My attendance at AKSE Board Meetings has been largely a complete one, as has my attendance at its committee meetings and at Beth Shalom activities before that. I am hard pressed to think of any I skipped primarily because I didn't want to be there, finding them irritating or an undue depletion of time. At many of them I've been something of a space occupying lesion but I've always shown up, sometimes at some inconvenience to myself.
I find myself undecided on whether to attend tonight's session. It may be decided for me by a plethora of consults that keep me late at the hospital but looking at the agenda, mostly budgetary planning. I've been there before, or to some extent this comes up in a minor form with the financial report each month. Most of the big budgetary items are set. There are staff payroll costs which dominate the numbers, maintenance of the building comprises the second category of expense, and most other stuff is relatively diddle. There is not of discussion as to how well the big ticket items enable the mission of the synagogue as an institution but a lot of discussion on whether to save $500 on postage costs.
The income side may be more complex. It is harder to predict than the expense side, the retrospective review invariably being wrong and too optimistic. Yet the people who create the income side, primarily the members, are the very ones who need to be served on the expense side where the discussion never quite includes how well you serve them. It is hard to think of budgeting as a fundamentally abstract concept, much like basic science, which then gets translated to reality.
From my own perspective, there are spheres of concern and spheres of influence. On this I have little of either. The cynical me realizes that for the most part a herd mentality prevails, which may be good since you don't want to be doing radical things with the money of congregants who are change and risk averse but who are at least astute enough to realize that uninterupted progression of current trends will have its day of reckoning.
So what would I, as a sage lurking under the rocks, recommend. Just like I have a tendency to take patients at their word, I would take the task force at its word and proceed down the path of single clergy. Without getting into a discussion of the attributes that single Rabbi ought to have, the best way to economize is to do the work yourself and hire expertise that you do not have. Some of us can fix our own cars, some need an experienced person to change the oil. Some paint our own rooms or mop the floors, others hire painters and cleaning crews. Some of us who did not know how to paint or scrub even rise to the occasion and learn how. The opportunity to make that transition plopped into the congregation's lap without even having to contend with contentious contract renewal or denial discussion next year and the leadership failed to take advantage it. I think we need a certain amount of reliability on having a ba-al tfiilah and the expertise of a Torah reader. The price of a hired prayer leader, both an economic one and a lost opportunity one to engage the congregants and have them advance skill and rise to a need, seems inordinantly high for what we get in return. A school of AKSE's size should be a one or two room schoolhouse with a payroll to match. The progress of its alumni in parlaying what they learned there into more sustained adult Judaism should be tracked as part of the duties of the school staff for the purpose of upgrading the program over time and if the results are superior to anyplace else, which they are likely to be, then to using that as a source of product differentiation that allows us to recruit members. That would be a form of budgeting with a purpose.
Do we need a building that big? It is part opportunity, part albatross. On one hand, the proceeds from sale could provide enough interest to enable the congregation to live within its means. On the other there is a clear attachment of the membership to the physical structure and a willingness to support it so that element of expense seems purposeful. Rental of space with the building has gone nowhere. The options would be to either set aside the project or hire a seriously professional consultant who knows how to market space. And now we are out of big ticket items.
On the income side, the word on Bingo remains a work in progress. While I do not think this is the optimal business for a synagogue, the majority does and it could be a source of revenue. When all is said and done, the income side depends on membership, how well the current members are served and how well policies and experience attract or deter potential members. The task forces were too inbred to think beyond themselves and their own needs with a result that reflects this. They had an opportunity to capture other perspectives through the focus group but this had roughly the same impact as the paid consultant whose guidance never got implemented. There aren't too many ways to enhance membership. One would be to deal with the Women Thing. There are ways that can bring women closer to parity and there are folks like me who thrived on Hillel environments which must accommodate diversity, often by enabling parallel offerings. My hero Rabbi Jim Diamond took a steadfast position that all students at Wash U and Princeton had a stake in Jewish life around the campuses and he will provide the resources to fulfill it. AKSE had one minor foray into this with its monthly Mechitza minyan and a second foray with the Women's Tefilah Group. Neither fulfilled its potential and if I have any seriously negative clergy evaluation comments, it would be not prioritizing these two opportunities to advance the Jewish experience irrespective of whether the people are eager to be advanced. Not doing this for the Mechitza minyan enabled Ritual Talibans to undermine more mainstream progress on the Women Thing. Not doing this for the Women's Tefilah Group gave tacit or maybe even overt confirmation to the community that the Rabbi does not care about the engagement of women in his congregation to the extent that other opportunities are available for them elsewhere and that women who are really committed to their own advancement need to take their families to those places instead of AKSE. The other opportunity for advancing membership in places where mechitza or other forms of gender policy place women in a disadvantageous position involves providing a valued service ranked higher in importance than mode of worship. This can be community involvement open to women, but most congregations of all creeds offer this. Orthodox Judaism has a uniqueness of high level analysis of Judaism and opportunity for engaging in tradition. Most successful Orthodox congregations that have attracted substantial non-Orthodox membership have done this through the educational route. That means capturing college experiences which created a fondness with most people and not recycling Hebrew school which is usually the source of Jewish disdain and youngsters emerge from parents making their Jewish decisions to the college years where people make their own way. AKSE is still recycling Hebrew school as its standard.
Again, that is how budgeting becomes purposeful, looking at what is not yet provided that could be to make the offerings more attractive on the income side and investing on the big ticket items to accomplish this purpose on the expense side. Unfortunately there is not a lot of incentive to think of money as the means to the congregation's purpose.