Wednesday, September 12, 2018


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This year marks the Chai anniversary of a seminal, oft cited sociological treatise, Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone.  I've never read it but plan to when I complete the novel that I had earmarked for the second half of 2018.  Basically, he traces the decline of participation in organized social activities over about a generation prior to its publication.  As I retire, I find myself removed from my last pageant, the daily professional adventures of endocrinology.  I pay dues to a few things, the national and Philadelphia Endocrine Societies, Adas Kodesch Shel Emeth synagogue and its men's club.  I no longer pay dues to the American College of Physicians, the Medical Society of Delaware, the American Medical Association, nor have I been a financial participant with the Jewish Federation of Delaware for over 20 years.  I register Democrat, vote Democrat more often than not, but have never been a more than a nominal donor.  I am a proud alumnus of two fine universities.  Any donation to the larger one would not move their fortunes at all and would not be sufficient in amount to get my name engraved on a flush handle anywhere on campus.  My fondness for my medical school knows no bounds and they do get some money with no hesitation, but I do not really belong to any of its organizations.

Since Woody Allen accurately recognized that 80% of life is showing up, I do not show up all that much.  There is the annual Endocrine Society Meeting, too expensive now without the hospital subsidy.  The local Endocrine Society Meeting which occurs monthly will continue, though I have not really made a lot of new friends there.  I go to shul on shabbos but I never get the sense that my intellect and energy have much value to the leadership so activities of years past have atrophied.  As soon as I retired, I volunteered for a Democratic campaign.  One candidate took interest but not much became of it.  I signed up on their web site as a willing participant but I think their executive director would prefer Beautiful People with money or yes men who will not have the candor to tell them when they might be undermining their own potential electoral support.  In summary, I look like a prototypical Bowling Alone  individual model.

Despite not having been a meaningful Federation donor since 1994, though supportive of some of their constituent agencies generous with funding of Jewish projects elsewhere that would likely have gone to them were the experience better, for some reason I found myself back on the mailing list of Federation's monthly, used to be biweekly, publication.  It is kept on a display rack at shul, where I have browsed titles, clenching my teeth perhaps when I come across something that praises one of my travails of decades past, but never read any of the articles.  I recognize some authors, sometimes written by people of laudable presence, sometimes by people I found venal, but mostly not known to me, with expected turnover of participants expected over my twenty odd years of avoidance or maybe more active shunning, while I become a part of a larger trend of Jewish participatory entropy.

Two articles appeared in print recently, one from a globally distributed publication The Forward and the other a locally distributed Jewish Voice, the periodical of the Jewish Federation near my home.  They look at the Holy Days and at Judaism's trends in America very differently.   "So Called Jews of No Religion are the Impetus for a Jewish Revolution"

Has the significance of the High Holy Days changed for you across the years?{%22issue_id%22:521893,%22page%22:36}

Has the significance of the Holy Days changed?  For the Rabbis responding to the question in The Jewish Voice, they are the anchors of tradition, at least in their homes, where families gather.  It's a form of keva, familiar people not seen in a while, familiar recipes on the table, familiar tunes that get brought out once yearly.  There are some elements of that for me, though very different from what it once was.  My attachment to the Yomim Noraim probably ended in college.  In high school teens were isolated by my synagogue to sit for a reduced fee in the mezzanine of a local movie theater that was rented for the occasion.  The people with me I knew from school, yet for those days we were separate from school.  While afforded unimportant status, we had the best seats and always air conditioned.  In college, the Holy Days were always a mixture of new people, the freshmen, and old friends not seen since the year before. There was community, even if limited to showing up there while the rest of the students threw frisbees in the quad.  We wore ties, something that would not happen again for a lot of us until next Rosh Hashana.  There were no longer familiar foods,  We separated from our families to be with other students.  I could sit anywhere in the auditorium I wanted, or at least on my side of the mechitza.  We had students conduct the service.  It was ours.  Graduations came and that was all gone, never to be recaptured.  Returning to a suburban synagogue, something just shy of a cathedral, with lots of people there who would never be seen again, not at work, in class, or in synagogue until next year prodded my cynical yetzer, neither tov nor ra but probably accurate.  I stopped focusing on the Holy Days as central, looked at those services as maybe a civilization reversal from the core of Judaism which is how you live on all the other days.  The respect for institution took a hit and it never recovered.

From the perspective of the Forward, in the article written by their editor in chief, I may have been a generation ahead of my time.  Attachment to the institutions and even to the practices did not sustain itself.  We can argue whether I helped bring it down as part of my generation or simply watched others do the things that made participation in the institutions unattractive, but there really are Jews, very valuable ones, who have departed not only the institutions but the beliefs that those institutions were designed to promote.  They have no compelling reason to recapture the recipes their grandparents made or to fly back to their hometowns, something their great-grandparents could not have done even if they wanted to.  While assembly of family for the Holy Days re-establishes this as sacred time for some, in the greater reality of Jewish history and American Jewish history in particular, there is a bit of myth to this.  People changed towns frequently, which is why the various desciples of the Ba-al Shem Tov are all known by their name and by the place they established their community.  In America, the reassembling of families only goes back about three generations though may be a central attribute for that middle generation, which is mine.

Rather, Bowling Alone, the hesitance to affiliate, affects Judaism as much as it affects political participation, attendance at PTA meetings, or enrollment in bowling leagues.  While the Holy Days offer a focus, a set time or keva to declare Jewishness if only for a few days, they do not really reverse what seem to be mega-trends, and alas, probably for cause.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Wrong Haftarah

Intereting shabbos, a special event with a landmark birthday for one of our congregants, which attracted many of her friends from the USCJ congregation, which provided us a real Kohen and Levi for our Torah reading, something we often do not have among our own members in attendance.  They had to sit through a whole Torah reading, 126 pesukim, but only two Aliyah Sound Bites, both brief.  And somewhat expanded Kiddush to make the attendance worthwhile. 

The Haftarot that bridge Tisha B'Av and Rosh Hashana, seven Haftarot of Consolation from Isaiah, all need to be read, though there has been some divided opinion as to whether a special Haftarah as the new month changes from Av to Elul, as it did last shabbat, changes the sequence.  Our custom has been to read Haftarah Rosh Hodesh, then double Re-eh and Ki Tatzay as they are ordinarily read together as the Haftarah for Noach.  That has been our custom, or so it was announced by the Rabbi with the right page number for Rosh Hodesh.  The reader, however just started Re-eh, leaving those of us who could read Hebrew wondering for a moment why he was reading from a different page than was announced.  Most of us figured it out quickly, found the right text and followed along, at least from our congregation.  Don't know if the visitors from elsewhere could tell the difference, or even cared.  That may be our principle form of product differentiation.

As congregational snafu's go, there are many more serious ones like entrenching all the VP's in the Executive Board in perpetuity to the neglect of talent progression or sermons that are too identifiable as AIPAC faxes to their designated Rabbis.  Perfection is often the enemy of the good and we botched this one.

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Thursday, August 9, 2018

Nobody Showed

Having just retired from my 40+ years as a physician, I thought it would be of benefit to my synagogue to help out with minyanim.  I chose to start with three afternoon minyanim a month.  While my male phenotype is most useful for shabbos mincha where Torah is read when a minyan materializes, I do not want to be there through Havdalah and fidget during the Rabbi's teaching session, with which I have never connected well.  It would be better to start with ordinary 5:30PM mincha/maariv, a no frills session of much shorter duration.  So I went at the announced time earlier this week, my first as a retiree.  Got there a few minutes early.  Rabbi was off that day, but there was no announcement that minyan had been cancelled.  Waited 15 minutes past the announced time.  No other cars arrived.  I left.

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Monday, July 23, 2018

Judaism's Gospel of Wealth

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As a high schooler, I received an assignment in history class to read and report on Andrew Carnegie's Gospel of Wealth.  He took the position that certain projects of public benefit needed concentrations of money to be effective.  To distribute small amounts to everyone would leave everyone unserved but investment in a large project could be accessed by everyone.  The Jewish World has taken that position, creating a very effective network of social services and advocacy that is highly dependent on a few large donors.  In exchange they acquire a certain amount of influence and can hire talent of lesser personal means to implement programs.  The price, though, may be resentment by the nobodies, some of whom become somebodies, unwelcome without wealth and disinclined to sign on when they now have wealth.

Jay Ruderman, scion of the Meditech fortune that makes my hospital function and director of the Foundation that received the proceeds, issued a blog in the Times of Israel expressing legitimate concern for how these institutions will continue their good work as the top talent begins to retire and as the next generation turns interest to hospitals and museums instead of Federations and synagogues.

As I retire from clinical practice soon, having spent about half my career in the Catholic health system, I'm haunted a little by how much better they treated me from one institution to the next than the Jewish organizations did.  Even as a nobody, my Jesuit medical school and Catholic residency hospital instilled some importance.  They wanted me.  Jewish Federation wanted my possessions, be it my treasure or the medical degree that would be parlayed into treasure later.  I felt convenient at times, troublesome at times, but never unconditionally important the way I was in my medical environments.  Undoubtedly my assessment of my experience gets played out many times over in the form of attrition and a desire to leave Judaism to their and my betters while I pick and choose those Jewish menu items attractive to me at the time with no serious instilled loyalty.

Yes, Andrew Carnegie imparted an important lesson that was adopted by the Jewish people of means to be generous in community needs.  Where they may diverge, though, is the expectation that anybody could go to a Carnegie library or a Carnegie Hall to derive benefit.  He made sure there was no aristocracy.  That does not seem to be true of Jewish wealth which seems far more inbred with a current uncertainty of succession and a participation that seems a fraction of what it could have been.  Money will only get you so far.  I've been a member of two synagogues that were highly endowed but eventually did not have people for a minyan to read Torah on shabbos.  Money to sustain programming and initiatives matters but talent and loyalty makes the organizations vibrant.  We seem to have sacrificed that.  It may be hard to recapture, especially if leadership takes on the form of a cloning experiment.  I agree with Jay Ruderman that the face of Judaism is a lot different now than when the original benefactors took charge.  I would be a bit skeptical though to think that the generosity to social nobodies is any different.

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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