, which is more in line with most small businesses. The first year was all for internal marketing – trying to raise awareness, and being able to sell our vision to ourselves. I did that with videos, and we did it with letters, and then we also have these beautiful color printouts that are in all our bathroom stalls.
From there, we started to realize that our message was more universal. At first it was self-serving – we have an online community, and we wanted higher awareness, and we wanted to get some income from the online community. We put out something at High Holidays that was fun, and that year all of our High Holiday needs were paid for by our online community. That was the first time we got a taste of what it could be.
We created these videos, and we continue to create them – we create somewhere between four and six high-end videos a year, and then lots of small ones internally, because we never let go of the internal stuff – that’s always the number one. Then match what you’re saying in your video to what you’re doing – so if you’re like, “It’s the most innovative, interesting, creative place in the world, and so musical and fun,” and then they walk in, and it’s like, “Womp womp …” You can’t do that. It has to always match your actions. That takes time.
We realized that we had an additional resource here, that we could get a Jewish message – or just a faith message or a meaning message – out there, and that we only cast members of our community. Now, it’s awesome to go from they never were able to speak on camera to everyone knows how to mic up, they understand the takes, they understand lighting. They really learn this whole new skill. It’s people of all different ages. We’ve upped the ante in terms of being able to articulate ourselves, and be able to deliver messages, and Jewish messages at that. When they can go into other places and speak about us, they understand our mission very clearly, because they’ve had to do it eight thousand times for the camera.
On complicated things, like “The Way We’ve Always Done It Demon,” or “The Little Table,” or “Someone Else,” we tend to cast people we’ve had the issue with. I say, “Hey, ploni– person – you and I have struggled on this issue before. Would you act in this? What would you say in this?” We figure out the problem that the two of us have had, or the congregation’s had with each other, and we write that part together. In the end, we’ve fixed our relationship in some way – we’ve healed that particular wound – and in the meantime, we’ve done this weird, funny thing, and shared it with the world – but internally, it created some health.
Then I went through a phase where I was making study sheets, so if people wanted to use them for their boards, they could do them. No one wanted to do them – that wasn’t very successful. They just wanted to push play. Now we have this large non-Jewish following – so that’s an interesting … of moving from synagogue to faith-based organizations to just nonprofits, and how that works.
Dan Libenson: Can you tell us a little bit about where you are now, five years into this process, in terms of some of those standard measures? How many families are there now, et cetera, and whatever you think is important? And also, can you give us a little bit more color on what it is that you’re now doing differently as a synagogue?
Miriam Terlinchamp: The biggest change is that there was some stuff that had happened a couple years ago, and the ages changed. We didn’t necessarily grow in terms of people, but the types of people changed. It was like a blood transfusion that happened. Our average age went from upper sixties to closer to the forties. For an example, we had no one in K, first grade, or second grade the first few years that I was there – and this year, our kindergarten class is fourteen kids. That’s an example of how we’ve changed.
Programming changes by about 15 to 20 percent each year, so we’ve had huge changes there. Financially, we’ve raised 10% more this year than we did last year – it’s true each time. We’ve doubled our endowment – we had, I think, ten legacy gifts beforehand – maybe a little less than that – and now, this year, I think we have 33.
The first thing that we started to do was change our welcoming. Before, it was like fresh meat walking through the door, and they would just sic on them like wolves. I was like, “That doesn’t feel welcoming – that feels like an attack.” We worked really hard on welcoming. One of the things we’ve done for the last five years or six years is something we call “Shul and Fuel.” This would only really work in a liberal environment, but I think it’s the most successful thing that we do. That’s every day after services, we say, “Where is the restaurant?” and they pick a local restaurant that’s affordable. It’s just shul, and then they go to fuel. About 75% of the people who come on Friday nights will go out to dinner together. It’s built in engagement, it’s built in something that you can do, it’s affordable. We did nothing to make it happen, and it’s a fun part of the services that people look forward to.
We had some of the standard things, in terms of education, and upped our ante in terms of what we were offering. We live in a city with HUC – the Hebrew Union College – so we have wonderful teachers that are available to us. Then we do a lot of justice work, from small to large – and that seemed to really affect what we were doing and how we were doing it.
One thing that we did is that we changed our entire board structure. The youngest person on our board was 50, and he was the youngest by ten or so years. He was like, “This can’t be that way.” So what we did is we moved our board meetings to quarterly, they’re on Sunday mornings for two hours, and they’re only vision-driven. We got rid of almost all of our committees, and we moved to teams. Now when you ask someone to do something, you pick one or two other people – so there’s two- or three-person teams – with one year assignments. There’s none of this two years, and then going to the next year – it’s all very small, missional things that are accomplishable. What happened in the two years that we started that is that we flipped the ratio of age and demographic on our board.
Lex Rofeberg: I feel like a lot of folks, when thinking about synagogue change or synagogue priorities, it’s sort of like, “Well, we could try to go the young families route, or the young people route, or we could try to do the justice route, or we could try to do the religious school.” By the sound of it, in making a lot of these shifts that people talk about … you mentioned your board has gotten younger, but you also mentioned that justice is now a bigger part of what you do. It sounds like these things have gone hand in hand in a really healthy way. Because we’ve heard a little bit about the age change over the last few years that you’ve been doing all these other big changes, I’d love to hear – what does the justice programming that you do look like? What does it look like, for a congregation like yours, to really step up its justice game?
Miriam Terlinchamp: I want to answer that, but I want to answer something before I get to that. Cincinnati is an incredibly great place to be if you’re Jewish, and you’re a Jewish institution, because we have the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati here, who has offered seed money to those who are looking to do innovation. A lot of what I have done, almost all of it is because of them. My first time I pitched to them, I said, “I want to work with Baby Boomers – that’s where it is.” I thought they were more loyal, I thought they had money, and I thought that they had more time, and that that was the niche I was going to go after.
The first time I did it, I think it was a two-year grant. I had to work for it – I worked hard for it – and instead, I got all these millennials. I was like, “What? I don’t want these guys.” I applied for it again. I was like, “This time I’m going to get you, Baby Boomers.” And I got millennials and young families, and then this whole LGBTQI community. I was like, “All right, I’m really glad I got these people – but that’s not what I was looking for.”
I think that we say we want to go after something, we want to change and grow. You have no idea – you don’t know what you’re getting, and you don’t know what you really want, until it’s sitting there in front of you. Just trying a little bit and then saying, “Okay, those weren’t the results I was looking for – but now, what do I do with this particular manna? What am I going to do with this act of grace, and how am I going to build from there?”
Justice … when the uprising started happening in Ferguson, I was really affected. St. Louis is not that far from Cincinnati, but … I had been there once when I was young, and I didn’t have any association with it – but I was really affected by it. I was obsessed with it, and I couldn’t stop watching the news. I was so upset.
I started going to this justice organization. I was often the only white person in the room – I was always the only Jew in the room. At the end, they started trying to make it more ecumenical – so they’d say, “Okay, rabbi, would you offer a prayer or a poem or whatever?” I would oblige, but I didn’t say anything, ever, in these spaces.
Then there was this moment, in about a year of going to these events, where they asked me to do the final prayer like normally in these places. I’m a twofer – I was young, female, and Jewish. I got up to do it, and then the person who handed me the mic said, “And say why you’re here – why do you care about this?” I think that was my second real call, that I realized exactly why I cared about it, and why it was hurting my heart so much, and what I wanted to do about it.
Part of it was that my sister was in a really bad car accident when she was a Fulbright scholar. She was hit by a police officer in Seattle, and sustained a traumatic brain injury – it was very serious. It wasn’t a good situation. The way my mother dealt with her anger about it was to sue everybody – she went after the police, she went after the state. They went and changed a bill, that police officers now have to take a drug and alcohol test after accidents. The way that my family dealt with injustice was to seek justice. I realized, “Wow – my privilege as a white Jewish person who understands that we have a right to justice is so strong, and I am connected to this in all of these ways.”
I came back to my community, and I was like, “Hey, new sheriff’s in town – we’re going to change this.” We helped pass universal preschool in Cincinnati – we had phone banks and organized it. It was all them – I just cared about it and preached hard about it. Were amazing about it is they let me yell at them – they let me deal with my grief over the situation and discovering this why and discovering this new, painful call. I think the call of justice, for the rabbinate, is pretty awful. I wish the call to the rabbinate was improving camp songs or Sunday school, or something within my reach than racial and economic justice for our world. I just wish it was something I could do.
Then the election happened in November. The day after the election, two-thirds of my community reached out to me. I wrote this email to the community, and I was like, “We can’t tolerate this. There’s so much grief in the world. Everybody show up at the mosque in an hour, and we’re going to overflow that place with love.” And they did – sixty of my people showed up, and they were there … and seven people left my congregation that day. It just continued from there, that there was a group of people who started to join, and a group of people who started to leave.
It took me a while to find a voice of passion, rather than a voice of fire. The next step happened where we declared ourself a solidarity congregation in the Sanctuary Coalition – we were the founders of that here – and a woman namedMaribel Diaz was going to be deported – she’s a mother of four children, and was here illegally. She was on an ankle monitor, and she got picked up. Ohio’s not a great place to be if you’re about to be deported. We fought – we went … from the moment that we got the call that she was going to be deported, 48 hours later we had 500 people showing up. We had a meeting with our senators, we got our governor to agree – it was incredible. And it was all during Passover, so it felt so righteous and connected, and here was this true exodus. If this woman was being deported, then who else could be deported?
I thought we were going to do it … we were on the Rachel Maddow show, we were in the New York Times. I was like, “Our voices matter.” And then she was deported anyways. I don’t think I ever cried as hard as I did in that moment. I couldn’t believe how powerless I actually was. I sent another email, but this one was very different than the one I sent in November, and I said, “Okay, let’s come together again – and all of us who are activists, and tried, we need something, too.” People showed up from all different faiths. That’s when Just Love was born – that’s when this organization was born.
I think of it in different ways. Someone once told me that it’s spiritual sustenance for the resistance – which I like, and is also very partisan. Justice work, I think, is 98% failure – you just constantly losing – and it’s very hard not to surrender to that feeling. What Just Love does is create a liturgy for social justice – that’s what I call it. We create original music, and we have these spiritual gatherings once a month that are led by all different clergy. Then we have small activist groups that are working for systemic change. We’ve built this body of people who show up regularly – much larger than who show up at my Shabbat services – who are from all walks of life, and we’re building justice in our community right now.
Dan Libenson: Can you talk a little bit more about what “spiritual sustenance for the resistance” means and looks like? It’s reminding me of an idea that those who go out and work for justice also need to care for their own spirit – even as they understand that the work of justice is, itself, spiritually uplifting. But I’d love to understand what does this look like when translated into work on the ground.
Miriam Terlinchamp: Our name is Just Love: A New Way to Belong. In the sense that whether you’re searching for faith, or God, or religious activism – whatever you’re looking for – it probably boils down to finding meaning, relationships, and belonging. We say that we’re trying to empower human beings with the knowledge, inspiration, and spiritual support to form meaningful connections for the purpose of furthering justice in our world.
I think that it’s great to do social action project … we’re part of a soup kitchen, we work in a shelter – all of those things are incredibly important. But knowing that you can move the dial on systemic change – and to do that from a faith-based perceptive, with a broad range of allies – I think fuels the spirit in that way.
The team for Just Love is myself, as founder, and then there are three pastors. We do this joke – one is an African American pastor, one is a gay pastor, and one is a white pastor who works in a Hispanic church, and then we also have a friend who is an imam. Together, we sort of are all the clichés put together. I also think that, through our little group of friends, we’ve been able to transform one another’s perspective and opened our minds, and our language, and our assumptions about what people get in this world, and then translate it back to our own communities.
On a basic level, what we do is we do community work within our congregation – so we create these allied relationships and gather signatures and make phone calls, and work towards very specific things … right now, we’re working towards a ballot initiative on mass incarceration. But also creating relationships across traditional silos – so that the Jews might say they care a lot about racial inequities, but they don’t actually have any black friends … well, let’s make those black friends. Or vice versa.
The Passover season’s always really interesting to me – we’ve done this, a couple of years, of having a Freedom or Open Seder, which I think is replicable across the country, and people have been doing it since the 60s.
We found ourselves taking leadership roles in ways that our synagogues and churches couldn’t. My congregation is really strong on racial justice, really strong in homelessness and food insecurity, but gun safety is not something that we touch – Just Love can touch that, though. There’s these places that Just Love can speak from. I write a monthly article in the newspaper, and often I do that under the heading of Just Love, instead of Temple Sholom.
We serve as arbiters in a lot of places when different justice organizations need help, need support, and they need some place … someone who gets justice, but isn’t … one of the other ways, I think, clergy have a unique place, they can spin in that – and we do do that.
Dan Libenson: Before we run out of time, I’m wondering if we could go back to the hyper-local for a minute. Lex and I have talked a lot, over the years, about this aspirational belief that if more congregational rabbis were willing to stand up for justice and to make claims on Judaism, that it can’t be understood – or shouldn’t be understood – if it doesn’t stand for the impulse and the requirement, the command, to do justice, and to lead justice. That if rabbis actually said that, in the strongest possible way, it would create a great interest in joining Jewish community and being part of that. Of course, it would also alienate some people.
It seems that, for the most part, there is too much fear of alienating those people who definitely would be alienated, and definitely would leave the congregation. That the fear of that is in the way of many rabbis doing what, in their hearts, they really would like to do – which is proclaim loudly that this is the only Judaism that’s worth being part of, and that that would actually attract large numbers of people who, right now, feel that they’re excluded because Judaism doesn’t, in their view, or the Jewish institutions, don’t stand for what they stand for – and so then what’s the point?
I guess I’m asking how have you resolved that fear? You say that you’ve paid the price. How did you do it?
Miriam Terlinchamp: I talk a lot about my why – not what we’re doing, but why I’m doing it, why we, as a synagogue, exist in the first place. If it’s not for justice, then what is the point – if it’s not for shared humanity, then what is the point?
I have this Pentecostal friend who said that she, in her seminary experience, was taught that you shouldn’t learn too much – because too much learning quenches the burning. I thought at first, “No Jew would ever say that,” because we’re like, “More learning, more learning.” And yet, I think that that actually might be a little bit true for Jews – that we’ve been trained to intellectualize and to think through things and to question … but we haven’t done a lot of feeling – at least not post-Holocaust – about connecting to God and God’s path, and also walking our walk. We’re really good at thinking our walk, and saying our walk – but walking our walk is really hard.
I have found that, in my rabbinate, I only want people who want to be here. I want every Jew to have a home, and to feel like they belong – and that might not be with me. I’m a really unique taste, and that’s not everyone’s taste – so let me help you find a home that works for you. And to be confident that those who will belong will belong with me, and those who want to belong someplace else, I will help you get there, and erase that mentality.
I think being really honest about the price is important – that not just in people or security, or that you’ll get increased hate mail – and as a Jew, that’s hard – and all the things that go along with that. But also that, once you start doing it, everything else starts to feel meaningless unless it’s there.
I found for myself my rabbinate’s really changed that, in order to be present in a moment, I have to be authentic. That sounds so obvious – but it’s really hard to walk through the world without that armor of my learning, my books, this is the way I’m supposed to be, but instead to be like, “No, human to human connect – what do we need to build, what do we need to risk?”
Lex Rofeberg: Thank you so much for joining us – this has been a fantastic conversation, and we’re really excited to carry with us a bunch of the themes that came on, and revisit it … maybe with you again, but definitely with our future guests as well.
Miriam Terlinchamp: Thank you so much for having me – it was a lot of fun.
Lex Rofeberg: it was a fun one for us, as well, and we hope for all of you out there listening. To close out, we want to do what we do at the end of every episode – which is call out to those of you with your earbuds in, with your car radios on listening to us, and say, “Yo! Be in touch with us.” There are a few ways for you to do that – first, you can head to our Facebook page, Judaism Unbound; you can also hit us up on Twitter at @JudaismUnbound. You can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com. And you can hit up our website, judaismunbound.com. The last plug we like to make is that you can always support us with a financial donation – either on a one time basis, or a monthly recurring basis. You can do either of those at judiasmunbound.com/donate. Thanks so much for listening – and with that, this has been Judaism Unbound.