This past Sunday, I gave a talk on The Rise and Decline of the Karaite Movement to a group in Columbia, Maryland. Before that, I spent the weekend in Baltimore with an Orthodox Rabbi affiliated with Agudath Israel.
For those who do not know, Agudath Israel is about as Orthodox as it gets in the United States. Every conversation I had was filled with insight. I learned a lot more than religion; I saw first hand what Karaites must do to survive the next generation and beyond.
First, I should tell you a little about this congregation. The membership comprises about 300 families and about half of the adult men in the congregation are ordained rabbis. Yes, you read that right: half.
- Lesson #1: You can never have too many educated people. Put differently, being educated is not just for the congregational leader. This reminds me of something Eli Shemuel once told me. His peers view him as super-religious and super-knowledgeable. He told me that in an ideal world, his current level of knowledge would be right in the middle of the road.
The congregation supports 300 families with only two employees (a rabbi and a janitor) and about 80 volunteers. In fact, I happened to be there for a volunteer appreciation kiddush. The rabbi with whom I was staying was noticeably *not* eating the cholent. I told him that he better eat up, otherwise people might think he is a heretic. 
- Lesson #2: We can accomplish a lot with committed volunteers. Agudath Israel has a volunteer whose sole job is to replace all the burned out light bulbs. This is his role and it is awesome. The Karaite Jewish movement actually has a nice stable of volunteers. We generally have only a few full-time employees – the KJA has none.
- Lesson #3: Thank your volunteers. This seems like it would be obvious, but we all (especially Karaite Jews) can do a lot better in this department.
One of the most inspiring stories I heard while at the synagogue was that there is a 74 year old rabbi who teaches a class on Jewish business ethics. He teaches this class to approximately 30 people every Thursday night at 11 p.m. And after he finishes this class, he goes to another congregation and teaches the same class to another group of people at 12:30 a.m.
- Lesson #4: Learning takes dedicated teachers and students. The Karaites in Israel are doing a much better job of this than the Karaites in the United States. But if we want Karaite Judaism to succeed, we need to get serious about education. And we cannot just rely on blog posts and online videos. We need serious face-to-face education. And we need to be open for business (almost) 24 hours a day and (almost) 365 days a year.
After services on Saturday at Agudath Israel, the rabbi whom I was visiting introduced me to another rabbi who was leading a class on the weekly Torah portion. The class was geared toward beginners or casual learners and there were only three students: (i) me (a Karaite); (ii) another man; and (iii) a woman.
- Lesson #5: There are never too few students for a class. This reminds me of something Hakham Moshe Firrouz told me. He was leading a class of young Karaites somewhere in Israel. At the first class, there were only two students, and one asked, “Only two of us?” Hakham Firrouz responded, “There are more with us than with them.” (See 2 Kings 6:16.) By the way, the class grew to 10 students in just a few weeks and is still going (and growing) strong.
Agudath Israel does all this with a less than glamorous synagogue. According to my rabbi friend, the synagogue was cobbled together as the community grew.
- Lesson # 6: The vibrancy of a community is measured first by its people and programs and then by its facilities. This is something we Karaites need to be mindful of. First build a community, then build a building.
Finally, I want to thank everyone who came to my talk in Columbia, MD. I hope to see you all again soon.
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[1.] Because Karaites objected to open flames on Shabbat, they historically ate cold food on Shabbat, and any Jew who did not eat hot food on the Sabbath was also suspected of being a Karaite. See John Cooper, Eat and be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food, p. 102 (“It is likely that the clash of opinion between the rabbis and the Karaite apologists in the Middle Ages led to a renewed emphasis on serving hot food on the Sabbath and to the further evolution of the Sephardic dish of hamin, from the Hebrew word for hot, and its Ashkenazic equivalent known as cholent. Both the Geonim and a later fourteenth century rabbi known as Abudarham held that anyone who refrained from eating hot food on the Sabbath was drifting close to heresy.”)