Monday, February 24, 2014

Jewish Young Adults in Attendance

Not that many youngsters attend shul or any other AKSE activity other than Hebrew School, and there aren't all that many of them either.  In my day we had a full Junior Congregation linked to Hebrew School along with evening childhood activities like weekly dance lessons.  Post Bar Mitzvah, there was a very tenuous Hebrew High School program, what would be called Confirmation Class nowadays but social activities for the teenagers continued in a big way, from USY which was really more of a basketball night and weekly bowling league which met at the synagogue after school for transport.  As a consequence of this we maintained acquaintances with each other to about our second year of college, when final dispersal took place only to reconnect some forty years later as Facebook Friends.  About half of my FB Friends had a link to the JCC of Spring Valley and some maintain synagogue ties now, though most have been part of the larger attrition from Conservative institutions.

So where might today's Jewish youth be?  I suspect they are blended in with everyone else, though probably still extractable with a social parallel to the lab sep funnel.  Last evening after shabbos I attended a concert which brought me to the U of Delaware campus.  Since I got there early and wanted to keep a commitment to myself of trying out two unfamiliar beers each month, I wandered along the town's Main Street checking out ice cream places and pubs that might have a craft brew that I could down in about a half hour before the concert.  There was a place nearby but no room at the bar and the gelato line moved too slowly so I departed.  Further down the street was a sports bar with all sorts of offerings though none truly new to me that would satisfy my project.  While the first place had some sophistication, and probably expense, to attract professors or others who already had steady incomes, this second place had students occupying nearly all of its floor space, most with a beer in hand, some alcohol already soaking their white matter, and no doubt some phony ID's in their wallets.  As I wandered in, some of the kids picked up on my trimmed gray beard, bolo tie and crotcheted kippah.  Many were actually rather solicitous of me or at least curious as to why I was in their neighborhood.  As I departed back to the street, others also picked up on the kippah, approached me to demonstrate how little they learned in Hebrew School but were rather friendly and most important they were present and identifiable amid a very large population of students and able to seek me out without my approaching them first.

The following day I needed to see some patients, a project less difficult than anticipated, so I used the extra time to detour my customary route home to stop at IKEA.  Sunday afternoon attracts a lot of shoppers of a very diverse range of ages and other elements of appearance.  Many young families present, numerous ethnicities with a variety of conversational languages going on around me as people looked at sample kitchens, shelving, and any other furniture item that can be configured into a flat box for transport home.  While I did not hear any Hebrew or see any kippot, the volume of young families seemed staggering.  If the people we hoped would enhance our diversity at AKSE were not to be found at shul, they were very likely to be wandering the floors of IKEA instead.

There is a certain entropy to Jewish life, at least locally.  Kids at the U of Delaware could see my kippah and greet me in the broken Hebrew that they retain as a residual from Hebrew School but at least they recognized it and have some polite attachment to it.  The people at IKEA are enhancing their home lives in some way by shopping there.  U of D gatherings were a public expression of community, IKEA a more private array of personal aspirations taking shape in a public forum.  If that's where these people are then the honcho's of the declining Jewish institutions will have to infiltrate their turf to capture their interest.  No amount of programming will bring these people to AKSE, not even with a keg of beer and no ID checker.  The people places like AKSE or Federation might like to entice will not be at the university for very long but they will be at places like IKEA creating their homes indefinitely.  They will need to choose from innumerable options but whatever they take home then has to be assembled to become usable.  We need to think a little more like them than like us if we really desire to have them include established organizations of Jewish interest among their destinations.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

We Need More Money

Dr. Simon Baruch, the renowned Confederate Army surgeon wanted his son to follow his professional path but Bernard took an early interest in the American capital markets, earning his first million while in his twenties.  His father asked him what he planned to do with that million dollars, for which the answer at the time was unclear.  Having a winning strategy was Bernard's end point with the amount as a method of keeping score.

That parallel approach to finances seems to have made its way into the psyche of the AKSE leadership.  About ten years ago, the congregation embarked on a Capital Campaign to raise $1 Million, coming fairly close to this somewhat arbitrary goal.  A congregational solicitor visited us at home accompanied by a fundraising professional to encourage us to pledge more than we ordinarily would for something like this.  I asked the fellow shul member what they planned to do with the money.  She seemed stunned by the question.  Some was to retire debt on the building but there would be quite a pot left over if the goal were reached, yet it was not clear why they needed so much more if there were no purpose for it to advance the congregation.  If the goal was to retire debt, we could pledge a lot less.  If the goal were to advance the congregation, there would need to be a plan in place for doing that.

The campaign sort of succeeded in raising money but the residual never really went to the congregation.  It served as a paper interest free loan for more operating expenses, to where it languishes on the books to the present.  The congregation has a secure building with secure economic value but not much else beyond that for all the effort that this project entailed.

As the congregation moves to its waning years, another project to raise funds for the sake of raising funds has emerged, a Dinner Dance, an evening of merriment done by many non-profits from museums to social service agencies to religious institutions, selling well heeled people a good time while allowing business a chance to sell stuff to them by purchasing space in an advertising book.  When the Diabetes Association does this they intend to take better care of people with diabetes.  When AKSE does this, the mission of the project seems less clear.

To perhaps make more sense of this I will take a fabulous lecture by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks recently presented at Yeshiva University and transpose his principles of personal happiness to organizational success.

He organized seven things people can do to make their lives more fulfilling, which organizations probably think they do, though maybe erroneously.  Let's see how the congregation did, or how I think they are doing and perhaps might do better.

  1. dream:  I will assume this means aspiring to something rather than foretelling the future, more like Yaakov's dreams than Joseph's.  There was a time when the congregation did work toward something unique in the community, whether that be educating the kids, maintaining Kashrut, having secure minyanim.  If the congregation were to close next year, what would the community miss as a result.  Lord Sacks assessed the optimal vision as one where what you like to do merges with what needs to be done.  Raising money enables what needs to be done, but it is not a surrogate for vision or an accomplishment independent of the vision.  If I were to take a yellow pad and try to write down what AKSE's niche currently is and what it might be instead, I would have difficulty doing that.  But being a Nobody, that is not my task.  There are Somebody's in place, a Rabbi, a President, and Executive Committee who could come up with a logo of Embracing/Engaging/Enriching which is conceptually fine but it lacks the dream of what might be put in place that makes that logo an operating reality.
  2. assess:  There is certainly a local, national and international Jewish landscape to which AKSE contributes.  Our members are the largest local purchasers of Israel Bonds despite being the smallest size.  We have embraced CUFI, which has its pluses and minuses.  But we also live in an environment in which the role of women is very different than it was in the 1960's and where the authority of the Rabbi is more limited.  People can and do walk away.  Most college or medical students remember the first time they walked out of a lecture in the middle.  Whether this happened for a good reason like the pager went off or an editorial response to the content of the class, most people had reservations about walking out until about the third opportunity, when it was no longer seen as something to avoid doing.  Moreover, there are things that are either AKSE exclusives or could be, whether afternoon minyan, members who are literate in Hebrew or the annual Cafe Tamar.  I think that officers and Rabbis who should be well versed in what other places are doing successfully have not made that assessment, even though cyberspace has made this much easier than it once was.
  3. venture:  And then there was BINGO.  It failed in its mission of fundraising but it succeeded in gathering forty individuals to make the project happen.  And there is mixed Megillah reading and there is Pizza & Parsha.  Amid these ventures are also some dead horses that have lives of their own.  While it is OK to innovate and fail, I would question the wisdom of plodding on once the failure has been established.  And then there are the ventures that should happen but don't.  What do the membership people do, what do the ritual people do?  Why does Women's Tefillah Group function like a Junior Congregation indefinitely or more importantly why does the Rabbi permit this?  There can be no growth without these ventures, keeping the final segment of the logo Enriching either vacant or at best an illusion.
  4. work:  People do work, they are dependable. They don't always do the work in a way that is productive but for the most part it is diligent.  Amid the yeoman's efforts that people put forth, there is also a reticence to undertake projects, most notably the governance.  I do not know for sure if the Executive Committee adopted its Peter Principle due to the Nominating Committee failing its role of talent scout or because real talent that was solicited declined the offer.  To be fair, I've also become more selective about what I will undertake there.
  5. offer:  AKSE has a face that the world can see.  People support the hungry and on Christmas morning people volunteer at the Mary Campbell Center.  But social justice belongs to the reform congregation as a core tenet.  Missions to disaster areas get organized someplace else.  Even money for disaster relief never makes the AKSE agenda.  It's a very inwardly looking amalgam of people, yet there is a sincere desire to appeal more broadly.  Chabad as part of its mission understands that the door to success opens outward, as the shelichim reach out to Yiddishe Neshamas who have no formal affiliation.  They are the affiliation of default.  There probably is no barrier to people at AKSE organizing small groups to benefit others and better broadcast AKSE as a place that infuses the best of Judaism wherever it might be welcome.
  6. recover:  I suppose the chronic depletion of members constitutes adversity but not nearly so explicitly as losing one's Hazzan suddenly right before the Holy Days or hiring a Rabbi who really isn't a Rabbi.  And they will weather the vacancy in the Presidency.  But are those things what you might regard as resilience, the incentive to change fundamental policies to be stronger?  They are temporarily setbacks viewed as temporary but the depletion of participation is a long term trend that has no finite pivotal point which changes direction.  I sense instead an acceptance of progression to the congregations final years, an unwillingness to set out on a bold new course that might give a different result.  
  7. thank:  At the close of shabbos the person making the announcements has begun to include a work of thanks for showing up.  Ostensibly the synagogue exists as a resource so the thanks really should be the other way around, a thanks to the synagogue for enabling the enjoyment of shabbos.  There used to be more people so I suppose a word of gratitude to those who have resisted attrition becomes appropriate.  Whatever happens in the congregation happens because people make it so.  Things like the Women's Tefillah Group or the Implementation Committee or socialization of new members efforts all failed to reach their goal because people did not promote interest beyond the original concepts.  We do pretty well thanking people for what they do, not as well at thanking people for what they tried to do.  And while there is much to be said about having a measure of contentment for what is, there also needs to be a measure of discontent for what was but is no more and for what might be but either nobody realizes it or nobody steps up to the place to make the possible a reality.
So Rabbi Lord Sacks teaches about people and he teaches about groups of people.  Money becomes the tool for doing the things that move you forward.   If you are not planning to move forward with it, to make use of it to expand the horizons, you may as well just take your delight in the portion you already have.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Counting Members

So how many members does AKSE really have?   I asked that of the membership VP within the last year and as expected was given the count of dues paying families.  But then I followed up the question with how many people, what is the census?  She hadn't a clue.  But isn't that what you really want to know to service people?  "Them, their wives, their sons, their daughters and all there dear ones" we recite silently as we prepare to return the Torah to its Ark.  In that mode of thinking there is Them and everyone else might as well be an appendage of Them.  One person writes the dues check or submits the credit card information to the synagogue office and a family count then goes into the computer.  Or we can give a half-shekel which might not correlate with the family count as some families have more than one person eligible for military service while some households might have none.  Counting people usually has some type of ulterior motive that drives how the census is taken.  For AKSE it is to keep financially solvent, for the United States it is to apportion Congressional representatives among the states.  If there is a benefit to the people being counted, it is usually a byproduct of the count more than its purpose.  Ten decent people would have save Sodom, if that count could have been inflated slightly, but the evil people are saved as a parenthetical consequence of saving the good people.

So should AKSE think of my family as one source of money or should they think of my family as two individuals that derive different benefits from affiliation?  Or the reverse, perhaps, having just passed Federation's Super Sunday fundraising effort.  While I have been on the Do Not Call List for some time, when I was on the list, it was customary to shake down my wife and me with separate calls, not to serve the community better but to squeeze a little more money by one individual not knowing what the other individual might have pledged.  For money, family assets are generally pooled.  For nurturing interests and talents, individuality prevails.  Both synagogues and Federations need to think of its participants as resources for keeping the treasury sufficient to sustain organizational mission, but if they then ignore the talents and passions of the people who earned that money, their mission will always be less than it could have been.

One returning project for me, perhaps, would be to take the membership list and do census properly, creating the congregation's real cast of hundred, cataloging what they do or what their interest are, enabling the membership VP or committee to then invite people to engage in the various committees or activities in a more rational way than they do now, which is somewhat akin to setting up a giant trough for people to immerse their faces when they feel like it.  Not exactly Ron Wolfson's concept of Relational Judaism.  If my Facebook or Google page can select out advertising that I might like specific to me, the congregation should be able to go down that path as well, though in a less sophisticated way.  But you have to change the way people think in order to do this effectively.