Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Early Rosh Hashana

While the Holy Days being on the first of Tishrei from year to year, I tend to think more in terms of my customary secular calendar which tells me which days I am supposed to work and which I can stay home.  Summer begins on Memorial Day, ends on Labor Day, irrespective of astronomical realities.  The Jewish holidays are therefore perceived as variable.  When they come in early September, they sneak up on you relatively unprepared.

In my commitment to myself to function as an observer, I approach the New Year with a measure of detachment.  There are five people I'd like to greet from afar, and probably will by Hoshana Rabba.  And I really do take some account of misdeeds that should not be repeated.  I have greatly enjoyed Rosh Hashana services at the Merion Tribute House, a synagogue offshoot while the fast of Yom Kippur gives me some measure of accomplishment.  Relented from my non-participant status and agreed to do Shabbat Shuva Haftarah which I've not done in a while.

These days have become something of quiet time for me.  Schedules are flexible for the most part, but not absent.  In another era, the early arrival of the Holy Days would have me scrambling to complete greeting cards but they have largely succumbed to easier electronic communication.  Fewer on the receiving end as well so less of a display to tack onto the walls of the sukkah.  While attendance at the Merion Tribute House has been well subscribed, Yom Kippur attendance at my home congregation has atrophied from year to year in proportion to the membership attrition.  It has its predictability and maybe some people are inspired in some way from the experience.  At other places Rosh Hashana displays the real character of the congregation with people trekking to the Rehoboth Beach Outlets for discounted designer finery and machers parading up to the Bimah for their Aliyot.  A place where everyone who's anyone comes to be seen.  For us it is more of a chore to get through, busy season for the clergy and a few volunteers, but it does not stand disproportionately to other events of the year.  Sukkot quickly takes over followed by shabbos each week.  Our Board has a discussion of the Holy Days were received each year but like macrophages, they have no memory and the same experience will get carried over to subsequent years.  So will my relatively ingrained misdeeds.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

They Moved On

Two AKSE departures of note, one earlier this spring, one yesterday.  I might have encouraged both to go elsewhere, one for the congregation's benefit the other for his family's.  Yet there is an overlap of needs, one fellow who had a personal agenda and would disrupt the congregation to fulfill it, the other with a young family whose forebears have been with AKSE for generations.  My guess is that he came to AKSE as the congregation of default but eventually one must be a consumer of what is offered there.  Items on the shelf are many.  Conversion prospects for a spouse might have been worth dues to the first fellow.  But to the young family, there is a Jewish education, a Bar Mitzvah or for some a Bat Mitzvah, social interaction with other Jewish kids.  For me I like to engage my mind in Jewish analysis, something I generally seek elsewhere where it is more readily available to me.  Some want to be part of the tribe, whether that means attending Minyan, Shabbat, Sisterhood, Bingo, or Minyanaires.  Most want to advance themselves or their families Jewishly in some way, which I think could be fairly assessed as the core business of the synagogue, though it has never really been pursued as a congregational mission during my time there.  I think balancing the finances has been the mission of Board of Governors.  I do not have a good sense if the Rabbi even has a professional mission, for all his dedication and hard work.

But they are both en route to elsewhere or nowhere.  Both did some things as participants from teaching to governance but I suspect they will not be missed equally.  The family that moved on will make Judaism better wherever they are.  He has an AKSE education.  He understands quality and will bring that expectation to the Reform congregation that he selected instead.  While commitment to ritual may not be as strong, their Rabbi always has important perspectives on Judaism to impart while the congregation has been committed for decades to broad membership participation in the activities, be they worship or social.

In the book Jewish Megatrends, Rabbi David Ellison, head of Hebrew Union College, wrote the essay on denominationalism.  While I thought the expression of the historical background was too cursory, he is right that we are approaching transdenominationalism.  If what you want is social interaction there is a place to find it.  If you want an inspiring Rabbi there is a place to find it. If engaging in communal Tikkun Olam efforts fulfills you Jewishly, there are groups that will get you there.  If you want congregational peers with no Rabbi, there is a place to find that too.  So each of us has a personal agenda to pursue with an assortment of options for accomplishing it.

So where does that leave the traditional congregations or Federations?  Some will undoubtedly accept a smaller cohort that tells each other how wonderful they are, much as business as usual.  Others will have officers and Rabbis of greater vision emerge.  These are the people who can tease out the individual Jewish agendas that people create for themselves, either by asking their potential participants or observing how they already participate, and adapt programming to the person rather than expecting the public to adapt to the programming.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Elephants in the Room

We all have them.  For the most part we don't exactly ignore them, as much as we might like to.  But we do not discuss them in a forthright way either.  We have them in medicine.  We have them in Judaism.  Yet there is a measure of Derech Eretz that keeps the items under wraps.  There is also a very legitimate fear of disruption that would inevitably occur if you fixed what needed to be fixed.  And there is a reticence to avoid victimizing some very nice but ineffectual people in the process from doctors who function above their level of skill to clergy who fail to inspire.  Whatever the benefits of revolution might be, somebody gets figurative beheaded in the process.  So we sidestep the discussions of computerizing medical care or we look to the future of what the Judaic experience might be without ever schecting the sacred cows that need to go to get it there.  We rationalize the decline of Federations and Synagogues over a generation from circumstances beyond the control of the organizations' leadership without acknowledging that the leadership has been engaged in a cloning experiment that begets more of what the desired public walked away from.

Somewhere along the way, my congregation needs to deal with bringing women ahead, the mediocrity of the worship experience, managing shrinking membership that is not going to reverse by bringing a personable Rabbi to the Bimah, unrealistic attachment that people have to what is there now to the neglect of what might be.

In my work world, you cannot keep looking the other way while residents discharge people without appreciating what the recipients of those patients will need to do on their behalf.  Not all loose ends and be tied together with a quick turf to somebody's office.  The office computers are diminishing medical care.  Expectations are put on primary doctors that exceed the skill of many and overwhelm those at the upper tier of knowledge who have to process though increasing volumes of people who are generally well without special provisions to isolate and focus upon the few who need more meticulous decision making.

So do I think formal Judaism and ordinary medical care are going to hell in a handbasket?  Well, not exactly, but I do think there is a day of reckoning where the status quo becomes unsustainable.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Easiest Person? Right Person?

For all the frustrations of my work place, I like going there and doing the things I do there.  At the other pole, as attached as I am to Judaism and eager to engage in print and cyberspace, I do not particularly like attending services or other activities at my synagogue.  Having just completed a wonderful collection of essays assembled in an extraordinary book called Jewish Megatrends, I've had a chance to tease out the difference.  The various contributors to Jewish Megatrends have a few common themes which seem highly adaptable.  The purpose of the book is to adapt elements of formal Judaism and innovative Judaism to young people who are first coming of age but never acquired a connection to the organizations that the main author, Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, refers to as tribal.  This has its analog in medicine, of course, where the AMA and the regional medical societies are struggling to maintain membership.  I allowed my American College of Physicians membership to expire this month, partly due to a financial request far in excess of its value but more directed to decisions the leadership of the organization has taken to move it away from what first attracted me to it.  No, shabbos morning services are increasingly an obligation on my part to be at least a nominal member of the community.  I think if the treasurer finds that the dues check clears the bank, the people in charge take that as a vote that contentment reigns.  While attendance lags, I find it hard to believe that the people who used to be there have made themselves Jewishly idle, any more than the people who no longer pay dues to the AMA  no longer engage enthusiastically in medical care.  I do and they do.  As the authors of the different essays recognize, the difference distills down to finding a measure of meaning in the things we do.  Rabbi Schwarz identifies four elements:  wisdom, righteousness, community and sanctity or their Hebrew chochma, tzedek, kehillah, and kedusha.

When I go to work, I am expected to be knowledgeable, do the right think for patients and residents who depend upon my skill, be a good citizen of the hospital that invited me in, and add to the holiness that befits the Catholic medical centers that trained me and where I now work.  And they do a pretty good job of keeping the people there focused on the organizational mission.  Jewishly I am expected to be knowledgeable, do right by people, contribute to the advancement of Judaism, and be the kind of person whose presence promotes sanctity.  The Judaism of cyberspace has enabled this, the Judaism that I have encountered organizationally does not give these four elements the same value.  Sometimes it can be quite difficult to absorb people into the community and insist that the people present function at the upper level of their skill.

My synagogue's baalebatim decided some time ago to go in the direction of expediency.  We had volunteer Torah readers.  Low hanging fruit required giving the holiday reader his usual section.  There has not been a new reader in some time.  The Haftarah pool has atrophied without replacement.  It is easier for a nominating committee to recycle officers than to groom new ones.  Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to assemble the right team.  And it's pretty easy to renew the Rabbi's contract with only a few changes on dollar amounts or vacation, maybe placate a few pet peeves on either side, but not the more critical performance upgrades that bring the kehillah to a destination that one could honestly call upgraded.  The easiest team and by inference easiest decisions will get you by, maybe even deliver you to the Promised Land of Judaic mediocrity.  But it will be a very restrictive view of what Judaism can be.  Those who might like something a little more engaging can figure out pretty quickly that you can't fight City Hall but you can move someplace else.

So Easy Person?  Enough of them around to fill the slots on a schedule.  Right Person?  There are enough of them around too.  Harder to tap into but these are the people who ultimately promote the logo of Embracing/Engaging/Enriching.