Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Becoming an Extremist

This year I attended my favorite Megillah reading conducted at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, the congregation where my wedding took place.  They always have a creative Purim Shpiel, one with overt levity but with a serious element not very far beneath the surface.  It must have taken months to piece together the various skits.  The theme:  making Conservative Judaism more relevant to a younger crowd.  They had no shortage of people in attendance, perhaps people of my generation over-represented with younger families under-represented, though youth very much present as participants in the skit, less so as observers.  I liked being there.  It engaged mind and spirit.  Judaism can be fun, it can be a little irreverent in the right setting, though a friendly rather than hostile spoof.

So what might it take to make the experience at AKSE comparably enjoyable?  Well, what captivated me about last night?  First, there were no clergy in attendance as they had official obligations to preside over the main sanctuary. The congregants made the evening happen, mostly people with demanding and serious day jobs.  And they had knowledge of the Judaism that goes on around them, its glories, its challenges, its irritations.  They had a critical mass of people who understood the effort that went into this, also versed in the world of Judaism of which they partake regularly.  I do not know what internal divisions comprise their governance, though there are undoubtedly some, though well hidden from me the visitor.  I do not think the people in attendance were particularly friendly in that nobody came over to me as a visitor but that made no difference for an evening.  Nor was the Megillah chanted with unusual virtuosity, but that did not matter either.  What made the festival was engagement, a mind that can connect with the proceedings, irrespective of whether one is able to follow along in any of the three books provided.

So first they have to be engaging, the middle section of our logo.  It would be interesting to find out if TBHBE got their volunteers for the skits by broadcast or by invitation.  I know I do not get invited to do much at AKSE and nobody accepts my observations in an actionable way, maybe not in a credible way either. There is an enormous chasm between being told you are important and being treated as if you really are. That credibility transfers from one activity to another.  Either all initiatives or activities are credible or none are.  I think it would help to invited individuals to do things that need doing, personal directed requests to replace broadcasts.  People who go as spectators, which is increasingly me, have no meaningful attachment to withstand the inevitable strained times.

While female equality has allowed a lot of talent to emerge at TBHBE, there would be no barrier to any part of last evening other than chanting the Megillah text itself or conducting maariv.  But I think what makes the evening, and perhaps the Kehillah as well, might be the need to come up with new material or new assignments each year.  That's what underlies growth.  At my shul we have people assigned to their chapter year after year.  When somebody drops out, which has been me and Rabbi Joel over recent years, somebody adds one more instead of bringing in somebody new. Or even rotating the assignments to upgrade proficiency.

The people present seem intent on maintenance of what is, though it carries a very high price of foreseeable extinction.  Some serious revision will be required to change direction.  Golden handshakes for most of the VP's, accountability for those who follow.  Some better candor about what the Rabbi really does well, what needs coaching in hopes of doing well, and lost causes for which the congregants need to compensate.  Invitations to participate, meaning a new mindset for the Membership VP to think of individuals for their minds and energy instead of families for their credit card number.  All doable, at least conceptually, but it currently seems too much like Egyptian escapees who will never be more than slaves to what they know that need to yield to others who can envision something more sustainable and pursue it.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Purim Approaches

This year finds me in something less than a festive mood.  The Megillah reading always evokes a measure of admiration for the readers as it takes some effort to prepare this.  Spiels are sometimes clever.  Maybe the best chance of the year for the synagogue to live out its logo of Embracing/Engaging/Enriching as it no doubt offers a similar opportunity to many other congregations.  A chance to enjoy being Jewish and partake of rituals that have frivolity.

For those of us who prefer the more serious side, there are messages of generosity with shalach manot gifts to friends and the beginning of Maot Chitim to enable members of The Tribe with limited means to observe the upcoming Pesach.  There is a message to combat evil starting with the Torah and Haftarah additions of Amalek and Agag.  Add to that the chance to look at our real selves revealed by the festival requirements that we get inebriated, give away some of our money, and express anger, the very circumstances that best display what lies beneath our more social facade.

Still have a couple of days to work on my own outlook.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Tricky Haftarah

It is hard to assess what my value to my congregation actually is.  They get a check for dues in full, a few dollars beyond that.  My Jewish knowledge has very little value, as it is not a place that aspires to having an upper tier interactive form of Judaism.  It is a place  where people see the world in black & white, picking out the conveniences of CUFI or gender participation or some Torah insight that the Rabbi can pick up on the internet sometime during the week, to be imparted to a non-critical audience without really thinking through the subtleties that distinguish knowledge from insight.  But I have bimah skills and a male phenotype, neither of which they developed, but offers something that they need.  In some ways, these things are as much my possessions as my checking account, whereas my mind and inquisitiveness are the more innate parts of me that make me an individual.  No, they seem to want my possessions more than they value me.

So they have a donation, a week's effort to prepare Haftarah Vayikra.  This portion from Isaiah hardly ever gets read in the sanctuary, typically coming up during the weeks between Purim and Pesach when the calendar mandates replacement with prophetic messages tailored to the season more than to the Weekly Torah portion.  But from a quirk of leap year and strategic placement of Rosh Chodesh, this year this section will be chanted by me.  It is a rather lengthy portion, though far from the few very long ones.  What distinguishes it for me is not its message, which is classic Isaiah of woe is coming for you because of your misconduct but will be better for your descendants, but the rather difficult language with many unfamiliar words of considerable length and almost tongue-twisting syllables.  Fluency will inevitably fall beneath my usual achievement, though I wonder how many people will really appreciate the difficulty of this one.

AKSE merits my best effort, just the same, as do I.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Mystery Shopper

I'm neither a mystery to my synagogue and not exactly a shopper, though I think if I were a 30-something with a young family, the try-out of my current congregation would be brief.  Shabbat morning would probably do me in before I even got to any kind of learned discussion of Judaism with the Rabbi.  By ten o'clock there was a minyan, though not by much.  No young people attended, hardly any women attended.  Tfilah was competent though slow.  Comments from the Rabbi could be assessed in a complimentary way, or maybe not.  And then the announcements deviated from their purpose, crossing the line into Tircha d'Tzibuurah, methinks.  People just looked like they were fulfilling an obligation, not really having a good time.  I do not know when else prospective members might come.  Maybe an invitation to a Board Meeting, maybe witness the Hebrew School, maybe attend a Rabbi class and offer them free pizza.   The Board has this notion that if we brought people in they would stay.  Need to bring in some real Mystery Shoppers and take the feedback seriously first.