Monday, December 31, 2012

Year's Conclusion

While it is not entirely rational, the transition of one calendar year to another has become a traditional demarcation point, a time to reassess last year and think ahead.  Having aspired to nothing in particular last year, there is no real disappointment at having acquired nothing.  My health seems good, though I could do better at taking my medicines, shedding some weight and dedicating some exercise time.  My candidate, to whose campaign I became a small donor, prevailed among the voters, though I suppose my own life would not have been materially different had there been an opposite outcome.  My family members seem to be on track for what they aspire to.   I have enough money and and for the most part take satisfaction in the tasks that earn it.  Not on a quest for more of anything.  I have learned to take a measure of delight in my portion.  More of a calendar transition ahead than a personal one.  Never saw the Mummers live.  Maybe this time.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


Recovering from two desperately needed weeks of vacation, about half of it on the Big Island of Hawaii.  The whole place constitutes one of the wonders of nature and what people are capable of doing with it.  While the geology and geography intrigued me, so did the history.  These natives were isolated for centuries but they set up their own form of royalty and religion, making the public subservient to both.  They created litmus tests such as places of refuge to absolve their inhabitants of misconduct, irrespective of what the misconduct might have been.  Life and talent did not seem to have a very high intrinsic value nor did what we think of as rational assessments of theology and justice.  While it was a schlep for us to get there with modern jet service, whalers and coffee farmers and entrepreneurial ranchers managed to get there as a specific destination in the mid 19th century.  People limited to that environment of natural and social fragility must have acquired early in their lives the coping mechanism of IT IS WHAT IT IS.  Prospects for challenging either volcanoes, daily rainfall, or a social system that did not regard intellect highly were futile.

We do a little better than they did.  Short of libel, I can express pretty much what I want with little fear of serious adverse consequence.  My house keeps me sheltered in inclement weather.  We still have natural disasters best handled with insurance to mitigate risk.  With all that, there is still a place for IT IS WHAT IT IS.

While on vacation I exercised most days, ate breakfast all days except one while away, immersed myself in new experience from different microbrews to scenery that exists nowhere else.  I was not the slave of the clock, though there were a few time dependent items like scheduled tours or local events.  Eventually the days on the calendar move along, customary routines return and IT IS WHAT IT IS takes a different perspective, particularly in December as we transition to a new calendar year and I create my semi-annual list of projects that I might like to tackle in the ensuing months.  In the week since I departed the Big Island, I've not exercised at all, got up too late to enjoy my weekly large breakfast on Saturday, acclimated myself to the usual irritations of the lens of my new glasses popping out and the cell phone failing, taking with it some of my Hawaii photos.  IT IS WHAT IT IS  Not that there is any real barrier to exercise, breakfast, special coffee or microbrews.  But there are also obligations to show up at work, take the best care of the people entrusted to me that I can, grumble about the schedule the management put in place, attend services on shabbos morning most of the time, do the dishes, keep the clutter manageable.  Theoretically I could retire, could become secular, could hire a household organizer but then I would lose much of whatever accomplishment I have, unless I replace these things with other things that I'd like to do more.  But with my house paid for and my kids on the path that any parent would like them to be on IT IS WHAT IT IS seems a good place to be even if I might like some other things to be different than they are now.

This past week I received a Facebook message that a high school classmate who I did not know well but certainly remembered had been killed on the same Connecticut Highway that I used to drive along.  She drove responsibly only to be struck head on by another car driving the wrong way on the interstate.  I knew where she lived and that she was a pediatric nurse.  Knowing that some medical classmates had settled in the area, both radiologists, I checked to see if either of them were at the hospital where the ambulance transferred her.  It was not to be, but it did prompt me to do searches on a number of my classmates, now all with decades of medical experience.  We all come up on Google in some way as various rate a physician sites keep a list of all licensed practitioners, solicit patient feedback and try to sell that to consumers.  It has never reality caught on.  In addition, most hospitals have staff listings with physician pictures such that a search engine can not only find them but show the effect of thirty years on appearance.  Once I did these two I just kept going, looking for classmates who made a splash in med school and those more obscure.  Most just ended up on the rating sites and sometimes staff sites.  A few did exceptional things, a few roamed from place to place, a few got promoted either within their medical center or at a new one.  Some accomplished much in early to mid-career only to find that their bibliography's last entry was twenty years back.  Some went the other direction, working for a while, then getting an MBA or new fellowship.  My own search may be one of the few where people can make an assessment of me as a person.

I feel a little envious in a way of people who latched onto universities and NIH, advancing as they matured within their organizations.  I might have like to have done that but I also don't see anything on those searches about those classmates having family lives or acquiring prominence in the community.  IT IS WHAT IT IS  People will make their marks in their own way.  We are not all destined for the professional limelight.  "and all the stars that never were are parking cars and pumping gas."

Then again, IT AIN'T OVER TILL IT'S OVER either.  As the calendar year and my last set of semi-annual projects draw to a close, most did not get done but most got worked on intermittently.  Who is rich?  One who derives pleasure from his portion?  Avot 4:1  My friendships, blog followers, and professional aspirations may not have reached goal, and they may not have been destined to, but the effort generates its own measure of satisfaction.  I have the friends currently available, my blog has its share of hits, and a certain accomplishment accrues from my work, even if less than I hoped.  And there is another six months ahead to work some more on these things and a few new items.

Sunday, December 23, 2012


Being more prosperous this year than in the past, I opted to increase the amount of my monthly Jewish donations by about a third each.  Prosperity comes at a price, meaning work, fatigue, and some lack of control over my schedule so as we approach the end of the calendar year, what used to be a monthly contribution to some worthy organization had atrophied to two checks written to unique institutions that are on my perennial list.  On returning from vacation, I took out my checkbook and some note cards sent to my by organizations that thought they might get a contribution in return and started began consolidating a very fulfilling project spread over the year into two days.

Of all my private accomplishments, restructuring my approach to Tzedakah gives me the most satisfaction.  My current mechanism now approaches nineteen years but its origins trace to my early days in Delaware, some thirty years, or half my life.  There is no question that Judaism requires generosity, sharing a portion of what is earned or even not earned, as the mandatory half-shekel per person was still required of the poorest among the population.  As an intern, I was subpoenaed to court as an expert witness by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for having taken care of a star witness in murder trial.  As a surprise, the court gave me a $25 check for my testimony, which I tried to give back since my hospital contract specified no outside income for my first year.  The chief recommended I have a nice dinner for my legal ordeal.  Instead I deposited the check and wrote another to the Hillel Foundation of St. Louis which now receives my single largest contribution each year.  Hakaras HaTov remains a core value as well.

While Jewish agencies do valuable work and the people who dedicate themselves to it merit a measure of credit, organizationally they often do not comport themselves in the best way, and for many probably should not have Jewish as the first word in their banner.  It did not take long for the local Federation to get my telephone number and ask for money.  The first solicitation was from a friend, perfectly dignified and honest.  When we spoke about amount, it was far in excess of what I was prepared to give so I offered what seemed more within my means.  He thanked me, did not bargain over amount, and I sent a check for my pledge.  The following year, a new Executive Director arrived, setting up a Young Leadership division to which my wife and I were invited.  It did not take more than a couple of orientation meetings and presentations to realize that the people were much more interested in my professional title and the income it would be expected to bring over time than they were in the intellect that brought it about or any ideas and talents of Judaism that my wife and I or anyone else in the program might possess.  And the machers there were the machers of my synagogue who before long would swoop down and run a Rabbi who I admired out of town.  As part of the program the participants were expected to man the telephones on SuperSunday, the day volunteers go to the phone banks and ask members of the community who are not prima fascie megadonors for their annual pledge.  As novices we were given a card with what they gave last year, a script to read that asked for considerably more than they gave last year, and how to bargain for something in the middle if they balked at the suggested amount.  I put the script aside, following instead the format of the friend who had solicited me the year before.  I knew these people would give something, usually about what they usually give.  I said thank you immediately and made no suggestion of amounts.  When another member of the program called me, the solicitor read from the script.  I found it just as offensive to hear as I would have expected from reading it, told him so and asked him to send me my pledge card, something the trainers said to make every effort to resist.

First impressions count and these guys did not endear themselves to me.  They separated husband and wife, asking each independently for pledges rather than as a family, even though finances are often bundled, including in the script why each has to give as an individual rather than a family if anyone being solicited desired a single family pledge.  As a physician, I got invited to non-kosher brunches with no kosher option at McMansions where en route the police track my car as one not belonging in that neighborhood.  Certificates were distributed to physicians whose only serious connection to Judaism was their income, though I suppose in a religion where one's actions take priority over what one thinks, their generosity is to be properly acknowledged irrespective of background or motivation.  So this remained my own forum for tzedakah, along with they synagogue for fourteen years.  I received a call each year, declined to pledge a specific amount over the phone but promised to send a check after I receive my pledge card which I did promptly.  Some took exception at not knowing the amount but I stood firm.  They can record it as zero if they really needed to know for planning purposes, then when the check arrives they will have a little extra.  While I did not particularly like this organization, its Executive Director became a personal friend from synagogue.  He meant well and eventually insisted that the solicitation be less of a shakedown of small donors.  The real money comes from the machers.  The good will of the public should not be jeopardized over attempts to get another $50 a year from people who already thought they were being fair to the community.  While I long since divested myself of Young Leadership, where attrition was expectedly high, and I often held the movers & shakers in private contempt, I also knew that social agencies needed support, there has to be an Jewish educational system in the community, there are many overseas needs in Israel and the former Soviet Union.  All these are best addressed as pooled funds which are then distributed by grants to individual agencies that carry out the actual work.  The people doing this were annoying but not evil. Over those fourteen years, as my income increased my pledge rose as well.  When my income declined as I went from staff physician to Endocrine Fellow to new solo practitioner, I kept the higher contribution.   But the loyalty never jelled.  Once an identifiable malignant Federation type accruing public honors arrived on the scene and affected me personally, the perspective would change forever.

There is an entry in my personal journal from October 1994 that I would not give to Federation in the future. Apparently by the Jewish Federations of North America analysis, the figure of those solicited who rebuff the solicitation is about 15% nationally.  At the time I was irate over adverse experience.  I shared my thoughts with my wife and we maintained a united front on this.  The pledge call came to my wife and I separately as scheduled in January, requested by a personal friend who I greatly admire.  We politely dropped out for cause, asked to be put on their Do Not Call list which did not happen for another year, declining to elaborate on why when asked so as not to attack a community leader.  The Executive Director, who attended our synagogue as well, came over to me one shabbos shortly thereafter acknowledging our desire to drop out, not challenging it in any way, though I suspect that acceptance would be different if our contribution had another zero or two appended to what we actually give.

So now I have a rather large sum of money to distribute as a religious obligation and no agent to do it for me.  I also have a somewhat hateful, contemptuous view of the Jewish leadership to dispel.  Like most things, it is less the bad apples themselves but the tolerance of the bad apples by the good oranges.  Much the reverse of Sodom which was destroyed not because of evil but because of the paucity of good.  But it was time to move on.  I took my annual pledge, added a little to it, and decided I would distribute one sixth of it every other month.  Included in each contribution would be a note of Jewish values explaining why I found that agency's projects an essential component of Jewish life.  My first contribution went to an organization called the Round Lake Camp.  They had taken out a small ad in the NY Times Magazine inviting Jewish campers who were felt unsuitable for the Ramahs and Galils of the Jewish world.  In a Jewish world that often regarded you as convenient or inconvenient instead of intrinsically important in one's own right, here was an agency that reached out to parents like us who found themselves rejected and isolated.  I sent them a check and a brief note.  They sent me a personal thanks penned to the IRS acknowledgement and later a video tape of their campers having a blast.  Two months later my secretary asked me to take a call from the president of the Jewish aging home.  He had received my note and appreciated the thanks that was conveyed to their staff and volunteers who get a lot more complaints than praise.  And so it went for most of the contributions and accompanying thank you notes.  Agencies big and small.  Camping, Family Service, disaster relief, education.  Since I have a local obligation before world obligations I left the Kutz Home and Family Services as annual constants, including some Biblical, Talmudic or liturgical reference as to why these projects are vital.  Later I added another constant, an organization called Footsteps that serve Haredi young people who wish to partake of other aspects of Hashem's social offerings.  These people through no fault of their own never got the education or earning skills that were made readily available to me.  They are often shunned by their own community when one of the core Judaic principles may be to accept people as you find them and help them develop in their own way.  I have been a permanent beneficiary of two Hillel Foundations that functioned by this principle.  Over the years, influenced by positive feedback from the agencies, my bimonthly donations became monthly donations scheduled on the 20th of each month just as I would pay any other periodic financial obligation.  Sometimes I was late but until this year, never had to bundle contributions to meet an IRS calendar benefit.

Since only three annual donations recur, this project over eighteen years has taken me to every imaginable activity that Jews do for each other and for the world.  Money is gathered to alleviate disasters.  There is an agency called American Jewish World Service that sends emissaries, my daughter among them, to volunteer for basic living development in poverty areas of Africa, Asia and Latin America.  Israeli professors get Nobel Prizes for lifetime efforts.  The Universities that sponsor their work depend on Friends of Technion, Weizmann Institute et. al.  For the Israel Defense Forces to have a form of  USO, they also depend on American Friends.  We have Hillel Foundations and Chabad that allow people not yet absorbed into our culture to enter.  We have a history, a collective memory, that endures through its museums.  And we have members of our community, too bothersome for those who are destined to "make it" and therefore left extrinsic to it, who are served by people of special sensitivity who advocate on their behalf.   There is an extraordinary organization known now as JACS which serves the chemically dependent.  It was intended to be a synagogue branch of Alcoholics Anonymous but rejected by several congregations whose officers and clergy did not want shikkers in their building.  It's prime motivator, Rabbi Twerski, a chasid with a medical degree who is one of the world's pioneers of addiction therapy, has a series of books on self-help and non-medical Jewish thought published primarily by an organization called Artscroll, whose parent organization, the Mesorah Heritage Foundation, frequently gets one of my contributions for translating primary sacred sources so that English speakers can read them.  And there is even a place for some benevolent Tochacha.  From time to time I send a check directly to the Jewish Federations of North America with a brief note of why it goes there rather than to the local agency and a recommendation that they use the resentment that the machers often produce to provide other suitable outlets that keep the victims engaged after they vote with their checkbooks and feet.  There is no end to the good that can be found if you seek it out nor any way that the brief notes of thanks that each receives from me adequately compensates their efforts.  It does compensate me in a very large fashion.  My approach to what Judaism stands for has never been the same.

This year's list:  The Kutz Home, Jewish Family Service of Delaware, Footsteps, American Jewish University in Los Angeles,  Friends of the IDF, American Jewish Committee if I can find their street address which they have conspicuously omitted form their web site to mail the check, Chabad of DelawareAmerican Physicians Fellowship for Medicine in Israel which sponsors Israeli physicians to receive training at American and Canadian Universities, American Friends of The Israel Museum, Masorti Foundation which promotes a Conservative Jewish presence and Jewish pluralism in Israel, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society,  and the American Jewish World Service.  And outside the list comes two other substantial contributions:  The Mesorah Heritage Foundation based on its importance and the Hillel Foundation of St. Louis whose Rabbi  left a permanent imprint on what I should be aspiring towards.

Next year's list will undoubtedly differ but the principles will not.  With some effort I will be able to remedy the lapse in timeliness.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Hanukkah in Hawaii

Once in a while I need some down time when I am no longer the doctor with the beeper.  To get away from it all I drilled a hole through a Dollar Store globe, using my home and the center of the earth as the two reference points.  Where the nail emerges on the other side is the farthest place from my home.  It is in the southern hemisphere in the Pacific.  We settled for Hawaii's Big Island as a suitable surrogate.  It's taken about half the week but I no longer feel compelled to help out at the hospital, as much as my work challenges me and creates a substantial fraction of my identity.

When we transferred from the airport to the hotel, my wife commented on a large Hanukkah menorah set up on the side of the road.  Yesterday while walking in search of breakfast and to get my bearings I got to see it up close.  Later in the day, again to get my bearings, I walked along the coastal road, a series of emporia where you can purchase genuine Kona coffee and T-shirts and any other imaginable tchotchke to bring home from the cruise, as the ships have a scheduled stop nearby.  Sitting amid the shops and restaurants was a unique one called Falafels.  It was marked Kosher.  Chabad has a presence on the Big Island.  I spoke for a while to the Sheliach who has been here a few months, trying to make a go of it with his brother.  The island's Jewish population peaks during Pesach, they get about 200 for Seder.  Shabbat services are not yet ready to materialize.  I doubt if they have a Torah but didn't ask.  Restaurants post their menus, either by custom or law, so I read through this one.  Simple Middle Eastern fare, shwarma and falafel at reasonable prices that cruise passengers would be willing to pay for lunch on a day trip before they return to the pre-paid gluttony of their vessel.

So with the help of the Rebbe z"l, Judaism has a presence most anywhere.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Congregational Achilles Heels

After a couple of years focused on the financial stability of the congregation, which is important, the poobah's decided it may be time to poll the congregants for their thoughts on arresting declining membership and participation.  It may sound grass roots but it's one more top-down transformation where people of an opinionated nature submit thoughts to a central authority without the invitation to comment themselves on the diversity of thoughts presented.  That will be done by AKSE's politbureau.  A giant trough will then be created to be filled with some form of slop into which members and I assume the non-paying public as well can immerse their snouts when they are hungry for Judaism, or at least need to be Embraced/Engaged/Enriched.  To be fair, much of the governance has been devoted to technique:  Bingo, branding, dinner dances.  Too little has been invested in the things that count more: the experience of sitting in the sanctuary, college level Jewish advancement, establishing a unique communal presence.  Maybe now it its time to recapture what has been neglected and pay real attention to the sources of attrition.  My comments unedited.  Submitted ones in orange, Kept to myself in green.

Irene brought home an announcement of a Congregational Meeting which will be taking place as we leave for vacation.  While the format that I read in the notice may not be the best one to accomplish what is intended, at least there is sensitivity to what a diverse constituency might think, something that has not often been conveyed well during my recent years at AKSE though was probably always there conceptually.  This being a forum for the opinionated analytical minds, I’ll take a rather large bite.

Being socialized into the world of medicine for a very long time, I tend to think in this context.  History and examination matter, then you choose solutions.  It always starts with background knowledge.  Yes, there is a background literature and publicly available resources on congregational growth, some very specific to orthodox synagogues, others more general to other synagogues and generic worship institutions.  While I am a long way from an expert on this, I’ve certainly encountered some of these assessments and real case success stories in The Forward and and even the Wall Street Journal.  The URJ and USCJ web sites have extensive offerings on congregational development and the USCJ even has its public announcements of Schechter Awards that go to member congregations for implementing these types of activities.  Given the importance of this, it would be my expectation that the Membership officials of AKSE not run their activities as an accounting exercise of who came and who went, but function in more professional way of exploring modes of membership enhancement, both in attracting people and keeping a better pulse on those already here to enhance satisfaction and retention.  And that means some effort to read, study and understand, ironically, the real underpinning of most things Jewish.

The indispensible theme of these, or at least those which I am familiar, is that the basic Orthodox congregational growth comes from attracting people who are not themselves Orthodox but appreciate things done well.  These are generally parents of young families, people who despised Hebrew school and got little out of it but took a liking to the Judaism of college.  They are indifferent to modes of worship but function at the upper tier of their professions and appreciate Judaism being presented to them at a level that stimulates thought and interactive study.  Aliyah Sound Bites don’t stand a chance in this population.  The development of loyalty amongst this population, which has an income capable of dues and a need to educate children either in day or congregational schools, seems to be entirely driven by the scholarly capacity and personable nature of the Rabbi.  And the growth can be quite dramatic, the place in Columbus being thoroughly revived and Rabbi Brander, who I often listen to expanding his Boca Congregation several fold over fourteen years before retuning to NY to become director of the Center for the Jewish Future.  Much of the effort requires meeting these people where they are, which is someplace other than the synagogue.  All these efforts and outcomes are publicly available for review with some basic computer and research skills.

With the recent election setting a new perspective, I am beginning to wonder if AKSE finds itself where it is for parallel reasons that Republicans find themselves where they are.  Republicans and AKSE have to divest a certain amount of baggage before a constituency not already in place will find the affiliation attractive.  AKSE has elephants in the room that either nobody talks about or that insiders rationalize while outsiders cast their votes elsewhere.  My last Board Term seemed like an endless array of A-List Beautiful people who were asked to do things and B-list people who were marginalized. The concept of the President thinking and expressing at a Board Meeting that the purpose of the Nominating Committee was to telephone the people the president appoints is a) offensive, b) not what my reading of the By-Laws infers, and c) creates the type of organizational incest that eventually expresses recessive genes.  It also perpetuates A-lists.  I have divested myself of all my committees because a recycle leadership caste checks boxes on agendas as a surrogate for innovation.  AKSE has created a recycling center for VP’s and Haftarah readers, much as the Republicans recycle their own platforms, incapable of understanding why a broader constituency rejects it.  Lying dormant is the ill-fated report of the original consultant whose comments and solutions were replete with suggestions for making governance and committees more responsive to a general public.  IMHO, AKSE did this to itself a while ago when it undid a bylaws provision that set term limits on officers.

The other obvious elephants are the female ones.  As I go to orthodox and observant conservative congregations in my periodic escapes and correspond with others of my mindset, it is obvious that female participation in classic orthodox Judaism is thriving nationally, but the places in which it is thriving have a clergy and lay leadership that understand that the red line of what women, converts, and non-Jews can do in their congregations within the bounds of Halacha is changing, as it always has.  The bias has been to expand participation and then see to it that the permitted expansion is in fact implemented.  Next year marks the Centennial of the Bais Yaacov movement around the world.  Sarah Schenirer who conceived of this in Cracow had a mixture of support and opposition, but once the Gerer rebbe gave his approval, he also used his resources to drive its success.  In my own time, in my native Monsey, the Gaon Reb Yaakov ruled that his women could teach at the afternoon non-Orthodox congregational schools that were growing around Rockland County at the time.  He set some limits but made sure that what he found acceptable was in fact implemented as best he could.  Josh Strulowitz, an orthodox Rav from a congregation in the San Francisco area made a very telling observation on this.  He was participating in a multiRabbi forum sponsored by the local JCC or Federation which was recorded.  In the Q&A session at the end, he was challenged about the role of women in his congregation.  He responded that Halacha indeed limits what his women are permitted to do ritually.  It limits virtually nothing else.  Worship in his congregation comprises about an hour a day, a little more on shabbos.  The rest of the time there is equality.  The women of his congregation are the best educated in the SF Community.  There is no squaw work in his shul where women who function professionally at the upper tier most of their lives have to settle for setting up Kiddush.  They teach, they govern, they command respect when they represent his congregation to the greater community.  None of this is the case at AKSE, where even women’s participation that the Rabbi permits languishes in the second tier.  If you want a Women’s Tefilah Group that brings Kavod to the congregation, you have to insist that it have parity to other services in its quality and you have to divest of contrivances like banning talesim on men and having men seated as spectators while women stand and worship.  That is the changing Red Line.  If having women read the prayer for the Government or do Kiddush is acceptable to the Rabbi, which he already indicated it is, then you need to have a mixture of men and women doing those things.  To do less leaves you with squaw work which any outsider will judge to be inferior, as would a fair number of insiders, myself among them.  And then there are people for whom even this is not good enough.  Rabbi Brander had an interesting comment about how he handled this.  He acknowledged the validity of what those women or their families wanted, helped them move along to their next destination if that was the right thing to do, but delivered them there with the best Jewish background that he could provide for them so that some of the light of the Boca Raton congregation was exported to the other place.  To do less leaves AKSE with the same baggage that the Republicans have, not only unacceptable policies but the justifiable image of insensitivity to what is most important to the other people.

While there is no shortage of what to address, and I’m confident that if enough people respond, many more significant opportunities to address the current situation will emerge, I remark on one more that I will call Dropped Balls.  To the Leadership’s credit, Bingo was thoroughly researched, risks assessed, an implementation champion identified and the project brought to successful fruition.  Cantor Search had a little bit more of an A-list participant feel to it, but candidates were identified and pursued in a diligent and successful way.  All sorts of other projects languish.  The ideas of the first consultant are as valid today as when they were submitted.  There was an Implementation Committee.  A decision was made to mentor younger members.  Despite its importance and good intent, it never happened.  Our gabbaim have their own A-list that they neither expand nor provide novices the time they need to grow into bimah participants.  Despite the congregation’s attempt to expand committee participation, it is always the more visible of a couple that gets invited, never the spouse.  I try to put teens on the Education Committee and I am dismissed out of hand by chairman and VP’s with some kind of lame rationalization that their homework will deteriorate as the excuse for why not.  While there is a sincere desire to have a broadly participatory congregation, the kind that not only succeeds from within but surreptitiously carries the enthusiasm to others, there is no means of accountability.  Over time your talent that could read Haftarah or design a great evening program, make a morning with Women’s Tefilah sparkle or even connect to other families LinkedIn style remains on the sidelines for either never having been asked or feeling like a member of the B-list when they are.  There are a lot of those dropped balls bouncing around AKSE’s hardwood.  You could upgrade the individual AKSE experience immensely without changing a single internal policy just by recognizing this form of systemic error and putting somebody in charge to create the checklists that fix it.

That concludes the comments about AKSE.  Not for formal presentation but some suggestions on gathering information in a better way.  When we teach medical students physical diagnosis, we start by bringing them to the bedside where they are instructed to look, observe but not touch or talk.  The observation of AKSE, looking only, is that attendance is down from where it was in many respects.  I only come about half the Shabbat mornings and not at all any other times.  I’ve not been to a Mens Club program or a class in ages.  At 10:00 AM on a Shabbat morning, there are virtually no women in the sanctuary and many less men than there used to be.  The Board has a fixed population but committees do not.  I am part of committee attrition as are others, mostly driven by some type of adverse experience, or the tacit message that the purpose of a committee is not to create but to process through.  There are people who have changed their allegiance.  There are people who have begun to look at synagogue membership as a consumer purchase that is overvalued.  The issue of the meeting, as I read the proposal brought home from the Board Meeting really has to do more with attrition than with individual policies passed along from the governance.  It is the financial consequence that catches attention of the Executive Board, though I assume participatory attrition would catch the attention of the clergy.  A much better way of assessing the problem would be to target comments from people who have reduced their activity in some significant way, which is generally for cause.  There is no shortage of people who used to be a more significant presence in the congregation than they are now.  It is unlikely that the Leadership has forgotten who they are.  Those are the people whose private candor is needed most and whose perspectives offer a much better prospect for change in direction than a random broadcast with feedback from those most energetic or articulate to provide it.

Wishing you well with this difficult but vital congregational analysis.

Richard M. Plotzker, MD
Mercy Philadelphia Hospital

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Approaching Vacation

Despite having nominally ample time for R&R, sometimes reality has me working more like a draft animal.  While it has been my custom for thirty years to assign one recreation time each calendar year, usually one week but for a long trip two, there have also been mini-excursions of 3-4 days incorporated into holiday weekends.  Those have disappeared for me in the absence of specialty coverage so I really only have the one stretch.  There was a time when I had to coordinate the time around my children's school and camp schedule but once they headed off to college the timing got more flexible, though not entirely arbitrary.  Thus I find myself on the verge of packing maybe about two months later than I should.  

I can tell when this time has gotten overdue by a certain irritability that emerges.  While my work challenges me and I think I remain attentive to patient care's difficulties, I often just want to get through what I am doing and move along to something else.  I come home exhausted, I arrive at work less exhausted and even a two day weekend fails to restore me by Monday.  Moreover, by December I look back at my semi-annual projects and see that most will not reach completion.

So I am now down to 1.5 office sessions until vacation.  I will wear a tie today and for shabbos morning.  Need to wrap gifts tonight:  Hanukkah for family, token for office staff.  Finish warm water wash tonight, setting aside what I might like to take with me as I remove it from the drier.  Finish my relicensure requirements before shabbos.  Then on vacation.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


The Forward presented an intriguing post-election opinion piece:

Its author contends, correctly I think, that Jewish voters largely disregarded their leaders' position on which candidate best serves Israel's interests and instead voted for the other candidate who better reflected a position that American participation is not the exclusive province of Committees of Rich People.  Jewish exit polling in the election certainly reflects this reality politically but I think religiously and organizationally this has been a work in progress for some time.

For most of the 1980's and 1990's I read Torah at the USCJ affiliate one of the High Holy Days.  Without editorializing more than necessary, this place had its macher swoops and king makers and ad hoc self-appointed Committees of Rich people.  To get an aliyah those days you had to have enough funds and be generous in dispersing them to purchase an annual Hazakah.  What struck me as I completed the reading of each aliyah was that the Olim greeted each other warmly but if they shook my hand or the Gabbai's hand at all it was much more perfunctory.  There was no serious recognition of the effort that a competent reading entailed or the planning that the people running the make it or break it annual event that portends the congregation's fortunes each year put into it.  Rather this was an entitlement,a perk of philanthropy and the leadership it brings.  Everyone else is hired help.  There was nothing evil about those people, just that entitlement and less than ideal sensitivity to what others might think.  My wife headed a Rabbi Search Committee.  After inviting a candidate to speak to the congregation in an open forum, one of the kingmakers polled her friends, then came of over to my wife to inform her that "the money people don't like him."

We are obligated to have a President so people vote at the polls.  We are not mandated to have a shul or a Federation so people vote with their feet and checkbooks.  And thus over a generation we encounter a form of leader generated attrition.  The coin of the Jewish realm has been re-minted from talent and energy to money and loyalty.  The voters of America demonstrated that there are limits to what machers can do to impose their will.  In many elements of the Jewish world they have imposed their will for some time and continue to congratulate each other while they preside over a much less vibrant empires than they could have had.

Monday, November 5, 2012


Hospital billing, lab reports, sign charts, Medscape Blog entry.  All overdue professional activities.  Research project and office cleanup, neglected professional activities that really have no deadlines.  401K revisions and vacation reservations and exercise.  All neglected personal activities.  Upcoming long Torah reading, I better get on the stick.  I intend to do them all.  And assemble the new kitchen island, too.  Most are finite tasks where a box can be checked when completed.  They would all be completed were there no barriers, mostly something more urgent that has to be done instead.  Patients occupy the exam rooms.  There is a hospital census.  At home I am really tired and want to rest.  I thought of something clever to post on Sermo.  No shortage of diversions or momentary priorities.

Some real catch-up time came my way in the form of a hurricane that closed the office for a day and a half.  No office patients.  No phone messages.  Not much hospital activity.  I brought my billing up to date and edited all dictations.  Made progress on the lab box.  By week's end my blog was posted.  Some headway, still more to go but there is a sense of accomplishment for what got done.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Senses of Autumn

Fall has arrived.  Elections soon, some uncertainty of outcome this time, at least nationally thought state and local races fairly predictable.  Have gotten used to school buses on the local streets.  I look at whether the Mizzou game will be on TV each weekend.  Made a half-hearted attempt to put summer clothing into plastic bags which can be reduced in size with a vacuum cleaner though the chill has not yet arrived for taking out anything warmer than a sports coat.  On a drive to Baltimore last weekend, multicolored leaves lined I-95.  The brews of Oktoberfest can be had by the twelve-pack at the Total Wine store.  This past weekend I started menu design for Thanksgiving weekend which includes the holiday, shabbat the next day and wife's birthday a few days beyond, all of which merit some special kitchen effort. The Holy Days have come and gone, setting the caricature of synagogue in storage for another year while the real experience of shabbat takes precedence.

In many ways fall has become work time, preparation for winter, ridding the garage of clutter so that the cars can be sheltered, raking leaves, for my kids studying for exams.  But there are opportunities for down time with some special sensations.  Every coffee place has its version of pumpkin spice and every brewer has some seasonal recipe not available the rest of the year.  Soon the clocks will revert to standard time, making it dark both on arising and returning home each day.

All five senses.  Sight of color.  Sounds of cheerleaders.  Touch of fleece in the gloves.  Aroma of leaves that the neighbors decided to incinerate.  And the taste of some Pumpkin Spice coffee made in the coffee press while waiting for the sun to rise.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Shabbos Dinner

While we've not yet set the clocks back for return to Standard Time, shabbos usually commences before I arrive home.  As a consequence, dinner must be prepared early before work and reheatable, so I get up early each Friday morning to make it happen.  This may be my longest continuous personal tradition, going through a number of minor revisions over the years.  In college, there was a communal meal at U of Penn  Hillel.  In med school a very private but special meal, usually prepared at home but sometimes eaten out at a vegetarian restaurant within walking distance of my apartment.  I always had kiddish though not always challah.  As a resident and newlywed, I could not always get home on time or sometimes at home at all.  Other than that, shabbos dinner has been the family constant from the early days of marriage, through raising our kids to now.

The meal is usually simple:  mostly chicken though in my younger years we had beef more often than we do now.  Chicken has been compared by many professional chefs to a blank canvas that allows creativity.  Plain chicken breasts work well early in the morning but sometimes a whole chicken roasted the night before, butterflied whole chicken roasted in the morning or on sale chicken parts slow cooked in the crock pot adds variety.  There is almost always a starch, typically couscous from a box or rice or a baked white potato or sweet potato.  Occasionally some fancier form of kugel or latkes during Hanukkah adds a measure of festivity though at some added effort.  Usually some vegetable, which I try to make fresh but sometimes have to settle for frozen in the interest of time.  We used to have gefilte fish more than we do now.  Rarely have dessert.  Soda or beer to wash everything down.

The important element may be that it is different from the rest of the week.  Planned in advance. Prepared in advance.  Introduced by the ceremonies of kiddush and challah.  It becomes the intended point of separation that continues until the following night.

Thursday, October 18, 2012


Work days can be long with many necessary tasks, some immediate, some not, filling the allotted time and spilling over most days.  Immediate stuff like patient care and phone calls get done faithfully.  Less urgent stuff like signing charts or billing eventually gets done, though not always in the timely way that it should.  And then there are things that I should do that lack negative consequences if I don't so too often I don't.  And amid this task clutter lurk things that I want to do so badly that I will assign specific time.

One of them approaches this shabbat, my periodic outing to worship at Beth Tfiloh in Baltimore, partaking of Rabbi Wohlberg's comments in person, though tend to keep up with the transcripts of his sermons on the web.  Something about being in that particular sanctuary engages me.  Part of it is my intellect but a substantial part transcends that.  They have separate seating for men and women with a discrete transparent mechitza which I accept readily, even though my own tradition is to sit with my family, to get something else in return.  What I get in return may be immersion with a few hundred other people who also want to be there when they could have been doing something else.  I get a sense of sitting among experts who chant well, reason well, and show sensitivity to women when others of that OU stripe are often callous.  Is it the friendliest place I have been?  No.  Do they have macher swoops as part of their governance?  Haven't a clue but I suspect that the Rabbi has sufficient authority and temperament to resist it if they did.  Yet a morning there captures the AKSE logo of Embracing/Engaging/Enriching more that most experiences that I have.

The week after, I have an appointment to donate platelets.  That is another destination for me, an experience that I will seek out.  While I function as an individual donor there, anonymous to the other donors and to the platelet recipients, being part of that project keeps me in a community even if I never interact with other members of the community.  Since breakfast is mandatory before donating, I have a large leisurely meal.  For two hours I have peace and quiet with the beeper turned off and nothing else to do but watch Create TV while whole blood flows from one antecubital vein into a machine, then returned minus a few components into the other arm.  Usually there are some perioral paresthesias from the calcium chelating agent causing me to have transient hypocalcemia which reminds me that I am doing something to benefit somebody else.  Eventually the session concludes, they offer me a souvenir which adds to my sense of community, and I have some Keurig coffee before proceeding to my next destination, which is usually an appropriate expression that this is part of my personal leisure time.

I agreed to do a long Torah portion Thanksgiving weekend.  While I do not generally regard a two hour block in my own sanctuary as particularly inspirational, the challenge of learning a new and difficult piece of Torah usually is.  It takes preparation which in itself forces a respite for a half-hour or so every night for a few weeks when TV or Facebook or other usual activities get set aside for this special activity.  In order to do this well, I also have to review what the portion is about, so I learn a little more Torah than I otherwise might as a byproduct of the effort.  And it is usually performed well in the end, so people who attend more out of obligation than desire derive some benefit with enhancement of their usual shabbat morning experience.

And finally I have my work.  Much of it is work but infused among the tasks are challenges and interactions with people who rise to the occasion, whether they be patients who return to the office better than they were, patients in the hospital whose lab work looks a lot better on day 3 than on arrival, residents who thought a problem through before seeking the answer from me, collaboration with other experts.  I do not often recognize this as inspirational while I am doing it, but on reflection it often is.

So amid much of the ordinary of the waking hours comes a few moments of mostly planned investment in time that generates psychic dollars of ample return.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Dysfunctional Alliances

This shabbat we had visitors to AKSE, four Pastors somewhere in the Protestant spectrum, disciples in some way of a prominent megachurch minister Rev. John Hagee, who established an organization known as Christians United for Israel.  One of them spoke rather eloquently of what his organization has done to influence members of Congress on behalf of Israel and create a presence on campus that is needed to retort increasing anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic rhetoric which has taken hold on many.  Which raises the question of whether all friends of Israel are good to have.  Some time back I outlined in my longest post the six contributions I made to AKSE's well-being.  Were there a seventh, it would be an effort on my part to rid the table at the sanctuary entrance of inflammatory literature, most notably a good deal of  "in your face" pamphlets from the Zionist Organization of America which I thought would send the wrong impression of what the dignified citizens of AKSE are like.

We approach a contentious presidential election where I am sometimes reminded that there really were guys who voted for George Wallace in 1968 who survive and vote to this day.  The republican candidate is probably a pretty decent fellow personally but his circumstances require him to throw some red meat to the surviving voters who have to repackage some very odious thinking in a form that people will not find threatening.  The butchers of that red meat seem to comprise the governing board of Christians United for Israel.  When they meet with members of Congress, most of whom vote on Israel's behalf most of the time without any prompting, I cannot but wonder how much of that panim el panim time goes to other parts of the agenda, many diverting far from any concept of Judaism that I might have.

While listening to a course on the Book of Isaiah this month, I learned that the most repeated mitzvah in Torah, mentioned 36 times, mandates the dignified treatment of Gerim, people who are not like us.  America may be the first place that implemented this idea effectively but it has some opposition.  The pastors and former government officials who occupy CUFI's Board are that opposition, spewing various forms of genevas da-as trying to get people to think that unemployment problems and some natural disasters result from public policies on abortion or gay rights.  That is not totally foreign to Jewish thought, by the way, with much of the prophetic literature assigning temple destruction or foreign invasions to systematized Jewish misconduct, whether that be avodah zarah, sinat chinam, or mistreatment of vulnerable people.  While the lessons of avoiding idol worship and treating people respectfully have become part of the culture, we have long since abandoned the theory that our woes are internally generated divine retribution.  Attempts at inquisition, pogroms, delegitimization of Israel and genocide really originate from evil external forces that we need to resist, with no preconceived notion that our conduct generated any of these things.

רבי שמעון אומר:
שלושה כתרים הם: כתר תורה וכתר כהונה וכתר מלכות. וכתר שם טוב עולה על גביהן.

"Rabbi Shimon said: There are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship. And the crown of a good name is superior to them all (lit., 'goes up above them')."  Avot 4:13

This type of alliance jeopardizes a Shem Tov,  AKSE's for sure, Israel's perhaps.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Code of Conduct

Several weeks ago Sermo, the physicians' posting site established posting requirements for its participants, as did Medscape Connect, another physicians' web site before that.  Medscape's has been around long enough to see the individual I regard as the most in need of having to go through a moderator posting much less frequently and others who had been routinely verbally abused by wingnut ideologues returned, some of them in need of a little restriction as well.  The Islamists who used to post stuff that I do not think their patients would want them seeing have not returned but neither have the very delightful Muslims who tried very hard to teach the rest of us the principles of their faith.  

Sermo's Code of Conduct reads as far more stringent and far more enforceable than Medscape's.  There have been individual physicians suspended for infractions well under what Medscape tolerates and the flagrant violators of civility have been few.  What the managers noticed, quite correctly, is that people who were personally attacked, myself among them from time to time, give themselves a holiday from posting.  I did that for two weeks not long ago and many more times deleted notifications from my discussion list.  In tracking their data, they concluded that certain individuals deterred discussion to an extent that they had to be shelved to maximize engagement of the physician community.  

While there was some negative reaction as a form of censorship, I think of this more as going through an editor, which is true of most publication.  It is not the ideas that are being scrutinized but the effects of how they are expressed.

Derech Eretz Kadmah L'Torah.

Friday, September 14, 2012

A Dinner Dance

The clock ran out on my term on the AKSE board last July.  I deleted myself from the automated emails a couple of years ago.  As a consequence, I derive very little personally from exorbitant annual dues which could purchase a good deal of upper tier Jewish advancement for myself with plenty left over to donate on behalf of others.  About half the time I make an appearance shabbos morning, increasingly out of a sense of obligation to set time aside for worship and Torah more than a destination in its own right.  I strongly suspect I am not alone in this view, with many fragments of evidence to support this, though without the smoking gun to wave in front of the Rabbi and President, both of whom have valid agendas and work diligently to bring those plans about.  But if you follow the wrong map, you can never get to the desired place, irrespective of good intentions and yeoman's effort.

An email came my way announcing a Board intent to have a fundraising Dinner Dance next spring, soliciting suggestions for who would make the kind of honoree that the well-heeled of our congregation and elsewhere would come out in droves to offer a handshake and hear a speech of wisdom.  Ads would be sold to local businesses and other well-wishers, the way these events become financially profitable.  Despite my current affluence and willingness to share some of it for communal advancement, including my synagogue's, plunking down a large sum when much of it goes to underwrite my own transient entertainment runs against some very ingrained values ingrained from a time when that affluence was not there.  While I occasionally seek a measure of personal pleasure or respite, opulence has never been an attractive pursuit for me personally.  But lest I diverge too much, the purpose of the event is to raise needed funds and the mechanism has a prospect for doing that.

What is missing, though, is a destination for the funds that enable implementation of the newly minted Embracing/Engaging/Enriching logo.  That's the core business.  I've not found the experience of sitting there on shabbos morning any of those things.  I did not find my time as a Board Member any of those things.  Not only that, but there was virtually no discussion of implementation to bring those things about.

Success literature over centuries has taken two genres that have very little overlap.  One is an ethical one in which principles are established, goals are set based on the principles and a diligent effort is made to meet them.  That presupposes that the path being pursued is the correct one.  Much Biblical and Rabbinical literature approaches success that way as do many thinkers of more modern times from the Founding Fathers to Horatio Alger to the late Stephen Covey.  The other genre has to do with technique as dominant.  We can derive wealth or power or whatever else we might desire if we implement a technique that brings it about.  There are plenty of historical examples of this as well, from Machiavelli to Dale Carnegie and to certain forms of Islam.  Judaism never really takes a view that the ends justify the means.

What I saw as a Board member which sensitizes me to the little that comes my way now is an emphasis on those techniques.  It may be Bingo, Dinner Dance, A-lists, corruption of the intent of Nominating Committees, all of which have a legitimate defense were they purposeful in bringing about a more laudable Embracing/Engaging/Enriching ethos.  Unfortunately these techniques acquire a life of their own to the neglect of core business of bringing all participants from the level of Judaism they have on arrival to a loftier one from one Rosh Hashana to the next.  Discussions of that element never seem to happen.  People get left behind when these things are not addressed.  We see those people then assigning a financial value to the dues request and finding that their investment may be better realized in a different community.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Tapping the Experts

In my hospital venue, I am an expert.  If your labwork looks funky or you look like your adrenals are making you fat and hairy, the request for assistance finds its way to my pager or an appointment is set up for a session in the exam room.  Data gets analyzed, key historical and objective information solicited and a plan devised to make things better.  Most of my consults come from capable physicians who have done their best to manage what is before them but sometimes the cavalry needs to be called in.

In a parallel fashion, the synagogue has not done well so the president decided an expert opinion might be in order.  We can argue whether or not the primary care givers of the synagogue, its officers and Rabbi, have performed due diligence or even tapped the resources or made the assessments that they should, but the outcome has definitely lagged.  There is a certain amount of delusion that the officers routinely buy into, much like doctors think that if their diabetics stop eating doughnuts their sugars will become normal.  They will become normal if not all that deranged at the start, otherwise more significant intervention is needed, and often something that the referring physician knows must be done but is too timid to proceed.  The young personable Rabbi will attract people willing to pay a substantial part of their not so substantial early in career income to bolster the census of young people and the congregation’s future.  Negatory on that one.  If we develop a mentoring system for the young members they will be socialized into the shul’s way.  The leaders never quite recognized that sometimes the shul has to adapt to their way.  We don’t need to deal with the elephants in the room, whether the literal elephant of morbid obesity that occupies my exam rooms or the figurative element of learned women who are unwilling to occupy our sanctuary and take care to teach their offspring why.  Delusions abound.

My congregation has had consultants with valid recommendations before.  There was even an implementation committee that did not implement or even understand that the heart and soul of the recommendations involved a redirection of governance and committee structure.  They have had focus groups.  This begot BINGO which was carefully planned and seems to be serving its intended purpose.  Little else is as carefully planned and fulfills its purpose.  There were brainstorming evenings that went nowhere.  There were focus groups attended by people on the A-list recommending more of the same.  We have a desire for membership but a series of membership VP reports that read like an accounting exercise.  They don’t even have an accurate census of who the members are.

Where this consultation seems to differ from a medical or legal consultation may be in who gets examined.  What strikes me as most bizarre about the proposal, sent to me by a Board member which I no longer am,  was that the consultant focuses on the Board which is increasingly incestuous and this time largely hand-picked by the president rather than constructed objectively by the Nominating Committee that functioned more as a telephone squad to convey invitations.  I never examine the referring physician, only the product of the decisions made by that physician.  I never ask the physician to change anything.  I assume the authority for those changes.  This type of examination should not involve the Board who really needs to take responsibility for the disappointing outcome.  Historical information is better solicited from people who used to be there but no longer are, whether the departure had been from the shul’s membership roster, declining presence in the sanctuary or not renewing participation on a committee.  There is a certain amount of objective information that a consultant would be expected to review, provided by the officers and the board and rabbi but interpreted or placed into context by the consultant.  This could include financial data and attendance data or the contents of the Shabbat bulletins three years ago compared to last year or contents of the publications that our congregation disseminates to its membership and to the wider community.

Reading the proposal for spending $3G’s on this, it can be done a lot more economically by having the officers understand the great sage Reb Pogo who met the enemy and he is us.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Approaching Tisha B'Av

This year Tisha B'Av coincides with Shabbat.  That delays the fast and the mourning rituals until the sun sets on Saturday night into Sunday.  As I did last year, I plan a private observance with my MP3 player instead of a more formal attendance at synagogue where Eicha is chanted, Kinot are read and men delay their t'fillin until the following day.  While non-observant Judaism has been on the decline, recognition of Tisha B'Av as an integral part of heritage has gained increasing recognition.  Just as constructing sukkot in the back yard or studying on shavuot night have captured a wider audience, so has some recognition of destruction.  Sinat Chinam and Avodah Zarah which brought the dire situation about probably continue as they always did and as I wonder if these enhanced observances reflect more on ethnicity than religiosity there is something to be said for setting aside one's daily amusement to engage in a measure of Judaism.

Tisha B'Av as a communal event never captured my personal interest.  There is something contrived about sitting on benches or the floor, the sincerity of belief that we bring about misfortune through our own misconduct has not been there for centuries.  We are victimized because the external forces are evil, not because we dissed the Rabbi or voted for Goldwater or refused to accept patients on Medicaid.

So when the sun sets on Shabbos, private electronic introspection commences.  Yeshiva University and the Orthodox Union offer podcasts of a quality that the local sanctuaries cannot duplicate.  I do not yet know what the subjects of the Rabbis will be but that is the destination for me again this year.

Monday, July 16, 2012


Survived my long Torah reading.  So did the other seven participants, all volunteers who capably got us through all parts of shabbat morning from Psuekei D'Zimrah to the concluding prayers.  I much prefer it that way as an individual experience, which is the usual occurrence of most Orthodox congregations and by default an increasing number of Conservative and Transdenominational ones whose declining revenues have caused them to eliminate the cantorial position.  To do this, we had to take out most of our A-team, which means this is not sustainable weekly.  My guess is that we could more than get by but actually thrive with only a Torah reader and a High Holiday cantor, as the capability exists within the congregation to conduct all other services.  We would need about a half dozen guys for shacharit, which we have, about four for Musaf, where we are cutting it a little close, maybe eight experienced Haftarah readers which we have.  In this day of Virtual Cantor, we could have an experienced person learn Tal and Geshem and pretty much anything else that occurs infrequently if given sufficient notice.

There are professional sports and there are pick-up games.  Both have their place.  Both generate different expectations from the people who attend.  Both have the capacity to engage the people who attend, though in different ways.  People watching the Phillies or the Olympics admire virtuosity.  People playing AKSE softball want the ball to come to them once in a while.

I do not have a good sense of what the occupants of the Berlin Chapel or Gewirtz Sanctuary expect of their experience on a shabbat morning and whether those expectations get fulfilled.  It would be hard to ascertain something like that accurately, though not impossible.  Good project for the Membership Committee or Ritual Committee, as it impacts on AKSE's most important weekly assembly.  My vote goes for grass roots.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Bimah Me Up

With the departure of our Cantor and a relative paucity of liturgical talent amongst the regular participants, I agreed to take up some of the slots for when our hired part-time Cantor is unavailable.  Filling the schedule can be a thankless job.  The two current Gabaim have skills themselves so I assume each time they do something it is by default for not being able to secure a volunteer , or like many things it is often easier to do something yourself than to get somebody else to do it.

I did shacharit last shabbat and a long Torah reading next shabbat.   Each time I try to do something new though the effort probably goes unnoticed to the listeners.  At Kiddush I treat myself to a taste of schnapps each time I perform but that is the extent of reward and certainly not the motivation to challenge myself a little each time.  I am not sure what the motivation is.  Probably to help AKSE out when they need it and to do a part to keep it a place where people are inspired to do a little more Jewishly than they did before.

As the Rabbi does things to make it more of a Conservative shabbat worship experience with a mini-drash before each Aliyah which I think disrupts the cadence of the Torah reading and eliminates a few siddur items in the interest of boosting attendance by ending earlier, I think doing my part to make the experience more like a Hillel where participants from different places importing their own tunes and variations of trop becomes increasingly important to AKSE's shabbat morning experience.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Glorious Fourth

Getting a mid-week break does not come often.  The last few weeks I've been to Houston for the Endocrine Society's Annual Meeting.  I had a resident on elective who was finishing up and now inherited onhttp://www.endo-society.orge who is just beginning his final year.  My WebMD blog, Hormone Happenings, is in its infancy.  I have a long Torah reading to prepare and probably should add a new tune to my shabbat morning shacharit repertoire to accommodate the Rabbi's desire to have more variation of the liturgy and thereby create more interest.  Last weekend was allocated to down time, and shabbos was, with some light at home activity on Sunday.  The holiday as designated some relaxation and some productivity.  I got most of my clothing put away and paid the few office related bills that had accumulated.

As the day closes, I feel a little more rested, able to get on with the second half of the work week.  July also marks the beginning of my semiannual projects which take a measure of enthusiasm to pursue.  This time the list has twelve items, double the number that I usually carry.  All are doable, none have deadlines that either guarantee completion or will arrive even if not completed.  The synagogue is not on the list at all.  Work is on the list in a way that does not involve patient care.  My home environment, my finances, and my mind all need some real attention in the ensuing half year.  And it started with one small step today.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Treating Myself

These past few weeks I have been uncharacteristically self-indulgent.  I went about adding to wardrobe with items that I didn't need.  Sports Authority had a 20% off coupon in their flier so I got a fishing vest, perceiving a need for the vest's pockets more than as a clothing item. Since the rods were on clearance for 50% off I got one of those as well, then on a stop at the Pennsylvania Welcome Center on I-95 I picked up a brochure that the Commonwealth assembled for people who are new to fishing.  I only had one Phillies hat so I bought another.  After my platelet donation instead of returning home I took a back road to Lancaster, enjoying the scenery and getting a couple more pairs of good shoes.  This upcoming weekend I have my monthly outing and next weekend I travel to Houston for the annual Endocrine Society Meeting.

I've taken no time off from work, in fact going to see patients last Sunday at the expense of other useful activities to upgrade my home and organize my finances which I had intended to do.  I will have skipped shul three consecutive shabbatot along with the Annual Meeting, feeling in no way deprived with a diminishing sense of obligation to be there when I could be doing something else instead, provided the something else has value.  And I skipped the local Greek and Italian Festivals this year.

Over a long time I've become scripted distinguish what I need from what I want.  I still have what I need and then some.  A certain amount of ME TIME probably falls into the category of need, which the monthly outings have fulfilled quite well.  The productive activity at work probably falls into the category of need.  Fishing does not but there may be a place for it.  Shul seems to be declaring itself as not, but there remains a place for it.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

They Do It Better

My wife's choral concerts nearly all take place in local churches.  Most are mid-sized to large enterprises affiliated with national Protestant organizations.  Each concert has an intermission and some are followed by receptions which affords me a few minutes to wander around the lobby or sanctuary entrance traversed regularly by regulars and visitors alike.  Each place has literature for the taking in a racks of varying size somewhere in the lobby, which is itself designed as a place where people might congregate, big enough to wander around but small enough to keep the people there in proximity to each other.  As subunits of larger enterprises, these churches have access to a certain amount of sales literature promoting the organization, yet each also has local brochures of rather good design.  All include a brief mission statement of the church, a brochure specific to the church and opportunities for finding one's niche within the many church activities.  All seem to be promoting multi-generational elements of the primary mission.  Some programs develop people, not necessarily members, from within while others reach out to the needy or vulnerable whose service is integral to the church's mission.

Staff blurbs are included.  Unlike synagogues that have a dominant Rabbi, the staffs of the Protestant churches are larger as the individual salaries are less than the going rate for Rabbis.  Even the Senior Pastor has very little biographical information, with the paragraph instead outlining his or her vision for what the members of the church need to do to enhance its mission.   Pictures of recent events, baptisms of babies, member families that have signed on in the last quarter, the camping trip of the sponsored scout troop are set aside on a bulletin board that is updated, leaving the impression of vibrancy for whoever stops by.

The periodic bulletin, presumably the one mailed each month or quarter to people on their mailing list, has its own place in the literature rack.  The content of the brochure again focuses more on what the people in the church did or plan to do than on what the clergy or machers think.  Most have an interesting "Pray For" section, listing members who are in the hospital or in harm's way in the military or studying for their big exam or in a job search.   It leaves the sense that all members have an obligation to others that have fallen on difficult times.   Their versions of Nachas Nook usually seems small.

איזה הוא חכם--הלמד מכל אדם  Who is Wise? One who learns from all people.  [Pirke Avot: 4:1].  Having been to a lot of synagogues of all types, particularly my own, most seem to approach personal connection in an almost primitive way compared to what the Protestants routinely seem to do.  Do I really care about the Rabbi's academic pedigree?  I should by able to stop in at the lobby on my way to the sanctuary or en route to Kiddush and remind myself in one minute what the shul is about, what is going on there that might make me eager to return let alone write an exorbitant dues check for its support, who are the friends I've not made yet, or what opportunities exist to merge my personal mission with their organizational one.  After seeing so much thought and effort go into this at the churches I have visited, I wonder why the synagogues in whose lobbies I have wandered, including my own AKSE, have never sought or achieved parity with this.

Friday, June 1, 2012


Next shabbat the Rabbi devoted his sermon time to a discussion of the Shabboton guest's suggestions for making the shabbat service experience more of a personal connection to the worshippers.  He offered a number of suggestions regarding new tunes or discussions or acting out portions of the service by turning the Bimah into a stage.  True, the AKSE services too often come across as perfunctory with little of interest.  Their purpose is ostensibly to fulfill a religious obligation for the men, which they do.  This may be why the attendance has been lopsidedly men for my entire tenure there.  There are shabbat morning experiences that I seek out from time to time or remember fondly as destinations on a Saturday morning. Creating desire out of obligation remains a challenge since you need one or the other to assure attendance.

Beth Tfiloh gets two visits a year.  My loyalty to Hillel on Shabbat morning endures and I would leave Wilmington earlier than I needed to on a weekend to be able to make it to Shabbat morning services at the JCC of Spring Valley and its subsequent incarnations.  If there might be a common link to the places I prefer to daven it may be fulfillment of the unexpected within the familiar as one element, impeccable execution as another, and an enhanced aura of common purpose among the attendees that AKSE has never been able to achieve.  I do not recall anything approaching shtick at any of them.  Moreover, I think in many ways the decline of the USCJ experience can trace its roots to either Rabbi-generated or officer-generated surrogates to replace a diminishing capacity to deliver the formal components of the traditional service experience with the proper level of expertise.  AKSE has an audience, as does Beth Tfiloh to a large extent.  Hillel and the JCC of Spring Valley had participants.

So how might one get the unexpected amid the expected?  As a casual visit to Baltimore or Spring Valley or anyplace else, this becomes fairly straightforward.  Tunes are endemic to a congregation but differ from what I am used to each week.  Rabbi Wohlberg of Beth Tfilah and Rabbi Palavin, the final Rabbi at the JCC, had a good deal of experience crafting their messages each week.  But were it not for the preparation of Hillel, I doubt I would be able to appreciate any congregational experience, let alone most congregational experiences. Universities have a way of gathering its participants from varied places and backgrounds.  Tunes differ.  At each assembly you can expect to greet people that you did not greet the week before, either because they were not there or you were immersed in a different crowd at kiddush.  The people there were part of the same community all week long, eating dinner together in the Kosher cafeteria, fretting over common exams, checking out the girls.   While there were no sermons, conversations among college students often have substance beyond the formality of a handshake with a goot shabbos appended.  It is harder to judge Beth Tfiloh or JCC where I am a visitor but the other people are not.  At the JCC there was often a curiosity about me by those there before as drop-ins were few and I had a past there to which those remaining could connect.  My presence automatically made me a center of attention.  Not so at Beth Tfiloh where Bar Mitzvah rituals with out of town guests were the norm and attendance always huge by AKSE or Hillel standards.  In many ways I function there as a spectator, doing my best to function as a participant as well as circumstances permit.   The women's section there was always well attended, one of the few ways to assess who shows up to fulfill obligation and who takes time from other possible shabbos activities to attain what can only be attained in shul.

So where might this fit with the AKSE experience?  Balancing obligation with attractiveness does not always go well.  First, I think it would be a mistake to go down the road of the Conservatives, assuming that the people in attendance are ignorant roobs who would have no Jewish connection or knowledge were it not for their Rabbi.  I never dumb down my presentations to residents or medical students to accommodate their limited capacity.  There purpose is to elevate people to standard, whether medical trainees or Jews in transition, rather than to diminish the standard to adapt to the people.  Gimmicks have a way of doing that unless flawlessly executed and appropriate to circumstance.  That is not to say special events have no place. The Senator's visit engaged the teens present like no experience they ever had at AKSE.  It is just that they need to be done very selectively and implemented in a way that nobody would assess as amateurish or tircha d'tzibbura.  Other guests given appropriate bimah time or guests at Shabbos dinners which have been well attended could fulfill this niche.  I think having women really do the parts of the service that the Rabbi deemed acceptable would be another, something that has remained dormant for some time.  At Beth Tfiloh, Rabbi Wohlberg has decided what women are permitted to do on his Bimah and in his sanctuary.  Every time I have been there, women do those things set aside for them.

The shabbat experience does not have to take place at AKSE in its sanctuary.  My most critical comments of the Rabbis and the lay ritual leadership has been that they do not insist that the Women's Tefiloh Group make a concerted effort to attain parity in performance with the main sanctuary to the extent that their permitted content allows.  You can claim respect for female congregants but never sell that as reality outside AKSE, or even within, if excellence is not the standard in any of its subgroups.  The shabbat dinners by their attendance and flexibility offer enormous opportunities for innovation that would be tircha if done in the sanctuary during services.

Should AKSE appoint a Cruise Director?  Is the role of Rabbi one of Cruise Director?  It is one thing to have a plethora of activities to offer people, quite another to goad them into taking advantage of what is there.  In many ways the congregation's stability depends to a large extent on its inertia.  Schedules need to get filled, and they do.  Officers are selected from the Recycling Pool.  Growth and development of the people does not seem a particularly self-driven process the way it would be at a Hillel Foundation.  One very simple way to shake up services and bring people along would be to establish a rule that no individual may recycle a Torah or Haftarah reading more than two consecutive years so that everyone would be forced to prepare something that is new to them.

While congregational discussion has been set aside for this with enough heads-up notice to make it thoughtful, these type of analysis tend to be seat of the pants expression of druthers rather than careful teasing out of expected outcomes of things that might get implemented.  There is a ritual committee, now relatively diversely populated without the ideological dominance and manipulation of years past.  Not that AKSE committees of any type excel at analytical thought but ultimately this seems the best forum for alteration to a shabbos morning experience that may need only minimal tweaking so that it may proceed while keeping the process transparent and the consequences accountable.