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.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Second Half 2016

Each half-year I set a series of twelve goals to work on for the upcoming six months.  They are always a mixture of things I am sure to accomplish like getting my medical license renewed or attending a scheduled graduation and things that will probably never come to fruition but the quest toward goal has its own rewards.  So as we transition to the second half of the calendar year, the next set of projects within stable categories takes shape.  Personal. Home. Professional. Family/Financial.

  1. Home:  My bedroom will be my comfortable sanctuary.
  2. Mental:  I will submit a poster on time for presentation at the next Endocrine Society Annual Meeting.
  3. Financial: The retirement planning checklist will be submitted to my financial adviser.
  4. Purchase:  The kitchen upgrades will be completed.
  5. Health:  My weight will measure under 155 pounds.
  6. Family:  I will prepare a special dinner for Irene each month.
  7. Frontiers:  I will visit two places I have not been to before.
  8. Long Term:  I will outline the book that I'd like to write in 2017.
  9. Friends:  Four shabbos dinners with guests will take place in my house.
  10. Personal:  I will watch three movies in the theater and three at home.
  11. Community: Three Israel advocacy essays or letters will be submitted to public media.
  12. Travel:  I will visit three breweries that I've not visited before.
I try to follow the SMART algorithm:  Specific-Measurable-Attainable-Realistic-Time limited.  See how it goes.

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Monday, June 27, 2016

Sacred Space

Image result for synagogue sanctuaryOur Sanctuary does not get used all that much nowadays.  It's a spacious room, pleasantly and inspiringly appointed and reasonably well maintained with only a few revisions in the building's fifty year history.  Over decades, though, membership has depleted to about a third of what it once was and attendance on shabbos has atrophied to about half of what it was when I first joined in the late 1990's.  In the winter it does not pay to heat the space or to cool it comfortably in the summer.  The Rabbi prefers worship with his audience less spread out.  As a result, most of the time shabbos worship takes place in a smaller chapel, perhaps just a mite small for the attendance but chairs are set up behind the pews and a folding door that expands the space into the library behind it is opened.

Architecturally, AKSE's building has many of the features of synagogues designed in the 1960's when the Jewish population was expanding but regular attendance at worship had not kept pace.  Young families often joined the synagogue as an obligation to enable their kids to have a Bar Mitzvah.  Sanctuary space was a small fraction of the building, as shabbos was never a great priority for an increasingly secular membership,  while a social hall behind the sanctuary separated by a movable wall enabled seating of more people for Holy Days though the wall could be restored for any number of social events from galas to lectures.  Hebrew School space comprised the majority of the building as large numbers of tykes would come three days a week and have to be partitioned into about ten or so classrooms each time, two per grade if the congregation was fortunate.  And some space, not a lot, would be needed for the Rabbi to do the things that Rabbi's do, usually nicely appointed with a lot of book shelving, and a nook for the cantor to tutor bar mitzvah wannabes and a place for the school principal to discipline wayward Hebrew school kids who were sent to her office for various modes of misconduct.

Now we have only a vestigial Hebrew School, hardly any Bar Mitzvah students to tutor and no Cantor to tutor them, and a lot of three dimensional air that has to be modified in temperature at some monthly cost.  Yet our assigned Sacred Space gets utilized just as much as it always has.  Shabbos comes every week.  Yom Tovim arrive at the appointed time.  There is a minyan, or at least an attempt to secure one, twice a day.  Weddings take place.  Funerals take place.  Guest Scholars and public officials address our congregation from the Bimah from time to time.

While synagogue architecture of that era has a lot of common elements, each congregation has its own uniqueness, its own idiosyncrasies.  Ours has a second floor and it has a basement.  Expensive things happen in the basement and on the roof, affecting what goes in the middle.  Our congregational building also had to adapt to a merger before synagogue mergers were common.  One component was a classic orthodox congregation with gender separation at worship, the other mixed seating, permitted by the Orthodox Union at the time but the reason for evicting us from the organization shortly after my arrival.  To meet this reality, small men's and women's seating sections were designated in the main sanctuary and chapel and continue to this day, though hardly ever have men and not all that many women.  

Not everything that happens in what has been designated Sacred Space is really worship.  Two events this summer and one last year caught my attention.  First, we have our main sanctuary used for public lectures and for funerals.  They attract men and women other than our own members.  I find it a little disconcerting that men attend these events, entering our sanctuary without a suitable head covering.  The official policy has been to keep the kippah box at the main entrance.  At one time there was a sign with it that indicated men were expected to keep their head covered  whenever in the building, but that sign is long gone.  The funeral directors, who could easily remind the men when they assist them with parking, don't seem to have this in their script and it does not appear to be much of an attention to detail for either our Rabbi or VP Religious Affairs to reverse what appears to be a slouch.  At least put the kippah box at the entrance to the sanctuary and move it to the entrance to the chapel if that is where people will congregate.

In the chapel, the signs of men's and women's section remain, ignored every week by a couple who means well and likes to sit together up front.  The Rabbi could use this as his teaching moment to folks who are new to observant Judaism but hasn't.  And if nobody really cares fifty years into our building's history, if separate seating option is no longer desired by anyone, perhaps it is better to remove the signs for gender specific seating rather than have our legacy overtly flouted.

Unfortunately, a secular constituency including a secular executive committee with building VP's more attuned to the roof than the sanctity that should be taking place beneath it, lacks the sensitivity to think in those terms.  Promoting the synagogue has become more of a dues enhancement project than any form of exploration and analysis of the Judaism that those funds should be sustaining.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Rethinking Membership

Somebody sent me this article from Ha-Aretz.  As a non-subscriber, I cannot identify its author to give him or her due credit, but its a fine piece of thought.  A few comments, edited considerably due to the length of the article, help match the suggestions with my own reality.

Ha-Aretz    Furrydoc

Death of the Traditional non-Traditional synagogue
It is no secret that the traditional synagogue model is showing signs of age: Over the past two decades, membership has declined across the United States, forcing many synagogues to merge and even to close for good.

And mine's not too far off.

One popular target is the traditional dues model that most synagogues today utilize as the backbone of their financial model. This model, which was developed and has been left largely unchanged since before World War II, stipulates a set fee that would-be congregants must pay in order to become a “member” of the community. Membership, in turn, grants the individual (and his/her family, if relevant) certain rights and privileges within the congregation.

Members are free to utilize the services and programs offered by the synagogue as much or as little as desired or necessary, and are similarly free to participate in congregational life and leadership if they so choose.

Depends where.  Some places are still vibrant enough with kingmakers sufficiently secure, to make some elements of participation by invitation only.
Critics of this model often point to the high cost of dues at the typical synagogue, arguing that many American Jews struggle to afford them and, moreover, that many do not affiliate because of the expense. More to the point, critics of the traditional dues model point out that many Jews feel the expense of membership far exceeds the benefits. Considering that most synagogue members only attend their temple on the High Holy Days, and rarely if ever utilize the other benefits of membership or participate in synagogue leadership (especially after the last child has his or her bar or bat mitzvah), they might rightly ask what they are receiving for their two grand (or more) per year.

Not a great consumer purchase.  Yet Orthodox congregations continue to have a commitment from their communities, people who utilize the synagogue regularly, lower expenses and lower dues. These folks get stung financially by day school tuition.

For these reasons, there has been a growing movement in the 
American Jewish community for synagogues to change their financial model. Advocates for change usually advance a voluntary-giving model of one kind or another, While there are a number of different versions of voluntary-giving structures (many of which are analyzed in detail in the exceptional new book "New Membership & Financial Alternatives for the American Synagogue" by Rabbis Kerry and Avi Olitzky (Jewish Lights, 2015)), they all more or less advocate decoupling membership from financial obligation. Membership is free, universal giving is encouraged.

It's hard to get away from the reality of needing secure funding, if not only to meet expenses, but even to be able to budget and set priorities.

At the moment, my synagogue is one such congregation. Over the past year, a team of thoughtful and sensitive leaders was tasked with studying and analyzing these alternative models in order to determine whether changing to a new model would be right for our community. Ultimately, they concluded that the risks outweighed the potential rewards, and as people who cared about the congregation’s long-term future, they could not recommend a change.
As this taskforce presented its findings to me and our congregation’s “visioning” committee, I was disappointed. Years of studying the sociological trends and organizational best-practices had led me to conclude that voluntary-giving models were the wave of the future, not only because they were more in sync with the zeitgeist, but also because they were more in line with Jewish values of communal inclusion.

I'm not at all convinced that Jewish organizations ever really had Jewish values and communal inclusion as its sine qua non.  Neither was Amos or Isaiah.

But as the conversation progressed, something dawned on me: the major flaw in the traditional model is not necessarily the fixed cost typically associated with membership but, rather, the notion of membership itself. Voluntary giving systems will ultimately be ineffective unless they address the fundamental flaw inherent in the traditional membership model. Similarly, congregations unwilling to part with a traditional dues system can yet remain relevant, vital, and vibrant, so long as they address this flaw.

If they have money, they don't need members.  There are synagogues with large endowments that function this way, including two of my former places that held on long after membership dues could not meet even minimal expenses.

How did I arrive at this conclusion? The more I heard the word “membership,” the more I realized that it is an inherently transactional term. A member of an organization is typically one who pays some sort of premium in order to receive certain benefits that organization provides at no additional cost. It is, therefore, the very definition of fee-for-service. Consider the things we are members of today: I’m a member of my gym, of Costco, of Netflix and Amazon Prime. The one thing all of these memberships have in common is that I am a regular consumer of their products and services. The membership premium makes sense so long as I remain a regular customer.

And the people who run these places have the saichel to entice their customers' participation, my synagogue's poobah's don't.  They've not really invited anybody personally to participate other than broadcast offerings.  It's more akin to building a public trough for hungry snouts to sift through.

Synagogues, however, generally purport to be communities, not merely service providers. Community is supposed to be covenantal, not transactional. Communities are made up of people committed to supporting each other and to the infrastructure and systems that facilitate communal well-being. While a member of an organization is primarily interested in what he or she is receiving for him or herself, a participant in a community, while not necessarily sacrificing his or her own needs, is simultaneously interested in the welfare of his or her neighbors and in the success of the community as a whole.
Using the metaphor of “membership” to define belonging to a community reinforces and perpetuates a mentality that is the very antithesis of community.

But you have to make a distinction between wanting the people as assets to community and wanting people as financial assets.  My congregation does not really know how many people are members, they keep score as dues paying membership units, quite literally.  There has never been a census, there has never been an analysis of community.  I have never attended a Board Meeting in which service to a constituency was ever discussed separately from its financial potential.  That's the way the leadership thinks and the nominating committee perpetuates that thinking by creating a leadership recycling center.
It is precisely this reality that drives contemporary Jews away from the traditional synagogue model. Individuals who want Jewish experiences can consume it in any number of different venues, with much less baggage, and for much cheaper. One can effortlessly find a freelance bar mitzvah tutor or readily rent a rabbi to officiate his or her family’s lifecycle events. One can access all the Jewish information one could ever possibly need, for free, on the Web.

Not only that, but with the most talented rabbinical insights in the world.  But you cannot engage in the major elements of worship without some critical mass, in most cases a minyan.  The challenge is to make the minyan experience valuable.
Thus, even those synagogues that have adopted a voluntary-giving model won’t change the dynamic driving their decline unless they also stop identifying belonging as “membership,” because even free or pay-what-you-want membership is still fundamentally transactional. At the same time, synagogues that are unprepared to adopt a voluntary-giving model can still transform themselves so long as they reframe what it means to be a part of the community.

You pay your half-shekel and you are counted?  Or your half-shekel is counted?
How can synagogues do this? For starters, they can employ a term other than “membership,” something that connotes covenantal responsibility rather than consumer transaction. For example, a pastor friend of mine uses the term “teammates” instead of “members” at his rapidly growing startup church. I like that. “Partner,” “supporter,” or “builder” are also good options.
My humble suggestion? Use the term “friend” instead of “member.” Why? First, because the Hebrew word for member is haver, which also means friend. (Those who may find a change of this magnitude difficult can take comfort in the strong linguistic continuity between the two terms.) Second, because there are few words more evocative of a covenantal relationship than “friend,” a concept virtually synonymous with support, interdependence, and sharing, all essential elements of communal participation.

Comrade?  Didn't really work for the Soviets either.  Probably partner would be better, but since the relationships are really not equal as partnership or friendship often implies, there has to be some means of taming macher swoops or other leverage of greater upon the lesser built into the flattening of hierarchy.  Inability to do this or unwillingness of a dedicated leadership to sacrifice authority, no matter how limited in reality, seems like an obvious Achilles Heel to this type of transformation.
Friendship isn’t free. As a midrash puts it, “One only acquires a friend through great effort” (Sifre Devarim, Piska 305). Thus, it is not inherently antithetical for a synagogue to expect potential friends to give a specific financial amount as a statement of their dedication and as an acknowledgement that covenantal communities require resources to sustain them. However, the term “dues” is as fraught with unhelpful transactional connotations as “membership,” so it should probably also be replaced, perhaps with something like “investment” or “commitment.”

Before the Federation types totally teed me off to the point of departure about twenty years back, their machers would solicit less prosperous people like me with terms like personal commitment or being part of the community.  It did not take long to figure out that there was not a lot of sincerity to the scripted solicitation and once a problem arose, minor stockholders like me really had very little recourse other than becoming part of their calculated attrition, which I and numerous others did.
But synagogues must also make clear to potential friends that belonging to community is not a fee-for-service transaction. True friendship also takes a commitment of one’s time and talent. Becoming a friend of a synagogue community must thus also require active personal involvement – participation in programs and in leadership – in addition to monetary commitment. Only then can friendship fulfill the promise it implies, and only then can synagogues truly flourish.

I've actually not been invited to do anything at my congregation other than implementation of my bimah skills in quite some time.  My guess is that if the Rabbi or President were to take a yellow pad and write who they invited for any meaningful participation other than some perfunctory High Holiday Ark openings with a fundraising intent, the list would not fill a single page.  The officers, most recycled for ten or more years, just see slots to be filled in their agendas and take the path of least resistance in the invitations to the people who did them before.  You have to change the way people think and that's something that meets a lot of resistance, especially when these are the genes of institutional incest that are being expressed.
Synagogues in our era will only flourish if they cease being transactional, service-providing organizations and become true covenantal communities. Changing terminology won’t itself accomplish this task. But then again, recall that when God set about creating the world, God chose to do so through words.

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Sunday, May 22, 2016

For Auction

Some FB friends sent me a news article that the Reform congregation wedged between my Junior High and my Senior High Schools held its last kabbalat shabbat service.  Its members had merged with another congregation ten or so miles to the east.  The building will go on the auction block in a few weeks.  I assume there are minimum bids but in all likelihood this prime building on ample grounds will find a motivated purchaser.  It had a glorious history, devoting its first fifteen congregational years to an obscure section of town, then with growth of a suburban Jewish population, building a multipurpose edifice that opened the year of my Bar Mitzvah.  It's clergy stayed 50 or so years but for demographic reasons and maybe financial and cultural reasons, it became non-sustainable.  Unlike the neutron bomb that eliminates people but keeps the structures intact, a congregation depends on people, though some have become museums.

As my shul approaches its annual meeting, we have no intention of disbanding but we also have a white elephant of a building, a showcase revealing its half century of activity, in some ways the dowager hanging on to what was once a glorious existence.  We have two floors, but I've only had reason to go upstairs a handful of times.  People expect reliable air conditioning.  Lighting and heating costs have become prohibitive.  And most shabbatot, we do not have enough attendance to justify our handsome sanctuary.  Our Hebrew school would do better as a one room return to frontier days than the illusion that we should have a teacher for each grade.  But unlike the congregation of my teen years, we do not have a post-building destination, maybe not even a post-sales identity.  We are really the Jewish version of Empty Nesters, the Hebrew School alumni all departed to their next destination, and a high prevalence of Medicare Cards among the membership. But unlike Empty Nesters like I am personally, people who seek out a blend of projects that could not be pursued when we had kids and tuition payments, the people who remain seem mired in preservation mode.

People have a life cycle which includes a transition from prime to senescence  So do synagogues.  They can be Golden Years, but sometime they aren't..

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Thursday, May 12, 2016

Goofy CUFI's

Haven't seen or heard from these downstate folks in ages.  This being Yom Ha-Atzamaut, what better reminder than these once invited guests of AKSE to remind me that support for our Jewish homeland and absorption of the Jewish essence of Wisdom-Justice-Community-Sanctity are not necessarily coincident.  Don't know who these guys voted for in the spring primaries but a safe guess that their party registration diverges from mine.  Their concept of Holiness probably more literal than  mine but less expansive.  Probably AKSE and the State of Israel are better off with the CUFI's as silent partners.  The Navi Amos figured out some time ago that you could be a prominent member of the Jewish community and exploit a vulnerable person for a pair of shoes, but you won't be worthy of your land for very long if you do.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Bellwether or Outlier?

Image result for outlierThere is this odd appeal to me about the rise of Donald Trump as a real voting option.  Before Comments get deluged, I disavow building a wall, turning in my undocumented foreigner patients for deportation, keeping some rather decent young Islamic physicians from entering the USA to join our residency program, and assessing the qualifications of women by what their face looks like.  Those things capture attention for further exploration as being provocative, though maybe they should shut the door instead.  But what The Donald has done that I find refreshing in a way is capture some very real dissatisfaction.  He claims to be a winner, but the vast majority of superficial winners, our medical leadership, our insurance executives who impede my mission as a physician, our Federation Types who too often corrupt the essence my religious faith, those title pursuers and those with the facade of amiability who really stand for what is convenient at the moment, they all band together to make an iconoclastic message of redemption attractive.  In my medical world, which has become the focus of my being, the people who could make being a doctor great again saluting directives from above that they should be resisting.  When I attend shul on shabbos I'm not engaged.  There are places that have reached the promised land of institutionalized mediocrity that rationalize their circumstances while expressing hostility to any potential upgrade that challenges their comfort.  This is widespread, widely accepted as a punch ticket for advancement, and with a paucity of resistance to what any end user knows to be harmful over time.

So will Donald really Make America Great Again or make being a doctor great again, or make the wall in China great again?  Even if he could, the expressed approach seems sufficiently abhorrent to deter the electorate from accepting what is being proposed.  What he has done perhaps is revisit the Pesach message, that what we have is not really what we deserve.  There no shortage of people who buy into that, myself among them, but like the Pesach message, we need to be harmed  first before we are motivated to take bold action, and even then we have some very legitimate concerns the negative consequences that come with making a statement.

So are the Trump supporters the Bellwethers or the Outliers?  Or is a person like myself, professionally oppressed like most of my clinician colleagues who once knew something better or a fundamentally Conservative mindset Jew who migrated from the movement as it plunged to mediocrity through its own leadership, that Navi who distinguishes what is from what should be?

If we learned anything from our recent political experience, there may be quite a few people lurking around who wish their experience was better than it has been.

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