Sunday, January 30, 2011

Cantor Calls It Quits

AKSE's Cantor, Rabbi Joel Kessler opted to depart with one year still remaining on his contract.  While I did not expect him to seek renewal, I also did not expect him to decline riding it out.  His professional competence in his Cantorial role goes without question.  His fulfillment of the expected requirements and then some leaves the congregation in some jeopardy when he is not longer available to do the many things that need to be done.  Others can do most of these things, though not nearly as well and certainly not with the reliability that we have come to expect.  His future plans have not been announced, though I suspect he will seek a pulpit of a small Orthodox congregation that can only support one clergyman.

Like the Federal Government, AKSE has been spending more money than it takes in.  We borrow against the value of our building which is paid off due to a Capital Campaign that concluded last year.  Instead of making mortgage payments, we pay interest on our line of credit which is much smaller.  There really are not a lot of ways to spend $34K less each year other than eliminating the Hebrew School, which will probably not do it since it would be offset by membership loss, or eliminating one clergy salary.  At the Board meeting in December there was unanimous support to retain the current Rabbi and widespread support to make a three year committment to him.  If the money runs out before that, the Cantorial position would have to go, though the things the Cantor does has a good deal more direct economic value than the things the Rabbi does if individual tasks would have to be replaced.  Rabbi Joel could run AKSE as a single individual, the current Mara D'Atra could not.

I suspect it has not been a happy experience for the Cantor.  There is a gradient between his professional skill and the Rabbi's, where discussions always seem to focus more on affable than on capable.  The Cantor moves more Orthodox in practice, where the congregation does not.  Very few congregants really value the expertise that he brings but hold a great regard for things much more trivial like Sunday school classes and lowest common denominator sermons that an Am Ha-aretz could find uplifting even if devoid of serious Jewish content.  In many ways he must feel like the experienced sergeant who owe's a salute to a new ROTC lieutanant.

As one of the skilled people I will be expected to pitch in more than I do now, though I have mixed feelings about taking up the slack.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


For the most part, I do not like to work with firm deadlines but the externally imposed ones clearly make me more productive than the ones I impose on myself with utmost flexibility.  I did manage to get my office closed despite my secretaries' preference to drag it on indefinitely. 

These next few weeks, I have two major talks, one at AKSE Academy next weekend and another in mid-February for Mercy Hospital's Grand Rounds.  I have been working on them but the looming presentation date has started to impose a greater measure of focus.  AKSE sources are nearing completion with the upcoming week for editing.  These next two weeks I need to devote attention to making my slides for Grand Rounds.

Friday, January 21, 2011

OU Convention

A Day of Learning, just as advertised.  Having made a weekend of it, I arrived refreshed from a night at a nearby Howard Johnson's, stopping at an Exxon station to fill my tank so I would not have to stop on the way home.  At the registration desk I was a little surprised when they asked which Plotzker I was, but by chance I met the other two at lunch.  I picked up my registration badge, checked my coat, went to another table to get my Convention tote bag with its mixture of advertising and schedule, then hurried to get to the first session, one on synagogue development before it started.  By day's end I had also attended classes on Hazanut, another on synagogue development, one on autonomy, one on conversion laws and a plenary session on Mesorah.  In between I grazed and looked at the OU exhibits as well as partaking of a brief but sumptuous lunch.

There were few knitted kippot but few overt Hasidim.  People wore black suits even on Sunday, but they wore ties as well.  Women attended but men far outnumbered them.  Since everything was Kosher, I did not have to scrutinize menus but could just take from any edible display.

To my surprise, I could not identify a subliminal agenda.  There was no sense of being under attack from external forces, no exhortations of the rabbis to rally the lay troops, no hand-wringing to decry adverse demographic or sociologic changes.  The closest I came to that were the Hazanim pushing for the preservation of their declining art.   There was no tone of discontent among the participants nor any sense of threat to what had already been achieved.  Instead there seemed a muted celebration for what had already been achieved and an optimism that the trend would continue.

My two synagogue development sessions took different directions.  The morning session had a professional consultant as its facilitator.  She spoke of Board and Officer responsibilities, primarily governance with all its successful and failing variations.  Congregations need to have a purpose with programming designed to fit that purpose.  I think AKSE really does not, or at least has not articulated it clearly.  The afternoon session dealt with making the experience of being in the synagogue more attractive.  Why are people there?  What happens when it is not shabbat?  Do they come out of desire or out of obligation?  AKSE keeps itself very vulnerable from this frame of reference.  Interestingly the session was conducted by a congregational Rabbi who does consulting for OU congregations.

Definitely a very thoughtful day which achieved its purpose of pleasure mixed with insight to take back home.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Topping Out

About thirty years ago there was a bestseller written by John C. Molloy entitled Dress for Success in which he explored the world of business attire.  He argued for people at the lesser rungs of commerce to dress more like their senior executives.  Of course, their spendable income was much less so they could not make frequent trips to Brooks Brothers, let alone Saville Row.  In its place, he recommended going to the top stores to look at the finest business clothing, identify what made it different from the stuff most of us buy, then go back to our stores to look for the products that have those basic unique features. 

So this weekend, I treated myself to forays into where the three main branches of Judaism excel, to see what I can bring back to my ordinary experience.  After a wicked week at work, one in which I would have liked nothing better than to plop myself down after Shabbat dinner with a look at Washington Week followed by a visit to my mattress, I instead shlepped with Irene to Beth Emeth.  I never regret the effort to get there.  This Shabbat was special.  It being Shabbat Shira, they traditionally have a special event with Kriyat HaYam by the Hazan.  It happened also to be the week of the passing of Debbie Friedman, the most influential member of the Reform Movement whose music has added to spirituality of every synagogue I have attended since the 1970's when, as a rising star in the world of Jewish Music, she performed at the WashU Hillel.  There were a couple hundred people in attendance, with all three synagogues represented, listening to a somewhat makeshift hybrid choir singing her melodies, trying to get the congregants to sing along much as Debbie would do at her performances, and incorporating the melodies into the kabbalat shabbat liturgy.

My destination for the weekend was the Orthodox Union Convention's Day of Learning, but since I needed some real recreation, I opted to make a weekend of it, seeking out the upper tier of Conservative Judaism. With some exploration on the web and some guidance from Rabbi Satlow, one of the real talents of Conservative Judaism, I opted for shabbat morning at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck NJ, having heard that JTS Faculty and United Synagogue senior honcho's live in the community.  They are having a Shabbat of learning that makes my AKSE Academy look minuscule.  By Kiddush, my concept of the viability of Conservative Judaism had been completely transformed.  It was like a Ramah experience made multigenerational and transplanted from a rural retreat to mainstream sanctuary.  About 200 people attended.  They must have a fair number of transients since only a few recognized me as a visitor, including the Gabbai who offered me Shishi, though I preferred to remain  an observer rather than participant.  Nearly all the men had knitted kippot like mine.  None had a satin Bar Mitzvah souvenir and almost none took a black general synagogue issue one from the box.  Most of the people who brought their own talesim, men and women, wore full orthodox style woolen garments, few had their own silk tallis though a lot of people like me wore the ones from the synagogue.  The sanctuary had been prepared for shabbat, one of my pet peeves with AKSE.  Each place had an Etz Chaim Chumash on the left and a Sim Shalom Siddur on the right.  The congregation does not have a Hazan.  Their web site hinted that they do not need one, as capable congregants were committed to not only showing up to make the minyanim but to make the services happen.  This shabbat the Rabbi did the Pseuke D'Zimra.  A young guy chanted shacharit, incorporating a few of the late Debbie Friedman's melodies into the Kedusha as a memorial, Torah reading was divided three ways, all done very well particularly the last two done by a young woman with lovely voice and impeccable skill.  The very long haftarah was chanted by a rabbi who was not the congregational rabbi.  He did it capably but struggled with some of the less familiar words in the song.  Musaf was done by a middle age man, approximately one of my contemporaries, with a pleasant tenor voice who also incorporated a few Debbie Friedman melodies.  Their liturgy was a complete one with a few variations from AKSEBirchat Cholim came after the sixth aliyah.  Their rabbi received a list in advance, read it and invited people to come up.  Few did.  I think it was a mistake for AKSE to change its policy from this. About three women were honored with aliyot as well as peticha, suggesting true egalitarianism rather than squaw work often seen in other Conservative settings and certainly at AKSE.   A prayer for Tzahal and captives was then done in Hebrew by the rabbi.  The prayer for Israel was done in Hebrew at its usual place followed by a prayer for the United States read in English by the Rabbi with an insert for the Armed Forces.  The sermon was delivered after the scrolls returned to the Ark, given by the Gabbai who apparently was also a prominent attorney.  He spoke about different ways to assess census to understand the Exodus and victory over the Canaanites.  At the end, two girls concluded the service.  They did not do Anim Zemirot but instead did the passage that separates Ein Kelokainu from Aleinu followed by Kaddish D'Rabbanan.  They also did the Sabbath Psalm earlier in the service as their Siddur places it.

Then a visit to a friend recovering in a nursing home in Spring Valley, then some relaxation at the Howard Johnson's in Ramsey, then completion of the weekend at the final day of the OU convention.

We have a board meeting at AKSE this coming week.  The President included a semi-annual summary among the agenda items.  What made Beth Emeth and Beth Sholom Teaneck attractive places to attend may have been the excellence with which they executed what they intended in a way that enhances the experience of being there.  AKSE has more pretense, aspiring to what it is not, guaranteeing that the experience of being there will never measure of to its hype.  There are people there who will demean Beth Sholom Teaneck as inferior based on its USCJ affiliation yet ignore the talent of its members that make the experience of shabbat morning in the sanctuary sparkle while shabbat morning at AKSE parades far less capable participants from the Rabbi to the congregational volunteers offering a couple of hours of mediocrity.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Sunday on Call

This one was difficult.  I inherited a long list from my partner and accumulated five more.  It took seven hours to get everybody seen and properly assessed.  At least there were no major glitches.  Everybody could  be found in their room.  The glucose and medication documentation had no serious lapses.  Most of the elevators worked.  There was coffee in the Doctors Lounge so I could grab some, then go to my office to extract data from the computer before heading off to a new consult.

Still, my personal agenda for the afternoon, including a SLU reception and basketball game at Temple, took a back seat to my professional responsibilities.  I got home as Irene was leaving for her weekly choral rehearsal so my personal intent of carving out some neglected family time also did not get done.  I did not take time to become more proficient with my iPod despite purchasing a book which would enable me to do this.  AKSE Academy preparation also did not materialize in the way I had hoped. 

Patients got good, thoughtful care, as they should but it took its personal toll, one that I expect to carry forth the rest of the week until I sign out next Friday for what I hope will be some real recreation.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Opting Out

A broadcast notice arrived in my email on the AKSE's new mentoring program with an invitation to attend an orientation led by a Federation person on how to do this.  I RSVP'd my preference to sit this program out.  I do not think this decision violates my goal of dealing with people in a gracious way. 

Socializing people this way has had extremely poor results for the two large organizations that did this, Federation and United Synagogue.  It tends to alienate the most creative elements, the visionaries that are needed most while reinforcing loyalty to the status quo as the ultimate value.  Inbreeding brings forth a lot of recessive, dysfunctional genes, as I found out with the High Holiday Honorees of the Education Committee undermining my AKSE Academy plans and dismissing out of hand any creative comment I bring to the meeting.   Eventually you end up with selective attrition.  Organizations like AKSE and USCJ affiliates that really need to be transformed to serve its constituents cannot be transformed when everyone is taught to think alike.  You get oddities like the Rabbi contract discussion where the aphorism of the "four ables" which should be the essence of discussion never gets to the table.

A much better way to accomplish this goal of integrating new members into the structure would be to designate a host or two as resource.  Izzy served that role but has never been replaced.  The host can then distribute individuals to others of special talent and interest.  Of the new member list that the Board distributed for this mentoring project, very few of the people were really new.  I'm not sure what benefit they want to derive from their return or from their newly independent membership.  The few new members and real talents, maybe three from that list, can be developed but I think they would inevitably contribute in a less structured format.

Sometimes I prefer to be an observer more than a participant.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

New Me

There really cannot be a new me, just an upgraded one.  Under New Management perhaps.  More gracious, healthier, dedicated to less clutter, medically more knowledgeable, electronically upgraded, ready to live comfortably without having to earn additional income each day or at least ready to accept the reality of my post-earning years.  Those are the goals for the first half of 2011, though the end points by which success is evaluated are less distinct than they should be.  Gracious may be acquiring new friends, attending social events, having more contact with old friends or even upgrading my performance as husband and father.  Healthier has a lot of parameters from weight, exercise performance, lab data, clothing size.  Decluttering I think means getting out from under papers and moving what is not likely to be used someplace other than my house.  Putting decluttering on my schedule defines process, not result.  Medically more knowledgeable has a result remote from the next six months.  There will be a board exam which will have a result, but that comes in the second half of 2011.  My electronic upgrades include iPod and phone, but again more process than end point.  Post earning financial planning is more straightforward.  I need a Long Term Insurance policy and an estate plan.  Very clear end points.

"Begin with the End in Mind, "  Stephen Covey advised.  This week I determine the end points and the intermediate steps.