Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Gone without a Word

Image result for harley parking spacePeople come and go.  A shabbos candle lasts about an hour, a yarhtzeit candle about 24 and a shiva candle about a week, then the flame disappears, though the attraction of the flame usually peters out long before it reaches its end.  Not so with our congregant, a person always noticed, a colorful and omnipresent fixture for his tenure in a place that really lacks of interesting characters.

He arrived unobtrusively, I cannot even remember when or how.  Nearly all our members are from big cities, with a now negligible representation from the European shetl's.  This fellow developed his speech pattern in Arkansas, he mentioned a town that had a small Wikipedia blurb, and entertained us in private conversation and a few pretty good divrei Torah.  I never pressed him on where else he had lived or how he migrated to Wilmington, though I knew he was a military veteran who had medical appointments at our VA.  He had a Harley and pick-up truck, the latter parked in the lot of the synagogue on occasion and the former, which I never actually saw, acquired a designated space in our parking lot right next to the Rabbi's space.  I assumed he is a convert, called to the Torah as ben Avraham, but of adequate proficiency with the blessings and Torah choreography.  His divrei Torah coordinated contemporary themes with the broad theme of the weekly reading though without much detail from the portion itself or from learned sources.  Never asked if he had a job.  He was able to attend morning and evening minyanim pretty much daily, which goes against having to be someplace else during customary working hours but the modern world running around the clock, there are people who have the days off and work after dark.  And while he had served in the military he did not look physically disabled though many a pension comes from PTSD which would not be apparent to a social associate. 

During his years with us, not a lot, he contributed a good deal more than most, despite his somewhat enigmatic presence.  On site twice a day.  When we needed cooking, whether for cholent on shabbos or an occasional barbeque to entice people to congregational meetings, he obtained the supplies and did the cooking, presumably with some kashrut supervision from others more familiar with the rules.  The food was always wonderful.  He would drive the visiting Cantor to the train at the end of shabbos, presumably in the pickup rather than the motorcycle.  I never paid attention to whether he took wine, grape juice or schnapps at kiddush.  But he was both omnipresent and a little obscure.

Then one day the Rabbi asked if somebody could transport the Cantor to his train after Havdalah.  It's a semi-rhetorical request, as everyone has a car and nobody has any other pressing obligation after dark on any Saturday night.  Somebody would get him there, but not his usual ride in the pick-up truck.  It's owner, our curious congregant, had slid out just as suddenly and unobtrusively as he had arrived.  His whereabouts were announced as Georgia, no mention of why.  Wife remained locally.  As tempting as it was to check out whether the extradition laws between Delaware and Georgia were looser than other interstate agreements, I didn't, or more correctly wouldn't know how.  He just seemed curious when here, curious when gone, but a great contributor to the few years he blended among us.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Elusive Kavanah

My Kavanah got up and went.  There is a certain detachment  as I observe the proceedings on shabbos morning.  There is a lot of keva, or set time to do something, and not a lot mental or spiritual immersion into what goes on around me.  It's not really boredom, more a lost opportunity to be doing something else.  Embracing-Engaging-Enriching, the congregation's logo, has not been what I think of in the chapel on shabbos morning or at kiddush afterwards.  It's not work, not that I would want to be at work instead.  It's not recreation, there being ample other times for that.  It's not ruach, at least for me.  As I stare at some of the other people there, it may not be ruach for them either, though I never took a poll.  The Board or Ritual Committee probably never took a poll either.  Attendance speaks for itself, at it has stabilized though never expanded.  That's probably a decent surrogate poll.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Those Goofy CUFI'S

For a while the Rabbi had taken his seat among the Christian Right, most notably an organization called Christians United for Israel.  They would send emissaries to AKSE, our Rabbi would travel downstate to address them.  We both support Israel.  I like watching football on TV.  So did President Nixon.  We were not really allies.  I think you can find commonality in some form if you seek it out in most any pairing, some important as support for Israel, some relatively trivial like football.  These things express a value system but they are not the value system in themselves.  The real value system may be the agents that you choose to enable grander projects, some benevolent and some quite ugly.  CUFI in many ways is antithetical to the Judaism that I was taught in Hebrew School, Ramah, and what I have gleaned on my own many times over since then.

It's been a while since any of them sat in our sanctuary or chapel on a shabbos morning.  They get a comment of praise from the Rabbi when they come, as they should.  They made an effort to be with us, to share what commonality we might have, and in their perspective they think they are probably more of an ally than they really are.  And we have an obligation to welcome visitors and express Derech Eretz.  But there is also a reality, sometimes expressed and sometimes understood tacitly. 

Lenny Bruce used to do a shtick where he would list objects or concepts and label them Jewish or goyish.  Bagel-Jewish; ice hockey-goyish, etc.  AKSE-Jewish; CUFI-goyish.  They've not visited us in a while.  Wonder how many others have taken notice.  I do not miss them.

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Thursday, June 7, 2018

Tenured In

How would a university reach its potential if all faculty were tenured?  Careers last decades, new talent either would never arrive or be temporary.  Not good.  But that is what has become of my shul with some very negative consequences.

Being a democratic organization that has to vote as a congregation but has officers and a Board, a nominating committee arranges a slate and the congregants approve it at a pre-announced meeting.  Some years ago, the term limits for officers was repealed, though not for President.  Virtually the entire slate of VP's has remained unchanged since.  There is no incentive to move on so nobody takes on the role of President.  Last year the President took an extra year by default.  Since nobody is better than our President, the Nominating Committee apparently upgraded by selecting nobody.  Without the medical jokes of space occupying lesions, or whether these officers really have developed any expertise over their 10 years there or whether they have one's year's experience repeated 9 times, this does not bode well for the organization.  Talent depends on advancement, and I just do not see it here.

There are board appointments, mostly same old who have been around for decades, but with the officers tenured in, there really is no upward mobility for them, making it a dead end rubber stamp type of minimally contributory effort.  Four of the ten positions are vacant this year, three last year.  I do not know who the three person Nominating Committee of former Presidents asked but declined or who they excluded.  I must be on the C-list.  Ironically there are gatherings of the Congregation that bring out a lot of people, meetings related to the sale of the building, High Holy Days where somebody parcels out Ark openings to as many men as can be recruited.  There are lists of who donated money published each month in the newsletter.  I suspect that the Presidents just have a very restrictive inner circle, some tasks to do with some urgency to the omission of the important, not a lot of vision, and no incentive to tackle a real problem, which is what you end up with when you neglect to develop the people that you have and take the path of least resistance, reappointing the same slate year after year.  I wonder if anyone of the three Presidents actually went over an attendance list from a well attended meeting to get names, or whether they even looked at the High Holiday peticha participants to get more names, or the membership list.  Judging from the actually submitted slate, it is more likely that they depended on their own awareness, which would be the people they see in shul on shabbos.  That is a very small veneer of the potential talent, and the slate reflects that.   It is a very ominous sign that portends depletion if not addressed effectively.

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Sunday, June 3, 2018


Image result for departureOur congregational rolls have been having a net loss pretty much each year since my arrival twenty years back.  It is unlikely that I had anything to do with any of the megatrends of American Judaism, though I did move from the Conservative shul for cause and have not been as valuable to the larger Jewish community as my resources my have been were I treated better when I was there.  Those are trends that reflect on success and failure of the leadership class, which I am not.  Some are external forces that nobody really controls, deaths or nursing home transfers, retirements to Florida, new jobs in new locations.  We've had five these past few months, each with their own story and their own legacy while among us.

The first is a tragic relocation, a couple who dedicated themselves to our congregation as long-time officers, and more importantly, as parents whose children benefited from our shul to transfer their legacy to their next destination.  A protracted illness took its toll on the gentleman, leaving his widow with some decisions.  Her ties to the community were many but she also has observant children and now grandchildren about five hours away in a somewhat larger Jewish center.  Her decision to relocate near them seems most understandable.  While we are lesser for her absence, it seems more like a deserved retirement after an adult lifetime of effort.

The next two take a different track.  About once a quarter, I make an effort to attend shabbos morning at Beth Tfiloh in Baltimore, the yardstick of modern Orthodoxy that I would like my congregation to strive towards.  There are two Wilmington families that I see there. One is an elderly man who attended shabbos morning regularly.  I never knew his children.  His wife passed away.  Being less than fully independent, he move in with his son in Baltimore.  They attend Beth Tfiloh and I make a point of greeting them each shabbos.  We chat momentarily about our congregation and its progress or setbacks.  I'm not sure the senior fellow understands but his son has an appreciation of what his time there, many years ago, enabled for him today.  He attends shul.

The other Beth Tfiloh members are also AKSE alumni, among the most accomplished of the Hebrew school, modern Orthodox in their own right.  I ran into him at Kiddush recently, noting that I've not seen his folks in a while.  I assumed they retired and relocated, as they are my contemporaries and the big employer of the area divested itself of a lot of their scientists.  It turns out that after an adult lifetime at our shul, they defected to the USCJ affiliate.  Did not pursue why but asked him to give his parents our best wishes. 

The next two deplete our desperately scarce young people.  The member with most future promise worked as an Assistant Professor at the state university.  During his time with us he married and started a family.  He had dropped off the radar a while.  I knew he was up for tenure and trying to produce scholarly output which diverted him from other things, to say nothing of being the best dad he could to his infant son.  After not having seen him in a while, I asked about his family, underestimating the age of his son by about half.  Tenure did not come through and he would be departing to a major state university in the midwest, a household name during football season and a very respectable academic center.  It is not near a major city but as a mega university, there are enough Jewish faculty to maintain a congregation, one not that much smaller than ours.  They have acquired one of the Jewish gems, though at our expense.

Our final one took me by surprise, largely by its suddenness and mystery.  We have virtually no 40-somethings other than the Rabbi, and even he relocated his family to a more heavily Jewish area where there are functioning day schools.  But one fellow became ubiquitous.  He never missed a minyan or a shabbos.  When we served cholent at kiddush he made it.  When there was a gathering worthy of barbecue, he made the hot dogs and hamburgers.  After several years I never grasped what work he did or what brought him to our town.  He got his medical care at the VA so he was in the military, but he did not seem disabled.  He just seemed eager to do what he can for the congregation, driving our visiting cantor to catch his train after shabbos and parking his own Harley next to the Rabbi's space.  He would occasionally give the shabbos dvar Torah, always homespun with an Arkansas speech pattern, but always tied appropriately to the portion and enjoyable to listen to.  It came as a surprise yesterday when the Rabbi requested one of the men who would be coming for Havdalah take the Hazzan back to AMTRAK as his usual source of transportation relocated back to one of the Dixie states on short notice.  No advance notice, as he would have merited some type of recognition kiddush, just no longer here.  Our minyanim get less secure.  Other people can grill the food at the Annual meeting and the Hazzan will get home.

Some turnover is expected, some a puzzle, all a loss of varying degrees.  Unfortunately, the entering class has not materialized in a meaningful way for some time.

Friday, May 12, 2017

In the Small Chapel

In my membership years at my current shul, I've succeeded in scaring away about half the members we had when I arrived.  The credit for this achievement probably does not really go to me but maybe to the Board that votes on the dues structure and the Rabbis responsible for making those rather hefty annual fees a worthwhile consumer purchase.  Members have departed to the warmth of Florida, though not very many, and the cold, cold ground in accordance with the actuarial projection of an aging population.  We have virtually no kids at services other than the Rabbi's and they come in at the end for the most part.  As a consequence of this, our building, now just a few years younger than me, has become a white elephant.  While rooms were designed to multitask with movable partitions, what was intended as an active school wing lies fallow.  There aren't that many religious events that justify the climate control of a spacious sanctuary so worship has moved to the small chapel, nearly in its entirety.  It gives the illusion of more attendance than we really have each week.  While I like having my own defined space, the Rabbi takes a more tuchus to tuchus preference, though he sits in the front row pretty much by himself.

Image result for synagogue sanctuaryIf you create a checklist of what Jewish sacred space needs to have, or should have even it optional, we satisfy the minimum need.  There is a Ner Tamid above an Aron Kodesh.  A bimah that one can ascend rather easily lies in the  front.  There is a lecturn for the baal-tefiloh on one side and a shulchan to read Torah and Haftarah on the other side.  The American flag is on its right in accordance with accepted flag etiquette with the Israel flag on its left .  Fixed wooden pews extend back a few rows with additional seating of individual chairs with armrests behind that.  Those in the pews can reach forward for their siddur or chumash, those of us in the chairs, which I usually select, have to take our books from a steel rack.  And behind it all with the partition removed is the library with its softer seating and table.  The price for that may be not being able to escape the service to partake of the books while the service is in progress.

I miss the main sanctuary, named after our venerable Rabbi who devoted some forty years to our congregation, enabled it to peak at 700 or so families which at one time justified the building that we now have.  The Aron has Torah scrolls galore, more than enough Kosher ones to distribute among parallel services when the women worship together.  The seats fold down as they do in a theater, the bimah rises high enough to require steps to ascend it and the clergy and other VIP's can sit on it facing the congregation.  It's the kind of place you would invite a guest, but a visitor attending a Bar Mitzvah fares a little better than the Sabbath Bride making her weekly entrance.  You can sit in the Men's or Women's section if that is your tradition.  You can face the Bimah or you can face forward.  It has no open windows.  We are diminished both by not using it and perhaps even more by not really needing it.

Monday, September 19, 2016

IKEA Misadventure

These past few months I've been diligently pursuing the twelve projects I set aside for each half year.  Some have gone to completion, most have not but most are in progress.  To force my bedroom revision, I had the ceiling painted which required creating a perimeter for the people to work.  Decades of neglected paper and other stuff moved elsewhere, only to return with my permission.  That created a new space under a window.  Since I am probably not getting enough sleep in part due to use of the bed for reading, TV, Tablet and other activities that should be done elsewhere, I decided to place a lounge chair and reading lamp in that space.  When I had my my office, I also wanted a reading chair, obtaining a perfect one for me at IKEA but gave it to one of the secretaries when I closed shop.  Since it would be ideal for what I need now I headed off to IKEA, usually a fun outing even if I only buy anything beyond lunch a fraction of the visits.

First stop, lounge chairs.  They hardly had any, only low end bentwood or high end bulky stuff that looked less sturdy and about the same price that I could get at a local low end furniture store.  I could use some other stuff too, so I looked at kitchen tables, again flimsier than what I have now, though they did have some kitchen chairs that might suffice, again mostly less sturdy looking than what I have now which has already lasted 35+ years.  On to lunch at least.  Usually get gravlax, but this time decided to get a marinated salmon sandwich.  I can count on lunch, and coffee still only 75 cents.  Bun fell apart, salmon had the consistency and appearance of canned salmon, threw out most of the coffee.  Ooky but at least economical.  Then to their Marketplace a place where you browse and collect ideas to make your environment more appealing by purchasing stuff that you really don't need.  Wanted to get two lamps, a high end one for the living room and the reading lamp for the bedroom.  One possible reading lamp seemed suitable but rickety.  Not even close to finding a table lamp comparable to the one being replaced.

Passed the checkout empty-handed, not unusual for me, and disappointed, my first bust tour of IKEA.  At least I could pick up something at their food market.  Looked at herring, good price, no Kosher certification on any of the types.  I like their sparking pear juice.  Kosher certification on that disappeared as well.  Probably Swedes making a political statement or objecting to Rabbinical extortion.  I can ask their customer service inquiry later.

So I headed back to I-95, still needing some environmental upgrade, not really needing lunch.