Friday, May 27, 2011

Purchasing Judaism

Went to the AKSE Board Meeting, the one where they discuss budget.  It is actually a rather thoughtfully constructed, particularly on the income side where predictability is usually not a whole lot better than my trying to predict glucose outcomes from the insulin decisions that I make.  They looked at what they actually took in and for the most part avoided the annual grandiose projections of what they might like to take in but probably won't.  The expense side is much more predictable and the opportunity of a part-time salary has mitigated the reality of spending more than we receive.  

Along with the budget came a dues increase of about 5%.  That would bring my obligation to a whopping $2625 annually, which is enough to make me wonder not only what I get for what is by far my largest tax-deduction not counting my upcoming professional liability tail.  I would also analyze the purpose of this expenditure and alternatives that give a similar or better return for a comparable sum.

One of the people at the Board Meeting asked rhetorically why the congregation exists and what its future might be.  I incurred the irritation of the President, something starting to get a little beyond the energizing mini-conflict from my perspective, by pursing that thought not in a rhetorical way but in its implementation to decisions, whether to make the unpopular choices that eliminate debt or to charge young members a nominal fee to give them a measure of ownership in the synagogue and avoid a major deterrent of a $2625 bill just as they reach age 30 and have to start spending on their kids.  Sometimes you give money away entirely for somebody else's benefit with no expectation of receiving any return, sometimes in gratitude for what you have already received, but most often to make a purchase for something you will get in return.  Usually when I write a check the category is clear.  My support of WashU Hillel is mostly one of gratitude, my monthly Jewish contributions are designed to be for somebody else's benefit with no strings attached and my credit card statement goes mostly to purchases for which I am the beneficiary.  Things like taxes merge all three categories, supporting schools that benefited me greatly at one time, snow removal that benefits me now, and research grants on esoterica that probably benefit nobody but the person receiving the grant.  But taxes define membership in America, Delaware, or municipalities and state sales or hotel taxes paid where I am not really a member perhaps gouge me unnecessarily or enable me to derive benefit in the places I visit which are reciprocated when others visit my places of citizenship.  The synagogue dues fall into a similar realm, providing a forum of Jewish advancement for me, a payback for all the friendliness that has come my way, and a daily minyan for those who hold that experience in higher value than I do.  The women of AKSE, who I think get much less from their membership than would be their just entitlement, get the same bill as me.  The young members do not, yet they also have a mixture of personal benefit, gratitude, obligations to others whose needs differ from theirs, and expectation of citizenship that should accompany membership.  I think the leadership is wrong to bypass some monetary contribution, however nominal, in exchange for what they receive, much as Medicaid and insurance companies have come to realize that co-pays of a minor nature reflect on ownership and responsibility for medical care that does not happen when people receive something without any requirement to contribute to outcome.

So is $2625 a justifiable purchase?  I certainly get less for myself than I once did.  My attendance on Shabbat morning has not only waned but there are times when my avoidance of being there is purposeful rather than a random consequence of the on-call schedule.  While the messages from the Rabbi have clearly reflected his professional growth since his arrival, moving from recycling of Hebrew school dalet class to looking up something in book about Ramban that I do not have and imparting Ramban's insight to me, it is still not quite the same as having facility with 3000 years of our mesorah to explore a topic of Torah from its seventy faces.  At least I am no longer bored but have learned not to engage him in conversation about his sermons.  However, in medicine and in Judaism it has been the ability to engage my teachers and extract knowledge and insight that they have but I don't that has allowed me to advance professionally and Jewishly in a fairly consistent way most of my lifetime.  If I purchase something for me with my dues, that is invariably the item of highest personal value but it has not been forthcoming.  My personal creativity is tolerated but not valued.  I see my inquisitiveness and my intellect as my most enduring Divine gift, the thing that drives me at work, in the exam rooms, teaching people and advancing myself Jewishly whether through Artscroll,, conversation with peers.  It is that give and take, that floating of ideas into the marketplace of possibilities that drives medical progress and advances Jewish mesorah.  I increasingly see that being consciously cut off at AKSE, to the point of no longer being a place where Judaism is advanced by exploring the wisdom and misadventures of what came before.  To the extent that I am purchasing citizenship, the last couple of years have been a sufficient disappointment to make me think that a competing purchase of another type might be better.  And then there are the other two elements, gratitude and need to support the benefit that others accrue though are of no particular value to me personally.  These are hard to get away from, though perhaps easy to replace.  My attachment to Wash U Hillel is permanent even though I was only there two years.  Penn's is permanent.  I owe the current group of students at least what the alumni afforded me.  I don't have that devotion to AKSE.  My sense is more that I paid dues for years, contributed skill for much of that time and received less than I put in, unlike Hillel where I put in bupkis and created an experience that carried forward forever.  Hakaras HaTov is a core value, and AKSE is entitled to some of that irrespective of the irritations that have come my way.  Same with services to others.  The people there need Kiddush, benefit from the Rabbi's mind more than I do, need minyanim, need education.  Even if I do not personally advance from these things others do.  Then again, people need these things everywhere and the advantage of a monetary economy is its portability so I can take part of that $2625 and enable a different cadre of individuals to have these things that benefit them without benefiting me personally.

As I approach Shabbos, Memorial Day, the increasing Days of the Omer that I did not count this year for the first time in a while largely out of a sense of hypocrisy for towards the people who do yet fail to advance their character for their effort, and the end of AKSE's fiscal year, it is hard to dispel my impression that $2625 to AKSE is not a good investment in Judaism for me for sure and probably not for the Jewish public.  The more I analyze this the more convinced I am both intellectually and emotionally that it would be better to simply disaffiliate from any synagogue as my father did at my age, also spurred by an assessment of financial value.  He needed the money for other things.  I am fortunate enough to still be earning a significant salary with the vigor at age 60 to do the things that justify it.  Redirecting that sum in a more purposeful way needs to be considered and probably implemented.  I would like to take 40% of this, about $1K and dedicate it to Jewish advancement for Irene and me, then take the other 60% as three $500 donations for the advancement of others.  There are no shortage of destinations for this money to places that fulfill this mission far better that what I have seen come out of AKSE in recent years.  It is a disappointment in some ways, as there are still friendships and gratitude there but it is not a prudent investment in optimal Judaism.

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