Thursday, December 29, 2011

Winter Holidays

Hanukkah has come and gone, Christmas has come and gone, New Years as a denouement.  My son and wife got extended breaks from their usual activities, I got a brief but welcome reduction in my activities as well.  The office slowed down, leaving me with some catch-up opportunity, perhaps even a little get-ahead opportunity.  I did some cleaning and organizing at home.  My commitments to the synagogue still linger but most of that has been winding down.

I feel better than I did in the fall.  Better rested, less frazzled, perhaps a little impatient with people as I gave myself a two week prescription holiday.  My mind seems a little sharper, my posts on a little more thoughtfully constructed, particularly the non-medical comments.

With just a few days until the conclusion of the current calendar year, I've not fully outlined my intentions for the next six months but they seem to be taking shape.  There is a tension between thinking big and thinking realistically doable.  I do not know which is better.  Creation of Me Time each month with a day trip somewhere within 100 miles is doable.  Disseminating my blog to thousands is probably not, at least as a personal project.  Having a joint research project with U of Penn might fall somewhere in between.

Monday, December 19, 2011

My Highest Level of Amusement

This weekend, or at least this shabbos, I took off.  Recreation on Saturday, mostly chores on Sunday though only the ones that evoke a measure of personal accomplishment.  The raw tally:  got my cell phone replaced and the new one accepts a charge, headed toward Lancaster at the suggestion of the Pennsylvania Wine Trail, starting with Twin Brook and ending with Kreutz Creek, which tasted mostly like medicine.  In between I had lunch in Strasburg and made the rounds at the Bird-in-Hand Farmer's Market.  Picked my son up at the Airport.  By then it was past sundown.  I tried to get a few office gifts at The Christmas Tree Shop and TJ Maxx but came home empty handed.  Concluded the day by gathering my laundry scattered around multiple rooms and transporting everything to one place so I could do the wash in its entirety on Sunday, which I ended up not doing.  For Sunday I bought and wrapped the office gifts and made some real headway with the kitchen, even washing one third of the floor and the entire Formica counter.  Seeing that the surfaces need replacement, I went to Lowe's where I looked at what it would take to cosmetically transform my kitchen.  I want to upgrade my office, so I looked at area rugs, eventually driving to Air Base Carpet Mart where I bought one.  Made progress on upcoming Torah and Haftarah readings.

How much of this is really the Highest Level of Amusement that I had intended?  I definitely like visiting wineries, rejecting out of hand the Rabbinic concept that American winemakers are idolaters who will draw me to evil other than skipping services on Saturday morning.  A number of my personal pleasures center around tasting:  coffee, microbrews, making dinner.  I've never taken great delight in eating out, though.  I do not particularly like people serving me, much preferring to take what I want from among what I am willing to eat at a buffet.  It has been ages since I've been to a good Sunday Brunch, something that I used to attend commonly when Rozzy was an infant.

I like shopping, or really looking at things more than buying things.  There is cookware that I do not need, clever implementation of ideas in the Seen in TV section, regional specialties when I travel, tchotchkes of any type from cheap pens with imprinted with names that I'd never saddle a kid with for his whole life, coffee mugs of endless design, funny greeting cards.  I do not find myself attracted to pretense.  Fifth Avenue and the like holds no allure for me at all.  I see places like that as repositories for unfortunate individuals whose self-esteem equates with what they are able to purchase that somebody else cannot.

There are few bodily pleasures that stand out.  Warm water, whether from a shower or Jacuzzi.  I like to exfoliate my forehead with facial scrub, then add a tingle from some type of atomic balm.  Irene once got me a massage certificate as part of a United Way silent auction.  Over the years, I've found myself waiting in line for mini chair massages that the Endocrine Society or similar medical organizations provide for those who attend the convention.  These are definitely relaxing at the end of a second or third day of conference.  But the real massage, which took a half hour and was of hand to skin format was not something I would seek out again.  I found it something of an invasion of my space.

My real quest best reaches fulfillment when I travel to a place I've not been before.  I love puttering around, not necessarily to the advertised attraction, but to some of the out of the way places that make the place I am visiting different from my home turf.  Museums are fine but I much prefer to drive through neighborhoods, walk on the sidewalks, maybe visit the local synagogue and chat with the people who live there.

I'm always a little uneasy getting pampered.  Because of my position people often seem more deferential to me than I think I merit, which may be part of the reason I like to escape to places where nobody knows me.  When they ask what I do professionally I tell them that I sign things.  Like many doctors, a sense of personal achievement comes mostly through what you do for yourself, for the effort that is put in starting with the every third night on call that has gone the way of the history book.  That is not to say do not delegate things but the need to pull one's weight and to reject offers of others to do what you should be doing yourself eventually becomes an ingrained part of personality.  A waitress does not have to bring me food that I can go to the buffet and get for myself..  A masseuse does not have to apply the soothing hands when my shower head has a setting that pulses hot water that I can direct where I want.  Having a waiter who spends more on his tie than I do, which is probably most waiters and for sure most medical residents, leaves me a little uneasy.

A predictable break from labor has been mandated for thousands of years.  Having somebody else convey to me a sense of self-importance that I really have not earned in the form of creature comfort or pampering is really not part of the divine directive.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Shabbos Services

Uncertain what I want to do tomorrow morning.  I am haftarah reader for Chanukah next week and one of the Torah readers for New Years weekend.  Some of AKSE's talent has departed, not an extraordinary or disabling amount but enough to notice, making my participation more essential than it had been.  Yet if you think of Shabbat as Rabbi Heshcel's Island of Time, some weeks it is better not to have an AKSE Ferry.

The services on Saturday morning, my Jewish centerpiece since grade school, have morphed from an Orthodox experience with full content and fluency to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism model, with its rabbinic or lay leader contrivances that so many of us, including AKSE's core talent, escaped from.  The concluding time the last several months on Shabbat morning had extended a half hour.  Kids from the Hebrew School now do Ashrei , replacing a quick silent reading with brief Chatima with a small parade and old Hebrew school flashback.  I support learning and acquisition of experience as much as anyone else but this is tircha.  Instead of a central message from the Rabbi, which has improved immensely in content over the past year, we now have an interruption between each Aliyah in addition to an introduction to both Torah and Haftarah portions.  The Rabbinical Assembly has long taken the erroneous and destructive position that their congregants are Jewish ignoramuses who depend on them exclusively for every snippet of knowledge that they can impart.  That is unfortunately in the process of being transplanted to the AKSE shabbat morning experience as well.  Moreover, this is occurring at a time when the local Bulshitzer Rebbe has been siphoning off a measure of previous attendance.  His product differentiation started with a more pure form of gender separation.  He may be more successful with our help as we move to something more akin to a Beth Shalom experience while he starts later, moves through with minimal interruption and ends earlier.

It is possible to maintain a shabbat morning experience that has parity with what one might expect with a visit to any observant sanctuary around the world amid several formats.  Penn Hillel has both a conservative and an orthodox minyan conducting shabbat services simultaneously.  I have been to both and the content of worship is almost identical, the only difference being gender equality at one and a brief drash on Jewish Law at the end of the orthodox service.  At Beth Hillel-Beth El where my wedding took place, the Havurah minyan conducts the AKSE service with very minor variation based on the Siddur they use.  The only difference seems to be multiple Torah readers rather than a single hired reader and very capable female participation.  There is no schtick from singing of Hatikvah to showcasing Hebrew school kids, to moving lecterns.  The experience that their service conveys is judged my the fluency of the participants, a volunteer sermon that recognizes the audience as college graduates rather than Hebrew school graduates, and a concluding time that  does not infringe on other elements of Shabbat's break from the other six days of work.

There was an interesting podcast,_Conservative_and_Reform_Rabbi  which presented a forum sponsored by either a JCC or Federation in San Francisco where three rabbis from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform congregations in the area discussed their ideologies and how they adapt it to their congregational realities.  The moderator tried to bait the Orthodox Rabbi in a friendly way by asking about the divergence between public values of gender equality and practices at his synagogue.  He did not bite with the expected defense as their practice being divine will.  Instead, he made a couple of insightful observations of life at his congregation.  First, the women at his shul were the best educated, most Jewishly involved women in the San Francisco Jewish community.  More importantly, for people really committed to Judaism, the formality of worship and legal restrictions needed to fulfill the requirements are really a very small part of what happens in his shul.  Almost no service other than shabbat morning takes more than an hour yet activities that make his congregation interactive to their members occur continuously.  There are no restrictions for women outside of formal worship.  They rise to the opportunity by making the educational and social programming attractive.  There is a quest for excellence on all things.

It is that quest for excellence that challenges AKSE.  The relative exile of its Talibans to the shteible of the Bulshitzer Rebbe should be an extraordinary opportunity for the mainstream that remain.  The Ritual Committee, having divested itself of its Taliban impediments and securing a top-notch chairman, should be discussing ways to elevate the people to excellence in worship, not diminishing the experience of worship to adapt to the limited capacity of its people.  I think it has been a shonda for my entire tenure there that the Women's Tefillah Group has been permitted by two Rabbis to continue to function as a form of Junior Congregation under AKSE's roof when their service should strive to be one that approaches parity with the main service with minor halachic adaptations in content.  One Rabbi who probably couldn't care less about what happens to female worship has been replaced by one who sincerely does, yet finds it expedient to diminish all worship in some way.  Making the AKSE sanctuary experience more like the Beth Shalom sanctuary experiences from contrivance to blue pencil editing of the sages' recommended content to enable more Rabbi commentary jeopardizes the very substance that has made AKSE unique in the community and attractive to its loyal participants.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Semi-Annual Projects

Two weeks to go into the calendar year and I've not really done much in the way of thinking about the next six months and what I would like to accomplish and why.  Traditionally I have six projects, all doable, but only the ones with firm deadlines generally reach fruition.  Same this time.  I finished my ABIM requirements largely because I did not have the option of not completing them.  For the other five projects:  my weight is the same, I did no estate planning, my bedroom sanctuary made some headway but it is a long way from a man cave, my skill with my iPod is the same and I blog less with no interaction.

This time I need to reassess projects in view of better stability where I am now and for some post-career time arising in the foreseeable future.  I do not want to put any projects at work on the list other than to enhance my office environment as well as make some revisions to my work space at home.   I would like to deal with clutter at home.  Usually there is a home project among the six.  Usually this involves a regional approach to the house, selecting one room for upgrade.  This time I would prefer a mixed regional/ systemic approach, decluttering the entire first floor which includes the living room, dining room, kitchen, family room and laundry as well as an entrance hall.  The barrier has always been dealing with paper and with an insatiable need for storage.  The secondary barrier is that the paper is not entirely mine so I cannot make decisions on tossing things into the recycling bin or shredder unilaterally.

What I can do unilaterally is allocate some recreation time on the weekend which I think I am going to do one weekend per month, setting it aside for a day trip or perhaps an overnight respite.  Retirement and beyond needs some attention.  Making more money comes at the expense of my discretionary time so I have neglected financial reviews, estate planning, Long Term Care insurance, settling my father's estate, living wills to say nothing of how I will devote large blocks of time when there are no appointments to keep or assigned tasks to perform.  Right now I have to designate Me Time.  Not that far into the future there is likely to be an overabundance of Me Time with no current provisions for taking advantage of this.

So for the next couple of weeks, the yellow pad will need a few notations, then the final six projects get put into writing to be worked on if not exactly brought to fruition.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Pennsylvania Welcome Center

Not long ago, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania renovated its I-95 Welcome Center which appears as one departs Delaware.  I drive this route most days but had never stopped in.  I am usually with destination, as I was this time, but looking for excuses to delay getting to Mercy Philadelphia Hospital on a Sunday morning, I diverted my path off the highway for a few minutes.  It was impressive.  A spacious open area, immaculately clean, friendly lady at the desk, well lit and with walls of brochures regarding every imaginable place within the commonwealth that a visitor might want to spend money at.  The centerpiece was a vintage car, a convertible, filled with assorted vacation memorabilia.   Outside there was a picnic area, several tables painted red with mesh tops and seats as well as an overhang so those who divert from I-95 can eat while it rains.

Since the brochures were arranged regionally, I took several that announced attractions which  I could reasonably get to and back in a day's drive.

December marks a semi-annual branch point for me.  It is the month where I set projects for the next half-year.  I find my personal situation more stable, more predictable, than at any time within the last few years.  My kids are no longer in limbo on their professional paths. Dad's illness reached its unfortunate but expected conclusion.  My economically precarious office has been replaced by a job where they seem to be happy to have me there.  The ABIM requirements have been completed.  Other than some oppressive tuition and the purchase of Long Term Care Insurance, I have no big ticket items like cars or condos in Florida to seek out.

One of the projects, inspired by the Welcome Center, will need to be some better protection of my time and recreation.  For a number of years, I have successfully pursued a project of going to a new place every months, usually some place local like a new store but sometimes more afield like Bedford NY this month, San Juan last month and Cleveland in September.  After looking at the brochures, including one for steeply discounted motels throughout Pennsylvania, I think one of the projects will need to be a monthly day trip to a destination intended purely for recreation, which the visits to Cleveland and Bedford were not.  A 2.5 hour drive each way is very doable and places to visit abound, I just have to know what they are.  Maryland has a state brochure and a Welcome Center that I've not been to despite driving past it many times.  Atlantic City, Princeton and places in between are also well within my day trip capacity heading east.  Even Delaware has its places I've passed through but never stopped.  The important thing is that there be some dedicated recreation time, a planned and welcome respite from the clutter of my house and the unending not yet completed tasks at work.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Vacation and Back

Completing my first week back at work after a long overdue week off.  It took about three days to transition to vacation mindset, about another two to wonder if I could sustain the relative lack of deadlines and nightly happy hour through retirement or if I am really destined to identify myself so closely with my professional activities that nothing else could ever replace it.  It was a good chance to sample what I would really do if I did not have to show up for work each day.

I did not really sleep late, in fact I had the same sleep pattern as at home, hitting the sack at about 10, waking up in the middle of the night, then actually arising at about 6 or 7 AM.  I ate breakfast every day, probably the single biggest personal change in my activities on my days away from home where I more typically have coffee and little else until supper.  Some laudable sloth in the morning.  Our hotel was a beachfront one.  Though the beach was small, there were few people there and the water always seemed warm.  They had a more elegant pool area.  I took a liking to the Jacuzzi but thought the setting too hot.  I suppose I could have one installed at home.  There was an abundance of deck chairs and to some extent I rested but really could not do that for very long, preferring to get up, wander around the very elegant pool area, maybe go into the three pools for short times, surf something on my iPod as the hotel provided WiFi.

Weather in Puerto Rico becomes rainy on November afternoons so it becomes time for tourism.  Ordinarily I like to putter around new places but this time getting where I wanted to go took some doing.  The road system, highway and local, leaves a lot to be desired and my rental car was sufficiently different from my usual  Honda and Toyota to create a challenge.  I had not exercised in ages so long walks, particularly uphill challenged my legs though heart and lungs seemed to tolerate the tasks uneventfully.  This being a tropical area, I expected insects and was prepared to get some repellent at the local drug store but that was not needed.

I also consumed more alcohol than I ordinarily would.  Typically on vacation I would have a glass of wine or a beer with dinner each evening, which in itself exceeds my usual consumption several fold.  However, the resort prides itself on the manager's happy hour and we would not want to disappoint.  While there is a two serving limit, the servings are generous and come with some munchies rather than substantial meal.  One afternoon we toured the Bacardi Rum Factory, a local tourist destination well worth the time.  Like most factory tours, the people take pride in what they produce and offer visitors their best stuff which I tried and rather liked.  Even though several hours had passed and I reduced my Happy Hour allotment by half, it was still too much.

I came home reasonably rested, satisfied with the change of pace, not enthusiastic about returning to my usual weekly activities but not ready to retire either, though closer to it than I was a year ago.  Having really liked the Bacardi 8 year old stuff that I sampled, I went to Liquor World and purchased a bottle for roughly the same price they were charging in Puerto Rico.  It still sits in the unopened bottle.  I have been able to tackle work without getting frazzled by excessive activity, which has not yet happened but eventually will.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Weekend Off

While it was my intent to seek my highest level of amusement for shabbat, I had also intended to see patients in the hospital on Sunday.  It was my good fortune, though to have nobody new to see other than a gentleman that I called in about on Friday night and who seemed to have something that can wait the weekend to sort out so I spared myself the round trip on Sunday.  Three more came my way on Sunday afternoon so I will be playing catch-up but the extra day to myself felt at least welcome if not deserved.

For shabbos I convinced Irene to attend services with me at Beth Tfiloh in Baltimore.  I try to go twice a year, usually only make it there once.  It never disappoints.  Bar Mitvah boy read the entire Parsha Bereshit, all 146 p'sukim largely error-free and with a nice early teenage voice.  Rabbi Wohlberg crafted a sermon that drew on multiple sources to expand his theme.  Even the Hazzan, who had been largely perfunctory on my previous visits, demonstrated why he holds a position in a large Orthodox congregation when most mechitza congregations no longer support them.  A fair amount of what they do there can be incorporated into the ordinary function of AKSE but the sense of pursuing excellence does not seem to be there nor does the Rabbi  seem to have a vision for what that might be.

I always wanted to visit the Boordy Winery on my way home.  Once I stopped by but they were having a Festival of some type that I did not want to spend the money to attend.  This time it was an ordinary tour day.  For $5 they gave you a glass and enough samples to want to have the Maryland Police perform breathalyzers on the visitors as they returned to the public roads.  For the first time, I declined to proceed with the full tasting after about six pours but Irene enjoyed the full spectrum.

Home in time to watch Mizzou lose.  A rebuilding year.  Shabbos concluded so after three days sans computer due to Yom Tovim and shabbos, I caught up with Facebook and e-mail, then off to sleep while the Cardinals were having a slugfest in Game 3 of the World Series.

Sunday had its own agenda.  Irene wants to make the downstairs presentable.  I want to make my bedroom a sanctuary, in not exactly a man-cave.  My finances need some major attention.  The sukkah has not yet become a temporary structure.  I need to learn the haftarah and shacharit for next shabbos at AKSE.  Some loose ends need to be tied up prior to vacation in only two weeks.

I ended up doing all the fleishig dishes, most of the essential laundry, made by living room desk nook functional, removed clothing intended for donation from the living room, deposited funds to my office account to pay the remaining bills, bought and installed a lamp for the bedroom, set aside some of the clothing I plan to take on the trip aside so I can put the rest of the summer clothing in a storage bag, and worked on the upcoming haftarah.  While enough other stuff still need completion, this remains one of my more accomplished Sundays.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


It's only midweek.  Despite a few decent night's sleep I am finding it hard to get going in the morning but once at work my energy manages to return at least until quitting time for everyone else but usually with a few patients still to be seen for me.  I'm deprived of R&R which will arrive in a few weeks.  Before that the undone chores accumulate, most to remain undone until my return to action in mid-November.  This past weekend I got a table for the dining room assembled and the plumber fixed a major leak at the washing machine.  Hospital billing got caught up.  My unopened mail got opened and largely transferred to the recycling bin.  More to do but limited motivation to act.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


Sukkot.  This year finds me less motivated than in the past.  I feel worn out, disappointed with the experience of my shul, maybe down a few rungs on the ladder of observance from a year or two ago.  I bentsched lulav on Day 4 of 7.  Our sukkah came out well, definitely worth the purchase of a pre-fab.  Bringing a harvest to Jerusalem in Temple times may have been the precursor of what we think of as vacation.  Getting away for a few days, maybe a little travel, getting deprived of some of your money in exchange for some satisfaction.  Not having to go to work but only a half day in shul without all the shabbos restrictions of the other days off.  Here it takes on something similar with anticipation and preparation to build the sukkah and acquire Four Species.  Between Bond Appeal and synagogue appeal the week before some of one's funds have already been reduced. No tfillin the entire week.  I must say, though, waving the lulav never really inspired me in a serious way and the final day of Hoshana Rabba I've always regarded as cult-like.  It rarely comes out late enough in October to usher in the changing weather and changing clocks of autumn.

For the students it introduces exam season.  They've attended classes for 4-6 weeks most years and therefore it's time to assess what has been retained.  For Federal workers Columbus Day provides a real day off.  For many of us we encounter Open Season when we can adjust our employee benefits.  Those things often pre-occupy us, making the festival of Sukkot almost an afterthought were it not for the necessary preparation beforehand and the more gala Simchat Torah night to follow.

For me, the season also marks the approximate mid-point of my six semiannual projects.  I took Board exams, made slow but serious progress on making the bedroom my sanctuary, have not yet made the blog interactive, not done any estate planning, my skill with the iPod has not advanced in three months and my weight is up a few pounds from July.  My disposition has gotten a little better though.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Erev Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur comes out on Shabbos this year.  No exotic preparatory efforts, up early to make simple dinner, put my depleted supply of socks into the washer and dryer, enjoy some coffee, read about the Parsha which diverges from the weekly Torah cycle.  I will be carrying the beeper and cell phone for this, the first time since my fellowship that I am subject to communication on Yom Kippur, but there is very little that cannot be managed that way.

While this has been a traditional transition point, reflecting back, making corrections, preparing to move onward without actually moving onward, I've been too preoccupied with other things to regard this as a meaningful break for me personally.  That usually comes at mid-year and late-year when I do my semiannual goal setting.  Still there is a benefit to having a communal break point, one stacked with good intentions, interruption of animosities justified and not, a remembrance for people close to us who are no longer at hand.  One day out of a lot of days to escape meal preparation, to trade the pageantry of work for a more traditional formality, to not have chores that cannot be postponed until the sun sets the next day.  While this is not vacation, it is a diversion that separates yesterday from tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

ABIM Recertification

It's the following morning.  Six hours in front of a computer answering questions.  Don't know whether the score will meet threshold or not.  Whatever the outcome, this time the questions seemed more in keeping with what I actually do in the office.  I probably did well on the questions asking for a response to lab data, not as well on things involving karyotypes and genetic disorders that I rarely see.  There were a lot of questions asking about lab features in a specific situation.  I could usually exclude three of the five choices so if I get half of those correct I stand a fighting chance of not having to do this again.

For a profession that largely runs on the honor system, the security seemed excessive.  Nothing in pockets except drivers license and locker key,  no watch.  My wedding ring has gotten too tight to take off easily but they let me keep that.  They took a photo and a print of each palm that had to be verified each time you went into the computer room.  They replaced my handkerchief with three tissues taken from a box at the doorway.

I have a pledge not to divulge questions, not that I remember all that many, mainly the ones I wished I had studied for but didn't.  I spent a fair sum on preparation, attending a review course and purchasing a question-answer book from the Endocrine Society.  Surprisingly little from the review course made its way to the actual questions.  Many of the points in the sample questions appeared in other forms.

At this point, sitting in front of a computer for six hours has taken its toll.  By the third two hour session I just wanted to get done.  My analytical skills and ability to extract details from the questions had waned and response time was slower.

It's done now, at least until the scores arrive.  Life was put on hold for a while.  But right after signing out I headed off to the Motor Vehicle station a few miles down the road to get my car inspected and renew my registration, then a trip to the gas station that sells my favorite iced coffee at a bargain price, then some light shopping, then to Stanley's Happy Hour for a pint of Yardley brew made in Philadelphia while watching the playoffs and creating my October to-do list which does not differ all that much from what was never accomplished on my July to-do list.  No debauchery, just an attempt to unwind and restart what had been set aside.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

New Year 5772

Rosh Hashana begins tonight.  I do not feel connected to it this year.  One year ago it marked the dividing line between closure of my practice and the first day on the new job.  This year Board Exams follow Yontiff.  I feel a little beaten down by the job, keeping long hours, looking for my next respite however brief.

I will not be attending AKSE services until Yom Kippur.  Irene took a particular liking to an independent egalitarian offering run by people who desire a better experience than what their congregation offers, or more accurately needs to cater to in order to keep a broad dues paying membership content.  I could use a couple of really good sermons.  My heart is just not into the themes of turnover and renewal.  Don't really need a new me, but some upgrades to the current me might be in order.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Shabbos Dinner

As the sunset times get earlier and before long Eastern Standard Time arrives, there becomes less of a window for my wife to prepare a Friday night dinner worthy of Shabbos.  That brings the task to me, generally done from 5:30-6:30 on Friday mornings but some preparation earlier in the week.  Meat, usually chicken but sometimes beef or even fish if I plan to go to Beth Emeth reform oneg shabbat where the good stuff is milchig, has to be defrosted on Wednesday or purchased from Shop-Rite Thursday night.  Mini-challot get defrosted on Thursday or purchased during the day on Friday.  Depending on the main course I will marinate the meat the night before.

For the most part the preparation is simple.  Usually chicken breasts or a dismembered chicken gets browned in a big pan, then seasoned and put in the oven while I prepare boxed couscous or rice.  Occasionally beef is on sale, so I will put stew meat into the crock-pot along with vegetables, rice or beans, spices and plug it in.  Once in a while flanken or short ribs goes on sale so that is prepared like the chicken.  Occasionally I will feel more energetic and obtain a pot roast, whole chicken or turkey breast which I prepare Thursday night.  A frozen vegetables get nuked in the microwave and Luigi's Pareve Water Ice makes for a suitable dessert.

Usually the dinner is simple, an end to an often arduous work week, a demarcation point, something worth a little extra preparation to do.  We avoid appointments that night other than maybe watching or recording Washington Week and in a prior era seeing what JR was scheming on Dallas.  Since I completed Kaddish, even attendance at Beth Emeth where I really like to hear what their Rabbi has to impart, is decided by what time I arrive home and what time they start that week.  No appointment to finish at a certain time.

I've also not been to AKSE's monthly shabbos dinner in a very long time.  While I admire the effort and intent of the people who assemble this, going there really amounts to keeping one more appointment, a place that I need to be at a fixed time.  My work week keeps me in contact with people who come to the exam room at a specified time.  I cannot escape from patients in the hospital, residents and colleagues tapping into my knowledge, irritation about some process gone wrong.  Shabbos is really an escape from that.  While my Rabbi's have tried to instill into my mindset the need to assemble with community that day, my fondest shabbat experiences really took place during my final two medical school years when I no longer had exams on Saturday morning and I could escape by myself for a peaceful evening.  I would plan dinner alone or occasionally splurge oh so very gently to walk to a vegetarian restaurant not far from my apartment for a special supper that I would be unable to prepare on my own.  Shabbos became an Island of Time with myself and later with my household, as it still is.  While divine intent was for it to go from sundown to sundown, I came to appreciate and anticipate a somewhat shorter break from the usual, as shabbos morning services bring another set of appointments and a return to a a public sphere, though with different players to separate it from the work week.  It is really about Me Time, Family Time, maybe a bottle of craft beer with a dinner that does not require scrambling for the final assembly and enjoyment.  And then maybe some Rabbi and God Time the next day.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Learning a Haftarah

AKSE had an interesting debate, or really discussion since in principle everyone was on the same page.  Our Cantor opted to depart with more than ample notice and we really could use the savings in salary.  Do we need a Cantor or do we need some or all the things the Cantor does?  What is the minimum purchase and should we do the minimum?  We do not have the capacity to get the Torah reading done by congregational volunteers.  That has been long established and therefore a reader is hired for most of the Cantor's scheduled vacations.  We already have a volunteer for shacharit most weeks and musaf when the Cantor wants to do shacharit instead.  Can we get two a week instead of one a week and can we cover the speicial times as the New Moon approaches each month or the yom tovim or rosh chodesh impose significant variations to liturgy?  And let's not even mention Shabbat Mincha where we have both a unique service and a Torah reading.  The word from people who assign the parts, which gives them great credibility is that we cannot.  This probably separates real Orthodox congregations where skill is abundant from the wannabes like us that promote the aura without really having the substance.  And so the decision was made to bring a real Hazzan aboard for Shabbat and Yom Tovim.  He began last weekend, a nice classically trained fellow from another era.  While I appreciate his talent, my enduring fondness for Jewish worship really developed amid the Hillel foundations that I attended, the epitome of grass roots participation where a threshold of competence was expected, show-off flourishes discouraged, and the ba-al tefilah varied from one week to the next as did the tunes imported from the various home towns.  As nice and adaptable as the new Cantor seems to be, I predict that those in attendance will tire of the experience in a relatively short time.

AKSE does have one remaining bastion of volunteers on its Bimah, the Haftarah readers.  Most people acquire the rudiments of skill through Bar Mitzvah preparation and given enough time the portion can be recycled many years later.  There are enough people, mostly alumni of the once grand Conservative congregations who can sight-read Hebrew sufficiently and have familiarity with trop to learn any Haftarah in a short time.  The cadre of readers has expanded, though rather slowly.

My latest assignment on this takes place the Shabbat after next, Isaiah Chapter 60, one of the Haftarot of Consolation following Tisha B'av.  The language seems rather difficult which challenges the fluency but it is these challenges that make the effort worthwhile.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Board Exams

An every ten year ritual, starting about four years ago with open book self-tests and this horrid thing called a Practice Improvement Module that started out as a legitimate assessment of how well or poorly I communicate with referring physicians but morphed into a series of complex work flow diagrams when my two secretaries and I were the only ones there to do work.  And now the exam.  The patients in my practice modules and on the last two exams don't resemble what I actually see most days.  I do not think I've ever seen a Fragile X Syndrome or a McCune-Albright "coast of Maine" cafe-au-lait spot.  I've been studying from practice exams written by various professors whose biases can be detected from the questions but at least I can extract the principles that I am expected to know from the questions.  Did well with the diabetic questions, stunningly poorly with the adrenal questions and somewhere in-between with the reproductive questions.

This is big business.  I paid about $1000 to enroll in the program, $120 for the review book published by the Endocrine Society, and the outlay for the review course will set Mercy Hospital back most of my contracted Continuing Education allotment.  The pass rate for Endocrinology is reported at 77%, the lowest of any specialty.

To be fair the American Board of Internal Medicine which sponsors this, it has moved ahead of the fraternity hazing of ten years ago.  There is legitimate educational content to the practice sessions, the people I've dealt with by phone have been responsive and professional, the Old Boys have been retired and replaced by a CEO from the American College of Physicians who at least has a sense that an annoying process needs to have some off-setting benefit.  Still the exam looms a month away as I continue to struggle with the review book and head off to the intensive review course in Cleveland in a few days.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Investing in Bingo

Many synagogues, including mine, have their financial challenges.  There is actually a literature on this, though my sense of the officers is that they really haven't explored this much, opting instead for a quest for fundraising which in a good year may add 5% to revenues though it usually comes with a significant financial risk to get that 5%.   Memberships make the place financially solvent, either in the form of dues or contributions beyond dues.  There is a limit, though, to how much of our own member funds we can wring out, so there is always an interest in getting income from other sources.  Synagogues and churches have rented space in their buildings.  Some have elegant catering facilities that generate a profit.  Some have public events.  Our officers opted for Bingo.  Without  getting into the propriety of this, which the Rabbi approved so it must be OK, its only direct purpose was to generate revenue with perhaps an unintended by important benefit of generating a rather strong group of volunteers dedicated to the project.  It was expected to lose money the first six months, which it did, to the tune of $8 K which required re-examination.

As AKSE projects go, this one seemed to be handled reasonably well.  People did their homework in advance, knew what to expect, analyzed trends, and expanded participation beyond the President's usual A-list people.  Will it ever make money?  What about serious money?  What about the value of having a project that members are committed to for its own sake?  Any indirect benefit to member retention?  My interpretation on these questions is mixed.  It can probably make some modest profit, about what a successful fundraiser would make.  

When all is said and done, there is still a budgetary deficit forecast this year and no serious intervention to erase that, let alone repay what is owed other than Bingo.  Until something else arises, break even with a measure of community development as a beneficial unintended offshoot needs to continue a while longer.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Vengeance and Grudges

Monday, August 15, 2011

Evening of Learning

Tisha B'Av 2011/5771.  It was an ordeal to get home in time for the fast, having gotten some patients who needed the healing hands before I could head home.  Rather than cut it tight, I stopped off at a buffet with a reasonable amount of vegetarian not far from Mercy Philadelphia Hospital which would assure me some nutrition in advance of the fast.  I ate quickly, arriving home in time to get to either AKSE, Chabad or Beth Shalom, where my wife was chanting Eicha Chapter 2, barely in time to go to any of them.  I decided to stay home and observe Tisha B'Av evening with the insights of the cyberspace Rabbis instead of rushing to hear Eicha.  Since we are not permitted to greet people that evening, nobody would feel slighted by my staying home

Yeshiva University has an extraordinary program of recording lectures from all sorts of venues, then making them available for download at  They had an entire Tisha B'Av program so I started with an presentation of about a half hour's length by Rabbi Kenneth Brander on Lessons of the Destruction of the Second Temple which was destroyed due to Sinat Chinam and never rebuilt.  Then an intro to Eicha by Rabbi Einhorn who does the synagogue development program for the Orthodox Union.  Then one more less memorable and I fell asleep.  The following night the fast had not yet concluded so I listed to another iPod presentation. 

None of these are interactive, which should be the prototype of rabbinical education, yet there was an elegance to each of the presentations that rarely comes my way live.  We are fortunate to live in a time where the ideas of learned people are so readily accessible and if you want the learning and don't particularly desire the university degree or other credential, they are available at nominal cost.

Thursday, August 4, 2011


New stationery for AKSE with the name of the newly hired cantor on the letterhead.  The first mailing was to tell the truth about the now former cantor's departure.  Rumors have a way of getting around.  No, he was not fired but submitted his resignation with six month's notice and fulfilled his professional expectations to the final day.  He will need a minyan and has to assemble it from somewhere or find one already functioning if he does not wish to attend the one at AKSE.  Nobody will chase him away if he shows up.  I hope nobody will expect him to provide his skills for free if he does come.

Apparently there are rumors that AKSE terminated the Cantor and rumors that he is in the process of siphoning AKSE's talented members.  I must be on the B-list since I've not been invited to join him and heard nothing to the effect of an involuntary departure, though word of these things has reached me indirectly over a considerable distance.  To squash this the President sent out a broad mailing to the congregation, copied to the presidents and Rabbis of all the area synagogues and the Federation.  I think the content of the letter is accurate, whether worth the mailing costs to the congregation might be more questionable.

The On-Line Smicha program apparently goes in stages by topics.  I surmise from all this that the module containing the principles of Genevah or stealing has not yet been tackled.  Leaving a false impression like being terminated when reality is an unsolicited decision to quit would fall into the category  of Genevat Da-at or literally stealing information.  Depriving a congregation of its needed membership dues and its talent by soliciting the departure of others would also be a form of Genevah if specific individuals were targeted, though probably would be more akin to legitimate competition for desired services if not individually solicited.  There is a synagogue etiquette not to lure members of another congregation to your congregation which has maintained collegiality in our region.  This came up at a Board Meeting about three years ago when the new Rabbi arrived and the Membership Committee felt it appropriate to invite back members who had left with individual invitations to return, particularly those with Rabbi generated attrition.  Most had latched onto other congregation, one even becoming its President, so the project was not undertaken to avoid the impression of Genevah.

Will AKSE have some of its dues, attendance and participation skimmed off by all this?  I think there will be a small amount of one time attrition, though less than would ordinarily occur by other deterrents such as high dues, often boring sanctuary experience, and the actuarial outcomes of an aging membership base. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Six Projects

Semiannual planning amid a time of overwork, where one transfers from one urgency to another without regard to importance.  There are patients that need to be seen right now, others in the hospital that need to be seen today, expected to show up at AKSE on Saturday morning, there are deadlines related to my medical license and to closure of my office which still goes on one year after the last patient exited the exam room.  Most of the important things do not have deadlines but are easily deferred to less important things that do.  Each June and December I try to decide which things deserve my attention and creation of some appointment time with myself to do them.  Usually I agonize over this, often spending more effort with the planning than the doing.  It started out that way again but to my surprise, the projects fell readily into place over coffee at the Brew Ha-Ha about two weeks ago.

  1. I will pass Endocrine Recertification Boards
  2. I will create an estate plan with the attorney
  3. My bedroom will be decluttered and redesigned as my personal sanctuary
  4. The scale will read under 150 pounds
  5. My blog will become an interactive one
  6. I will finish the book I bought on how to derive maximum benefit from my iPod
All projects are doable and have identifiable end points where a box can be checked as done or not done.  In the two weeks since its creation, the progress has been less than I hoped but this week I carved out specific time to do some of these things.  Unfortunately I am still often tired when I return home at the end of the day.  The bedroom and estate planning can be done on Sundays, the other stuff probably best to carve out 20 minute blocks during the week.  The trick to accomplishing these will likely be to have finite intermediate points and somebody prodding me along the way.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Overdue Vacation

It's been diificult to stay focused and motivated.  The management has decided that there is too much idle time in the office due to no-shows and responded by overscheduling which leaves me scrambling to take care of the hospital and in a little ongoing conflict with them.  I had some welcome down time yesterday, easy morning at the satellite clinic, no-shows at the office in the afternoon, enabling me to get to consults and hospital rounds earlier than usual.  Last week at the satellite I divided the no-show time between semiannual planning and catching up on medical records.  Yesterday I devoted a welcome hour to commenting on some postings by my electronic friends at AEI and reading about health economics and reviewing some Delaware medmal cases that were posted on line.

There was a fancy dinner at a hotel for employed physicians.  On one of the rare occasions that I could have gotten there at 6PM, I sent my regrets, preferring instead to just get home, work on my upcoming Torah reading and maybe do a few chores.

My last recreational vacation took place in summer 2008.  Since my partner left in February I have not had a beeper free day.  The patients just keep coming at me.  Any escape from that is welcome, even if only for an hour on company time.  I've tried carving out ME days on Saturday and weekends where I just stay home, including the coming one.  But I think the activity has gotten to me, I'm irritible, make decisions a little too impulsively, drop followup balls and really need to get away from this for maybe a whole week.  Scheduled for November.  Need to work on what my highest level of amusement is so that I might seek it.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Important Initiatives

Easily provoked, hard to pacify is wicked, the sages of Pirke Avot noted, נוח לכעוס, וקשה לרצות--רשע yet find myself still irritated with the congregational president weeks after confrontation, still ready to take his money away and let him recoup $2625 from Bingo players who have no stake in the congregational experience or future.

This week I reviewed the things I actually did there that were of value to the congregation and of importance to me.  Not committees, not positions or titles, but things that came from my perspective and intellect, actions that required insight and maybe some tenacity but reinforced the core principles that brought AKSE to prominence a quarter century back and in some respects sustained them in its decade of decline.


Very little about AKSE occurs thoughtfully with nary a modicum of learning from what went before.  Leaders think they know where things stand, but there is precious little in the way of review and upgrade, irrespective of whether what occurred should be repeated.  In medicine, data rules.  There are symptoms that must be taken seriously but there is also objective information in the form of lab data and imaging.  In law there is eyewitness testimony and documentary evidence.  At AKSE hearing is believing.  Sh'ma takes priority over Re'eh.  It was my impression that from the time of the Cantor's arrival no new people had been added to the cadre of participants over the preceding five years and that those who remain were being scheduled more than they had been previously.  With a little help from the office I retrieved two years worth of shabbat bulletins five years apart.  The first year came from when we were interviewing Cantors, the second five years later.  During the interview year, as expected, the people coming for auditions appeared on the schedule.  Among congregants, however, only one new person was added.  He was an important addition who has contributed greatly.  For the First Congregation of the First State which prides itself on the talents of its members, the educational yield proved marginal  It is one thing to obtain information, quite another to make use of it.  To the best of my knowledge nobody since has repeated that review or tackled any other review.  They are still trying to fix a morning minyan problem by perceptions when they could have real information and use it to move beyond the periodic appeals to men when there is already a literature on minyan development.  Data can be obtained and spoon-fed to the people in a position to use it.  But the curiosity to obtain it seems largely mine alone.


For four years I conducted a class for the teens each Sunday morning.  A parent whose own kids graduated from the program had been doing this but opted out when his last child graduated.  That left another parent, perfectly qualified, indeed still there, to carry on.  Conducting a class seemed like a suitable challenge, envisioned by me much like medical teaching rounds which I had not done in ages, the difference being that I would have to prepare the topic in advance.  It also turned out that even though the minyanaires program had been ongoing for sixty years, I was apparently the first volunteer who had no children of his own in attendance. 

The boys, and as much as I could the girls, were just not used to Judaism being a provocative enterprise.  They were all alumni of AKSE Hebrew School, Einstein, and a few poor souls subjected to the combined Hebrew School.  We started with Davening each week.  I made no preparation whatever for this, simply interrupting the prayers at random when something of interest caught my eye.  While they could recite familiar Hebrew and recall tunes, their education up until then afforded them zip in the way of vocabulary or the historical origin of the siddur, which is really a form of cut and paste from other sources.  Ironically, the Rabbi has absorbed this into his Tefillah Tidbit presentation but my diversions for the kids were a good deal more sophisticated.  We talked about time:  et, sha-ah, zman.  We talked about the senses:  shma, besamim, maror, touching the mezuza, re-eh.  They do not get this type of appreciation from either Hebrew School or public worship.  Either they have to generate their own curiosity or somebody like me has to challenge them.

Similarly, the discussions after breakfast became a form of machshava.  We discussed core values like Jewish Friends and Facebook Friends, Giants and Patriots on Super Bowl Sunday, the role of Jews in integrating Basketball, Jewish Litmus Tests, and any other imaginable implementation of core Jewish principles that find their way into their own experiences.  Hebrew School is boring, always has been.  Unless what is learned there gets repackaged later into something meaningful and timeless, it is only a matter of time, usually the freshman collegiate year when attendance is no longer taken, until attrition from synagogue, the primary institution of Jewish life becomes irreversible.


For all my irreverent quips directed at AKSE's professional and lay leadership, it has the potential to be the premier Jewish destination in the State of Delaware.  Decisions may be dumb and they may think like Jewish Luddites but the people who comprise the membership are people of talent and for the most part decency occurs without the Rabbi having to insist on it.  Yet in my time there, a fair amount of attrition has occurred, some passive as people moved to the nursing home, Florida or cemetery, some active, usually driven by the perception that AKSE deprives women of opportunities that would be available to them most anyplace else.  We live in an America where one's merit counts more than one's chromosomes or pedigree, though nobody has been resentful of the Kohanim in any way.  Yes, Judaism has its elements of Who You Are and What You Are.  AKSE and anyplace else, offers a package.  If there is something you might like to have but cannot, there is usually a way to find a suitable surrogate, unless the unavailable element is the absolute litmus test, which it rarely is.  But why would somebody come preferentially to AKSE at considerable economic expense?  If we entice a shopper with a free year, what might they do with that year to create an attachment?

To my surprise, as of a few years ago there was no organized list of what really happens at AKSE.  My orthopod  offered me a chance to find out and pass the results along to people who could act on them by invading my right knee with an arthroscope, traumatizing some irritating cartilage in a benevolent way, then confining me to bed for then next three days.  I took a High Holiday bulletin, an Annual Meeting Report, the Bylaws, some Shofars and some weekly announcements and created a catalog of all groups that existed at AKSE at that time as well as some that should exist as required Bylaws mandates but did not, then submitted the list to the President, along with a separate designation of those that were exclusive to AKSE.  At the next High Holiday Bulletin, the list was compiled and offered to those in attendance as an invitation to stick one's face into AKSE's trough.  It still appears in a condensed or abridged form on the synagogue's web site,  I do not think the project had nearly the impact that it could have as a passive list does not really acquire vitality until there is a Shadchan or at least a Cruise Directory to assess what people like to do and channel them into the appropriate group that already exists.  That has not happened.  In many ways the culture of AKSE over at least a generation has created an insularity that accepts newcomers but does not seek them out or do a particularly effective job absorbing them or taking an interest in what makes each individual a unique potential contributor.  Therefore providing participatory opportunities for newcomers has to go in the other direction.  For all the promise of the current Mentoring Program for new members, I doubt if anyone actually doing this has the saichel to take the rather comprehensive list compiled from my sick bed and match it to interest of the individual newbies nurtured through what we think of in the medicine world as a purposeful interview.


We have Freedom of Religion in the United States.  When Jefferson assessed this as a better late than never inclusion into the Constitution, his reasoning revolved around freedom of thought which can never be deprived and its free expression which can, or at least some very negative consequences implemented.  We had a gentleman, a person who contributed materially and whose family are among the shul's most valuable individuals banned from the Bimah as an aphikoros based on his thoughts.  I was never happy with Rabbi Dresin's decision or even the reasoning on this.  Over the years I have flunked some litmus tests and have attended congregations as one day visitors with no return having been looked at derisively over driving there or my skepticism of Moshe taking divine dictation or that the men of Talmud simply discovered divine will that they did not themselves create.  It was clearly within Rabbi Dresin's professional authority to make his decision and enforce it.  If the victim did not leave on its account, neither should I though I was always uneasy with sending a person to Charem.  There is certainly a tradition for this.  A visitor to Amsterdam can see the actual membership roster of one of the synagogues with Baruch Spinoza's name crossed out.  They probably did not even try to recoup those dues through fundraising or Bingo.  Today people do not know who the machers of that synagogue were but centuries later people still study the thoughts for which Spinoza was rejected.

New Rabbi, new opportunity.  I asked the Ritual Chairman to put the discussion of this individual to put a discussion of restoration of this individual to full participation on the agenda.  It was clear that he had the same uneasiness with restricting a good and decent individual that I did so he agreed instantly to include this in the first Ritual Committee meeting with the new Mara D'Atra.  The agenda item reached its appointed time with the new Rabbi commenting in a very cavalier way that Rabbi Dresin had given him a heads up on this and the old decision will continue.  At the end of the meeting I literally stalked the new Rabbi to insist on a private appointment to discuss this and another issue that I think he mishandled, which also included the berating of child of a Committee member as the parent of that child listened defenseless.  The purpose of having a new Rabbi was to turn a new page for the congregation.  When I arrived in 1997, I think people were treated a lot more sensitively than in 2007, starting with the gentleman banned from the Bimah.  People have their personalities which basically do not change short of brain injury or serious prescription writing.  To wave off an injustice without even looking into the objections that people have pouncing on somebody who is only doing what his neural pathways direct speaks somewhat negatively of the Rabbi's judgment, maybe even the effectiveness of his collegiate education.  In any case, fundamental injustice to an individual would not be waved off just like that with no challenge.  I do not know if anyone else came to this fellow's defense.  Not only did I approach the Rabbi but I called one of the congregation's psychologists who understands what obsessional people do and meet with Rabbi to teach his that, let alone not having a parent defenseless in the room while people attack his son's expected conduct.  He understood exactly where I was coming from on this but I do not know if he followed through or if anybody other than me came to the defense of these two people.

I heard nothing else, but reinforced my impression of the new Rabbi from the public committee meeting and from the private session in his office.  I heard nothing of the outcome but not long thereafter, this captive from Charem ascended the Bimah for an aliyah, overdue for several years, something that probably would not have happened without my insight and tenacity.

When Yochanan ben Zakai received a reward of three wishes, he chose two for the future and one for now, protection of the family currently representing the Davidic lineage and enabling the Academy at Yavneh to function undisturbed to assure preservation of Mesorah and one to find a physician for a worthy individual who needed one.  We cannot really develop community without having sensitivity to the people who comprise the community.  It is easy for the President to develop his A-list, which I think he has, and recycle what was done before, and easy for the new Rabbi to talk to the outgoing Rabbi to maintain what was done before, even if improper.  The future really depends more on doing the difficult stuff, recognizing that outliers are part of the community too and that they have perspectives that make a community complete.    How we treat the most difficult individuals really determines what the values and standards really are.


Somebody asked not entirely rhetorically at a recent Board Meeting why do we have a synagogue?  What is its product?  Ultimately it is to make for more capable Jews, creating a commitment to Heritage, being able to explore what that heritage is with reasonable implementation.  You can create community anywhere:  Federation, Bowling League, work.  You cannot make Judaism sparkle everywhere.  That requires a certain amount of transmission of knowledge, an insistence that one's daily activities absorb Jewish values.   Some type of teaching is needed for that.  There also needs to be the right amount of selectivity over what gets taught.  My first exposure to this came from the JCC Spring Valley when as a high school senior the congregation invited Professor Theodor Gaster of Barnard College to give six weekly presentations on Comparative Religion.  As a university student there was ongoing interest in this type of Jewish learning.  Over time the vibrant life on campus gave way to the local synagogues which have been in  relentless pursuit of mediocrity for some decades.  In tribute to Rabbi Kraft, his congregants endowed a fund to bring individuals of special accomplishment to present to the community and for a while the local Federation also sponsored a few giants of World Judaism to present at large public gatherings.

At AKSE, which should be the premier educational forum in the community, we never really caught on with this tradition which probably goes back to the days the Maggids who would travel from place to place imparting their wisdom to whoever might listen.  We had visiting scholars, misnamed Shabbatons, who would impart three sessions of declining attendance starting with a well-attended but late dinner on Friday night, above average attendance with luncheon on Shabbat Morning and Mincha with at least a secure minyan.  Reviews were mixed, it was expensive, there was a fair amount of discord on how to best accommodate different levels of observance that the guest required.  By Sunday could anyone remember what the talks were about and did anyone become sufficiently engaged to live differently as a result?

The alternative, of course, would be to do the education internally.  We pay two clergymen whose purpose is to advance us as Jews.  The weekly sermon cannot go into a subject in depth.  There has been an open interactive forum at the end of Kabbalat shabbat but since it is unprepared the responses to random questions often reflect a form of pooled ignorance.  At the end of Minyan there is a brief remark on Halacha, again something read from a book but without analysis.  Engagement of the congregation with their own Jewish advancement has not gone nearly as well as it could have.

To fill this void, if only for an evening, I recommended that we embark on a project done by many other synagogues, namely an internally generated evening of learning which became the AKSE Academy.  It entails much less financial risk than outside speakers, requires no casts of thousands for dinners, no discord for mechitza and showcases individual talent, which plays to our strength.  If AKSE is ever to exploit a form of product differentiation that enables it to overcome its community albatross of the Women's Thing, it will have to be the ability to attract the individuals who have a self-motivation to advance themselves Jewishly and impart  their knowledge and education to others who are self-motivated in other ways.  AKSE Academy may be one of the few things, however brief the annual experience, which enables that.


Being in St. Louis the weekend the Rabbi came for his congregational visit I did not get to meet him or partake of any assessment.  Vibes came my way, most of which proved accurate.  In medicine we have the four ABLE's:  AvailABLE, AffordABLE, AffABLE, and ABLE or some would say CapABLE.  We scored three of four.  Newcomers are generally greeting with enthusiasm and a measure of respect for the people who did the work to accomplish the mission.  Yet first impressions count as well, and within a few shabbat services and a few conversations I really had no inclination to return from one shabbat to the next and endure some trivial part of my Hebrew School background recycled to me from the bimah for ten minutes each week.  My college classmate now JTS Chancellor Arnie Eisen was quoted in the media as describing a Conservative Jewish sanctuary experience as one of "boring sermons, rote prayers, and people strutting around with great self-importance."  AKSE had avoided much of that with a weekly sermon that often provoked Cards & Letters, a very capable Hazzan who made the weekly prayers something of the musical surprise that awaited and delighted me in my Hillel years that remain the model in my mind of what worship ought to be like, and the absence of macher swoops.  Since I follow one sage each year for the weekly parsha, the year I followed Rabbi Frand there were a lot of AKSE sermons expanding on Frand's weekly theme, suggesting that Rabbi Dresin was reading the same book.  I chatted with Rabbi Dresin about how he assembles his weekly message.  He indicated that he has about thirty sources that he typically draws from, picks a theme and relates it to current experience.  The sermons often did not really have a beginning, a middle and an end but never lacked for links to the wisdom of prior sages.  Now the sermons did have a beginning, a middle and an end, composed at about the level of a Junior High writing composition.

In his memoir, Tending the Vineyard, Rabbi Berel Wein once of my beloved Monsey noted that as congregational Rav he only had about ten minutes each week to convey some type of insight to already learned people that they did not have when they arrived in shul that shabbat.  Those sermons and later the history classes that he conducted for his congregants became the basis of the Jewish history books that made him internationally prominent.  Our ten minutes recycled Hebrew School.  There were no advanced concepts, no Machshava, no private follow-up discussions that captured the nuances of Judaism in his own themes.  Now, they did have a beginning, a middle and an end.  The presentations were grammatically at about a Junior High level to be delivered to PhD scientists which largely included Jews who abandoned the United Synagogue Congregations as too trivial Jewishly.  While the public expression may have been favorable due to the absence of diatribe, the young Rabbi would not develop professionally if he kept doing this, though I suspect very few of the dedicated congregants would vote with their feet over this.  After the first Rosh Hashana's mundane experience, I contacted the President who despite the generally good feedback over the sermons that he had heard clearly understood what I was pointing out and we arranged for a former congregant who now does homiletic coaching professionally to take the Rabbi under his wing and develop his presentation skills.  A year passed with a clear improvement in style, some experimentation like presenting from the the pew level rather than the bimah, some interactive sessions.  Yet come the High Holy Days, the themes and their development bordered on trivial.  At the Board Meeting, there were comments about the Yomim Noraim experience which had most of the people admiring what had transpired until Irene rather than me took exception to the presentations that my daughter had commented were worthy of Rabbi Phil.  They were, with the exception of Kol Nidre, largely devoid of any serious Jewish content.  Irene had spent much of the Holy Days at an independent Conservative Minyan where volunteers made the days sparkle, then she came to AKSE where the message from the Bimah, something that should be the Rabbi's principle summer project, did not require either time in Rabbi School for content or even a high school diploma for level of presentation.  Her comments were censored from the minutes by the Board of Governor secretaries until I raised the issue before the acceptance vote.  If he underperformed, which he did, there is an obligation to recognize this and take steps to correct this.  His future depends on this.  I do not expect AKSE to survive until the Rabbi reaches the usual retirement age so there will come a time when he must market himself as CapABLE as well as AffABLE, AvailABLE and AffordABLE.

Shortly after the Holy Days, the homiletics coach came as guest speaker one Shabbat.  He spoke about another Rabbi who had waited 23 Years to make an important point.  I waited 23 days, then contacted him about the High Holiday experience, which he had also attended, then made some provisions to provide guidance and feedback so that professional presentations would be a better reflection of professional skill.  Six months and then some have elapsed, and while I still perceive the homiletic repertoire to be a limited one, there is at least some consistent upper tier Jewish content to be imparted each week.


It makes no economic sense, and not that much educational sense for AKSE to operate its Hebrew School the way it does.  There are enough kids for one or two teachers and loads of models for successful education in one or two room schoolhouses dating back to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 which mandated this.  There are benefits to larger enterprises.  An attempt was made a few years ago to combine the AKSE and Beth Shalom Hebrew schools for mutual economic benefit and if done right mutual educational benefit.  Our amigos across town really intended to continue what they had been doing for the last thirty years to undermine the Conservative Movement educationally, only have our kids subsidize their march to mediocrity or less.  Along the way I had an interesting conversation with the VP Education for United Synagogue who understands the educational underpinnings that have brought about great attrition in his movement but an unwillingness to incur local unpopularity to correct them.  AKSE and Beth Shalom educations were never equal.  If one attends a bar mitzvah at each, the kids seem hard to distinguish.  Both are destined to the same college applications, both read their haftarah and other parts of the service in a way that reflects nachas on parents and teachers.  They separate at Gratz, approximately two years later when the AKSE kids become viable practicing Jews while the Beth Shalom kids remain ethnics, carrying for the identification with Judaism but not really having the literacy skills or the understanding of Mesorah that one needs to move beyond the bane of Hebrew School to the parts of Judaism that will enable their generation to make its contribution.  To give AKSE kids a Beth Shalom education diminishes AKSE from its starting point and deprives Beth Shalom and the Conservative Movement of what they could have had instead.

Leaving my Beth Sodom quips at the doorstep, though with a repertoire greatly expanded from two years of committee meetings, I made a decision in my capacity of VP Education representing not only AKSE but Gail's interest and the educational outcome of the kids to take a very hard line.  There were end runs.  The Beth Shalom principal went so far as to propose a curriculum to the committee done unilaterally and without the derech eretz to even show it to Gail before presenting it, let alone composing it jointly for mutual interest.  Worse, the Sodomites on that committee with the exception of one real educational professional saw nothing wrong with that, taking the view that the larger congregation should prevail.  Years later I am largely convinced that wherever Conservative Judaism is heading, Beth Shalom will get there first by their own initiative.  They do not have to take down the future of some really good kids or persecute a real pro like Gail in the process.  I found it appalling how inconsistent our own representatives were, hand-picked by me for their expertise, in making sure that an AKSE education would continue to allow our own kids to advance as Jews.

There is a post-script.  The schools separated.  United Synagogue set standards for their schools which Beth Shalom agreed to pursue.  I read the standards and they are a step beyond the principal-directed organizational anarchy that existed before.  They in no way mandate what has become the expected AKSE education and its beneficial outcome.  In some ways they make the Conservative educational system into a "Pig with Lipstick" and will continue to until they grapple with mandatory assessment of outcome but at least it is a formal recognition that what happens to the Hebrew school kids happens to the Conservative Movement a generation later.  And what happens to AKSE kids drives what happens to vibrant observant and literate Judaism a generation later as well, irrespective of what the ultimate destiny of AKSE as an independent entity that stands for upper tier Judaism in our community happens to be.


Seven projects, all significant.  The Sages noted that no two individuals have the same voice, appearance, or mode of thinking.  If I have a divine gift, it is my curiosity to explore why I have the experiences that I have and make the experiences new.  All seven initiatives, and they really are all my own personal initiatives, reflect that.  Moreover, all seven have passive beneficiaries other than myself.  With the exception of the gentleman redeemed from Charem, the other six require some effort on the part of the ultimate beneficiary to derive what is possible from my effort, something that did not always come to fruition.  But still each project advances capacity of somebody else in some meaningful way, and in a manner that nobody else either thought to do or took the initiative to do.