Thursday, July 18, 2013

Not Seen in a While

Been scarce.  Hiding under rocks.  Watching shabbos morning services on live stream with a virtual minyan in cyberspace.  Wherever people might be instead, they do not seem to be in the AKSE chapel on shabbos morning.  I never went looking for them and I doubt if the Membership VP did either.  And I don't take attendance either but I have a sense of who used to be there with greater regularity in the past than now, putting myself at the top of the do something else that morning crew.  Probably there is a mental note on this by the baalebatim as it is hard to overlook, maybe even some rationalization as to causes but no real incentive to explore or correct this type of attrition.  I'm there about half the time, another doctor who used to come regularly and a young professor have found other places to be instead the majority of the time.  The retired dentist hardly ever comes anymore.  My radiologist friend seems to come primarily as a bimah participant.  There are others.  I have a sense of why for myself, but for the others I'll leave it to the analysis of sociological trends for not going to shul on shabbos morning.  It just seems a little more precipitous than a simple trend.  More likely it makes a statement about the experience of being there, though a tacit one.

One of the previous guest scholars at the USCJ affiliate, Prof. Woolfson of the American Jewish University wrote an op-ed piece for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in which he suggested that the decline in attendance and failure to reverse the trend has its foundation in how people already there make an assumption that what they want is transferable to people who would be there if they knew about it.  He writes:

To create such a community, we need to turn our engagement model upside down. Rather than spending all our time planning events and hoping people show up, let’s begin with the people: Welcome them, hear their stories, identify their talents and passions, care about them and for them — and then craft programs that engage them with the Jewish experience

In all this time, which for me is about fifty years of being a consumer of Jewish programming, almost nobody has asked what I might like to have that I no longer have.  I have also been a designer of Jewish programming, often very successful ones at least on the day of presentation.  When I design something, most recently AKSE Academy, the design is my concept of what has appealed to me in other situations, present it and let the consumers' acceptance or rejection prevail.  In many ways we have built a trough, filled it with our finest slop, inviting those who feel hungry for something Jewish to immerse their snouts into it.  Eventually they will have their fill, no longer be hungry, and waddle off someplace else.  And sometimes the contents of that trough leave us with a little indigestion.

So if I really detest Aliyah Sound Bites should I say so or should I silently move on to someplace that has an uninterrupted Torah reading?  Or perhaps somebody should ask me so that I can tell them.  If somebody likes being in the open space of the main sanctuary instead of the more confined chapel and therefore doesn't come, should somebody on the A-list be aware of that?  Not all feedback is actionable, of course, but having sensitivity to solicit it may make all the difference.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Sinat Chinam

We approach Tisha B'Av.  Admittedly, it is one of the holidays to which I never connected emotionally.  While there is certainly a need to set aside time to acknowledge misfortune, it is much harder to buy into the concept of divine retribution for my own misconduct or that of the community.  When loonies of the ideological right suggest that hurricanes or AIDS are payback for social misconduct of one form or another, I do not take them seriously.  And while there is a reason to discourage Avodah Zarah and at least be selective with Sinat Chinam, both have their constructive elements.  Yes, the Temple was destroyed but how sincere anyone is about wanting it back the way it was stretches credibility.  Slicing through the neck of a sheep to bring Kavod to HaShem who already has Kavod in abundance makes me wonder about what we really aspire to.  We have in place in Jerusalem today this bearded God Squad creating mayhem and inhibiting religious fulfillment of a sizable part of the Jewish population that they regard contemptuously until the Tzedakah box needs a refill.  It seems to me that it might be better not to have Achdoos than to have the wrong kind of unity, particularly an irreversible one.  So mourn for destruction?  Maybe, but not for very long.  I think it better to take the view that no time is better than right now because we can address our many diversities right now.  Rabbi Akiva, seeing foxes emerge from the ruins of the Second Temple, concluded that they hit bottom as a prerequisite for redemption.  But he believed it would come passively, and maybe it will.  But it won't come between tonight's Tisha B'Av and next year's.  In that interval, while perhaps biding our time until we are once more subjugated internally by frummies, we can express a certain amount of Sinat Chinam toward those who restrain our minds and our actions in the name of the illusion of unity.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Aliyah Sound Bites

One of the phenomena that has infiltrated our local shabbos morning service, one which has actually led me to reduce the frequency of my attendance has been the running commentary that precedes each Aliyah, refereed to with a certain derision as Aliyah Sound Bites.  I detest them enough to go someplace else on shabbos morning which I plan to do next shabbos and sometimes make the assessment that no place is better than our sanctuary on shabbos morning so I upgrade my weekly holy experience by going no place.  Not long ago, I passed this comment to a senior Conservative rabbinic friend amid a larger assessment as to why I think many previously observant Jews have voted with their feet in increasing numbers to deplete attendance on Saturday mornings, myself among them.  He seemed a little surprised that I isolated this part of the morning that made the most negative impression upon me, since he had been at the forefront of encouraging his colleagues to replace some of the shabbos morning sermon with this type of running commentary as a form of machshava to better appreciated what is being read when it is being read.  I judge it more as tircha d'tzibburah, lengthening an already long service with trivial ideas that lack any exposition, much as our TV news has replaced analysis of events with a couple of minutes of photos.  Citizens are dumbed down that way and Jews are spoon fed if not dumbed down as well.

Having carried a pager for most of my medical career, one of the most negative features has been multiple interruptions that destroy any focus or personal exploration.  If you are seeing patients in the office and the pager goes off you cannot deal with the message as an opportunity as much as a reason to dispatch the person doing the interruption as quickly as possible.  Aliyah Sound Bites transpose this process to Torah exploration, something that many of us only get to do once or twice each week.  Learned Judaism really has an elegance to it, a give and take much like Medical Rounds where an issue arises that has many different facets to it.  The Torah reading while divided into seven often unequal parts has a unifying cadence that is sacrificed by inserting constant minor interruptions.  I regard the sequential approach of the seven olim each week as part of that cadence, part of the pageant of Torah.  It represents a pause more than a change in thought.  Since the printing press, it is a chance to glance at a commentary as a footnote to what was just read or to read on to the next aliyah or merely to offer a warm handshake to the person returning to his seat following his honor.  Those pauses enable people to direct their attention to where they would like it to be.  Aliyah Sound Bites on the other hand let somebody else select how the natural pauses between chantings are utilized.

My rabbinic friend in his email to me also asked what I would like the rabbi to do instead.  My first reaction was to have a traditional d'var Torah or sermon.  There is a reason why these expositions have endured for centuries, though often quality dependent.  Many of us study a measure of Torah each week, sometimes the weekly portion, sometimes a particular subject that spans several locations in the scroll, or sometimes an offshoot such as a sage's commentary or a modern commentary.  Nobody that I know of who does this opts for a piece of triviality that can be knocked off in minute.  And multiply triviality seven times or eight if you count a Haftarah Sound Bite as well.  Torah understanding accrues with ideas of greater substance, ideas that are amenable to challenges and citations to the contrary of what is being expressed in the portion being studied.  To pretend that seven spoonfuls each week compensates for a real effort where ideas flow from one to another diminishes the many learned people in our sanctuary each week to occupants in the lecture hall of Rabbinical Junior College.  It's a real negative to me.  And I will try to escape it this coming shabbos.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Silent Partners

I'm now on observer status at AKSE.  One of my friends at Kiddush asked if my wife who took over my main project there had reviewed the meeting she conducted with her and her husband to maintain it.  It never occurred to me that she should.  If I wanted to continue the project myself I would have.  AKSE Academy has been mostly a successful evening of learning but imprinted with my quirks.  It would be interesting to see how it gets assembled by an A-list of insiders who are fundamentally averse to controversy and ideological risk.  In any case, it is not my project and I am simply a potential consumer of whatever evening they assemble.  Moreover I was there myself that morning.  It is equally likely that either my wife or I will be there alone as it is we will be worshipping side by side at AKSE on a shabbos morning.  I find the Aliyah Sound Bites sufficiently irritating and the experience of being there largely sufficiently beneath my concept of what I might like my ideal shabbos morning to be like to make plans to be elsewhere about half the time.  My wife has less irritation but makes an effort once a month or so to seek out an setting more to her preference.  And we do not seem to be alone.

While taking attendance is something they do in Hebrew School or Grand Rounds but very few educational forums in-between, I looked around the sanctuary making a brief note more of who was not there than who was.  People who routinely came as a couple were nearly all above age 70.  Two former Presidents and the current President invariably come with their wives while a third former President may or may not come with his wife, though he only attends about half the time.  His wife holds one of the vice-presidential positions so she remains a participant though not a highly visible one.

Both our Gabbaim come alone.  Each has a wife highly devoted to Judaism and each has raised a most admirable collection of Jewish kids, yet each never appears in shul on a shabbos morning.  Our Ritual Chairman, the most accomplished Torah reader and sheliach tzibbur comes with his boys but almost never his wife.  Our most accomplished secular member comes alone, even on the High Holy Days.  I sat next to a woman with a physical disability.  It is something of a project to get to AKSE round trip but her husband enables this virtually every week.  Despite them having one of the most classical visibly Jewish homes I've ever visited, he serves as chauffeur rather than worshipper.  The man who I think is best qualified to be President almost never comes but his wife often does.  I cannot think of the last time they came together.  Our U of Delaware professor would come alone most of the time.  When his fiancee relocated to the area they sometimes came as a couple, sometimes he came alone.  I do not think she has come on a shabbos morning since their wedding.  And we have two more physicians, one an accomplished Torah reader, both with wives who have raised fine Jewish offspring and community ties outside the synagogue but almost no visibility at AKSE.

So that's the observation.  I have great confidence in its accuracy.  So now some speculation on why an unusually high number of people go stag.  First, I've never asked anybody.  It might be an important area of exploration for the Membership VP or the Rabbi, since knowing that the halves not present are nearly all individuals who have a measure of fondness for their Jewishness and have accomplishments beyond AKSE.  Most of their children went to Hebrew school there.  To say that they have not experienced worship at AKSE is probably not accurate either, as all attend on High Holy Days or particular shabbat events.  To say it derives from AKSE's gender policies has some merit, since the most striking absences are the wives of the Bimah stalwarts.  However there are enough men who don't accompany their wives to services to cast some question on this.  I also think the absent halves are not exactly voting with their feet on how the Rabbi conducts services, since these spouses were not highly present in the past either.  There are certainly no shortage of people whose presence has dwindled, myself among them.  Presumably a lot are in response to the current reality of what a shabbos morning is like relative to other alternatives for using those three hours but that does not explain half-couples on a chronic basis.

Since the people above age 70 tend to come as partners on shabbos morning, the spousal separation may be a reflection of how Judaism in general and the synagogue in particular has been evolving this past generation. Our baalebatim pretty much all came of age in the 1970's, products of Hillel for sure, USY and Ramah for some.  We had similar educations at the insipid United Synagogue Hebrew Schools of the 1960's which we imposed on our own kids when their turn came, along with the more rewarding experiences of camp or community involvement.  From my generation onward, Judaism became something of a menu that offered selections.  Husbands and wives eat a common meal in their kitchens and hopefully raise the children together.  But at the restaurant everyone selects pretty much what they like without any requirement that the partner have a similar preference.  If Aliyah Sound Bites irritate me enough, I can escape them and use those hours of my time in a more satisfying way, whether with a different shabbos morning experience of some way totally unrelated to shabbos morning.  While the Sages realized there was an element of Sodom when Mine is Mine and Yours is Yours [Pirke Avot 5:10], our time and how we use it is among our important possessions and does not always have to be shared.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Independence Day

Happy July 4th

Man from Independence
Financial Independence
New interns working alone for the first time while their supervising physicians take the day off