Monday, January 28, 2013

Quiet Weekend

Needed to chill so I made excuses to pretty much stay home this weekend.  I had a shul obligation as Ba-al Shacharit which got me there a little earlier than usual and the Rabbi began his class on Nevi'im afterwards which kept me there a little later than usual.  I had what has become my weekly landmark, a real breakfast on Shabbos morning.  By mid-afternoon I felt worn out, maybe in need of a nap but not sleepy so I treated myself to a Dollar Store benadryl aqua colored capsule which kept me in snooze-land for the next five hours.  Then some reading and TV or other not too taxing but not too productive tasks, then a full night's sleep so I could do useful projects on Sunday, which I did, though less than intended.

To prevent dreadful Mondays at work I decided some time ago that if four new consults came my way by mid-day Sunday, I would drive to the hospital to see them.  That did not happen this time so I could work on a blend of chores, sloth, and amusements until the new work week begins.  Dishes done.  Surface of kitchen table visible.  List of things I need to do in the coming week created.  Set out weekly pills.  Clothing that accumulated in kitchen put away.  Listened to a brief drash on  And a similar list of things I might have liked to do but didn't and should have done but didn't.

So now having unwound when I needed to unwind, I am ready to see what actually awaits me in the hospital and pursue the list that I put together yesterday.

Friday, January 25, 2013


When I returned from vacation last month I felt rested, having devoted two weeks to reasonably proper eating, increased physical activity, some spiritual upgrading with a new environment that I found both interesting and pleasant, and managed to read a book for the first time in a long time.  I had left for vacation more frazzled than I usually am when I leave.  I attributed this to the long interval between vacations but on return it did not take long to renew the previous irritations, mostly over excessive expectations at work.  It may be time to acknowledge the inability to modify this and accept the need for an amicable professional divorce.  Definitely time to seriously plan out my next personal phase and what I might like to do to replace what has dominated my time for so many years.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Bimah Volunteers

Our Gabbai invited me to lead shacharit on shabbos.  I accepted without hesitation even though it means being in shul a little longer than I might have preferred.  Being there is often not purposeful.  Having something to do usually is, particularly when others in attendance benefit in some way.  I've done this enough times now that little preparation is needed.  Usually I try to vary one or two of the tunes but for the most part it repeats the last few times I did it.  My Hebrew is fluent and accurate, voice passable most of the time.

AKSE has a small group of people who make the formalities of worship happen.  Many worship groups have started giving up their clergy, forming transdenominational minyanim.  It certainly saves money and keeps the dues from getting exorbitant, but it also gives the participants something of a stockholders form of ownership.  If the stakeholders don't come through, worship does not happen that day.  Hillel Foundations to which I have belonged always came through.  At AKSE we really only need the Torah read accurately but lack the pool of talent to do it.  We would need about ten people to give half a dozen divrei Torah each and probably could assemble that.  Unfortunately, what assembles relatively easily for shabbos struggles for Yom Tovim so having people aboard who have a contractual obligation to participate still seems necessary.  It would be nice, though, if the Hillel experience of people who gather on a Shabbos morning or Friday night out of desire more than obligation with grass roots participation could be recreated in a secure way.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Email change is no more.  Medscape withdrew the service that connected me to the outside world since 1996.  In that time, I have been able to impose my thoughts on countless unwilling recipients but also received responses to my queries from mental giants and the stars of Judaism who would have otherwise been inaccessible to me.  The archive grew and probably still exists on a zip drive.  Despite its emotional attachment I almost never accessed the saved weekly Torah insights, Pirke Avot Commentaries, Ramchal summaries and saved exchanges among many friends whose connection might have otherwise been lost.

And it was free to me in exchange for enduring some relatively unobtrusive medical advertising. which replaced it has a monthly fee, though bundled with cable TV which I would be subscribing to anyway. The archive has already begun.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Illusion of Competence

It was shabbos Rosh Chodesh Sh'vat.  While we are expected not to have a whole lot to do that competes with going to synagogue on shabbos morning, many of us do not really want shabbos morning at shul to drag into shabbos afternoon at shul.  There is an optimal amount of time to spend there.  Added Hallel, Maftir, Psalm 104 and an expanded Amidah can extend the services so I selected an experience that I already knew would be scaled down.  Moreover, I really wanted to hear our town's newest Hazzan.  So this seemed like the best opportunity to escape the Aliyah Sound Bites that irritate me so much at my congregation and sample the offerings at the USCJ place across town.  This place comes with some baggage.  They have macher swoops and kingmakers.  They created a very adverse experience for me when their congregation and mine tried to merge the Hebrew schools.  A Beth Sodom in many ways but with a personable, knowledgeable Rabbi who understands his reality and tries to correct what he can an now a new Hazzan who I wanted to hear.

So I went.  Their attendance was similar to ours for a shabbos morning.  Nearly everyone must have been a regular since congregational chanting to familiar melodies went well.  It being neither Rosh Hashana nor a Board Meeting, their machers either remained under the rocks or had gathered in a secret cabal in one of their Jew Canoe Mercedes to conspire how they might impose their will at the next Board Meeting.  Rabbi absent.  Cantor officiated.  Lovely lyrical voice, excellent Dvar Torah.  Their attendees were a generation younger than ours.  They had kids present.  Rather pleasant experience were it not for the Torah reading.

Shabbos services have a beginning, a middle and a closing.  The centerpiece is traditionally when the Torah is extracted from the Aron Kodesh, the weekly portion recited with its characteristic tune, a related section of the prophetic writings chanted with a melody in a minor key, the business of the congregation conducted with Bar Mitzvahs, Baby namings, Aufrufs, prayers for recovery of ill congregants, prayer for soldiers in harms way, and a prayer for leaders of the community as well as governments of America and Israel.  And then there is a message from a Rabbi or designee intended to bring a measure of insight from what was just read.  It is the centerpiece.  When people come late, they invariably arrive as the Torah is being read.  The Aliyah Sound Bites at my shul irritate me so partly by their triviality and partly by their disruption of the cadence that I have come to expect over the decades.

Reading the Torah takes work and it takes a little real knowledge.  At my shul we read the entire section, but many in America read only a portion of the designated reading each week, at this congregation about one-third.  Seven people are typically honored by an invitation to witness their portion being read.  Since this can be difficult to read, at our shul we hire somebody to do it.  When he is not present, we usually know that well in advance and have a cadre of readers who typically read 1-3 sections each or about 1-2 columns of text. Short portions are ordinarily given to inexperienced readers to enable advancement of skill.  At this congregation, they only read one third, about what we would give to a single amateur reader,  and still divided it among six readers, including the professional Cantor.  Gender issues aside, only the Cantor had the skill to do it at a level that would be mainstream at my place, two others might get the short invitations though the fluency left a lot to be desired, considering their portions' brevity.  The others could not get the words right, had no sense that what they were reading had grammar and sentence structure and meaning.  This was a portion that had well known phrases that people stumbled over even with practice.  There are two Gabbaim at the sides of the Torah readers expected to prompt the readers when they stumble.  They are required to correct the words but did not themselves have the facility with Hebrew to recognize the errors and offer the correct pronunciation, let alone the reader to put the reader back on track with phasing and grammatical errors which typically undermine the rest of the sentence.

When that is placed amidst congregational singing on either side, what an experienced observer recognizes is that the people of the congregation have the illusion of skill but not real skill.  They can be taught a catchy tune and sounds, much like a parrot can be taught sounds.  They can have a good time being with each other once a week and setting aside sacred time to worship as a community.  But even though they have an educational system, it is ineffective.  It has become language based on sounds when it should be the ability to perpetuate the thoughts that the words in the Torah scrolls have provided us for thousands of years.  It is not education.  It is the illusion of education.

And a closing afterthought.  I had not been there in a few years.  About half the people in attendance knew me, about half probably did not.  Customarily visitors are recognized in some way, typically given one of the Torah honors.  I was largely ignored.  Even at the Kiddush, a little snack provided to the congregation after services, only one person came over to greet the stranger, and one that knew me from before.  The clergyman did not.  An observer would conclude, maybe correctly, maybe not, that they have inbred their congregation, greeting each other, tolerating the stranger.  Ironically, the most repeated Mitzvah in Torah is to treat the stranger respectfully.  It appears 36 times.  Honoring parents appears three times.

Conservative Judaism has been in decline in America for about forty years now.  At one time, they drew upon young families in the post-WWII era, many raised in traditional homes, many refugees from Europe.  These are people who brought their knowledge and skill obtained elsewhere into the community.  Eventually the poobahs of Conservative Judaism would have to create the level of knowledge from within, setting up many institutions like Ramah, USY, Schecter, JTS and more to do this.  Unfortunately, the people like myself who benefited from that effort have migrated outward.  At my congregation the volunteer Torah readers are all alumni of those United Synagogue programs who acquired real skill, found the home congregation too trivial and migrated to places that had not yet slouched to Judaism lite.  Conservative Judaism in America can no longer import these people as they did from 1940-1960.  Decisions to equalize the status of women have kept the population afloat, but there are limits to how well the gender card can be played in the absence of Judaic richness that competing institutions bring to the table.  They have a lot to fix.

On former President of the congregation that I visited and to which I belonged for seventeen years once quipped that he did not know where Conservative Judaism was heading but this congregation will get there first.  They may still have a lead.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Strategic Planning

My shul has a real problem.  It resembles my Bar Mitzvah shul which crested at about the time of my Bar Mitzvah, then suffered membership attrition for the next forty years until it closed.  The shul where I attended services as a resident closed.  Both suffered demographic reversals probably beyond their control.  AKSE's struggles may have been more self-inflicted.  There really are not many places like the JCC Spring Valley that are thriving but there are places that used to be like the JCC of Spring Valley that adapted successfully to changing views of what the Jewish experience should be like that do not have to reassess their future today.  Or maybe more accurately they are continually reassessing their future as part of their leadership process, which may be why they do not go from crisis to crisis.

Our President invited comments on what the options for the future might be, posted a slide summary of the 42 comments he received, then invited the Board to comment on the presentation.  my assessment (blue)of the minutes (orange)

o Review of ideas submitted:  Categories: Building, CBS/AKSE; do nothing; egalitarian, financial, liturgy, other, youth.  
Discussion: Sell or downsize building; increase role of women, share space with CBS.  Need to look at how problem 
solution will solve problem; e.g., if membership decline is problem, will solution increase membership.  Problems with 
borrowing from restricted money, fundraising.  Rabbi willing to work something out with another synagogue. Not 
enough children; not growing.  Suggestions are interrelated; must discuss together. 

This is much too diverse.  First the problem needs to be defined better.  Not enough members?  Not enough money?  If we had money would we care about members?  Are the birds-in-the-hand sufficiently satisfied?  What do the members want in return for their support?  How well do we deliver on that?  Is synagogue affiliation really a consumer purchase?

If the problem is money, do we prefer to acquire more money or are we content to spend less or compelled to spend less?

Stephen Covey in his 7 HABITS recommended "Begin with the End in Mind" as the title of one of his earlier chapters.  That will determine when and how to play the gender card, seek other affiliations, develop programming and plan for the future.  Reading the range of comments, many of which can be traced back to when I arrived in 1997 and were addressed by a consultant some time ago, the direction needs to be teased out first.

Now for specifics:  Building is paid for.  Dormant Rabbi house has market value and we need the money..  There is much to be said about merging Beth Shalom with AKSE to a single congregation once the gender card is shredded.  Our talent adds to what they can do.  Their stability and institutional affiliation benefits some of our people.  Do Nothing has been the path for a while, though not exactly.  There were projections of what bringing a young personable Rabbi aboard would do.  Much of the projection did not materialize but at least it wasn't entirely a Do Nothing approach.  Much of the rest of it has been with reasonably predictable outcome.  I think it better to call "egalitarian" the gender card, since that is more accurate and is an issue at all non-egalitarian congregations where there is a disconnect between the secular opportunities for women and their role while under their synagogue's roof.  The blue line of what is acceptable halachically is always in motion, mostly expanding from what was before.  Rather than say egalitarian, I think it better to think of it as making the affiliation with AKSE, orthodoxy and its traditions more appealing to women than it is now.  Remember, orthodoxy with women involved is thriving nationally.  Liturgy needs to be addressed desperately.  My own attrition speaks for itself.  For all intents and purposes, there are no youth.  It is much better for AKSE to accept that, and integrate the children that we do have with other opportunities for them to socialize in the community.  The School remains one of those elephants in the room.  Sharing space with another congregation will not alter the lagging experience of AKSE affiliation.

Discussion about how would work out details and maintenance of identity if partnership with CBS; if work with CBS, 
chance for both institutions to develop a new identity.  Rabbi AKSE has discussed partnership with Rabbi CBS; next 
step is to go to board level.  Could remain as congregation, but not in this building; perhaps smaller building in N. 
Wilmington. Concern about conversion status if Adas Kodesch identity changes. Need longer period to discuss 
changes than proposed.  Main focus needs to be on our own congregants and what they want, to serve our own 
members’ needs; easier to retain members than to find new members; if we can engage current members, they 
become best ambassadors, which provides best chance for survival.  If we are going to talk about partnership with BS, 
should do relatively soon; difficult to combine missions of CBS & Adas Kodesch.   JCC suggested as a possible location 
if we decide to sell the building.  

AKSE has an identifiable mission?  Before you work out details you have to understand what you want.  If you want AKSE of the 1960's to be immutable, you already have that.  If you were engaging current members adequately as a matter of course, this discussion would not be coming up during the tenure of every single recent President.

Possible loss of membership if move left or right.   Discussion about egalitarian changes. E.g., if make some egalitarian 
changes that are Halachic, people will perceive us as fully egalitarian.  If rejoin OU, would require Mechitzah.  If joined 
CBS, most people would not notice the difference.  Adas Kodesch and Chesed Shel Emeth merged, and both changed; 
there is a way to do things if needed.  It appears that people like the type of service we have, although want full 
participation of women.  Should look at Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood which incorporates elements we have 
discussed.  Going in either direction would result in a loss of members; we should combine ideas, make major cuts in 
expenses, and keep existing traditional Jewish practices to ensure our survival and identity for longest period.  
Problem to ensure traditional practices when difficult to get a morning minyan.  We have to manage unappealing 

My grandfather's orthodox shul in the Highbridge section of the Bronx does not exist anymore.  Few shuls remain in Manhattan's Lower East Side.  My Bar Mitzvah congregation is gone.  The place I really liked in Quincy has closed.  Synagogues go through life cycles.  Amid that, new ones form and grow.  Charismatic Rabbis sometimes assume the pulpit bringing an energy and perspective that attracts people.  This seems to be independent of form of worship, more related to personal connections that people make at the educational level.  AKSE certainly has its challenges.  It is hard to say what the optimal solution would be, looking at the diversity of end points that people have expressed.

How would Rich the Sage go about this?  First, there cannot be Sacred Cows.  Everything is subject to schechita.  Second, there has to be an examination of ways in which AKSE is unique.  There are many.  There has to be a literature search, both internal to analyze why projections from the past were so wrong or even delusional and to distinguish approaches with potential from sure losers.  I think there has to be a planning committee.  It needs to have ex officio the Rabbi, President and Membership VP.  It needs to have three experts experienced with different trends in American Judaism and in doing literature search and analysis. Then it needs to have five members, either chose at random or selected by the Rabbi.  However whoever the Rabbi chooses should not be seated.  The spouse of that person should be seated.  There is just too much in-breeding and A-lists at AKSE which have been highly detrimental.  Only then does a direction get worked out, sent to the board for vote and then a parallel assembly of officials, experts and random congregants named to make it happen.  Will it happen?  No guarantee.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Setting Aside Complaints

Too much effort kvetching about what was and what is.  Not a great way to proceed with a New Year.  Of course, to fix something there has to be both awareness and recognition that there are benefits to having something other than status quo.  Depending on our personality, tilting at windmills can be invigorating or disheartening.  Some of us just like immersing ourselves in friendly combat, with the result less important than the quest.  I might be one of those people who would get bored if every experience was to my liking.  Other people's ineptitude, at least my conclusion that they are inept, energizes me to attempt a repair.  Sometimes it is better to vote with your feet and move away from the irritant but it is the persistent response to irritants that  form pearls.

Disaffected Doctors.  Disaffected Jews.  No shortage of either.  Designed my forum for a benevolent form of verbal combat.  The year ahead has all sorts of opportunities though I'm far from certain which end points enable those currently irritated to be content.  So I'll select my own pet peeves first and be sympathetic to professional assaults on other doctors or that come my way.  And always offer something better.

Right now I am ready to give myself another leave of absence from AKSE.  The Aliyah Sound Bites finally got to me.  Sen. Hruska commented on a Supreme Court nominee some time ago that mediocrity needs to be represented on the Supreme Court.  Most of the press, and even his colleagues, disagreed with that position and the nomination never came to Senatorial consent.  Mediocrity is highly represented on shabbbos morning.  Undoubtedly at other times too, which is why my attendance at events and divestment of committees continues.  Not that there aren't some glorious moments.  A superb sermon by a congregant last week, a full Torah reading done expertly by a congregant this shabbos.  Yet I do not particularly like sitting through the service, particularly the Torah service whose cadence has been shattered and the morning lengthened for some sort of minor running commentary.  I sent my assessment to the Ritual Chairman who is usually responsive but have heard nothing.

No more expression of irritation, just an absence to get something else instead.  Though I might miss the battle, I have other forums for self-expression of my Jewish experience.

Medically I am ready to write off some of the housestaff, particularly over issues of discharging patients without adequate provision for what follows the hospital.  One has gotten sufficiently repetitive to report as an individual for patient safety but by and large it may be better to just let the free market have its assessment after they graduate.  Scheduling in the office, another irritant, not worth the battle right now.

So what really is worth the battle?  And do I benefit from the process irrespective of outcome?  Probably but let me set this stuff aside for a month or so and reassess.