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.