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.

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