AKSE HEBREW SCHOOL
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.
STUDY FOR RITUAL COMMITTEE ON TORAH AND HAFTARAH PARTICIPANTS
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.
TOOK OVER MINYANAIRE TEACHING WHEN A GAP OCCURRED
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.
MADE A LIST OF ALL CONGREGATIONAL GROUPS
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, http://www.akse.org/. 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.
RESTORED A MAN FROM CHAREM TO THE BIMAH
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.
STARTED AKSE ACADEMY
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.
ARRANGED FOR PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT OF AN INEXPERIENCED RABBI
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.
PROTECTED THE EDUCATION OF THE HEBREW SCHOOL KIDS
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.