Thursday, May 29, 2014

Leadership Generated Attrition

Been thinking of writing an essay about how depletion of Jewish organizations and medical societies over my adulthood can trace its origins to the people who run these organizations.  I think it is true.  We saw it to some extent in the last Presidential election where the highly publicized donors in the Jewish realm could not capture the Jewish vote for their candidate.  That synagogues, JCC's and regional medical societies now struggle seems obvious.  The revered leaders have passed on, never quite grooming individuals of comparable character to take over.  Or perhaps they did groom them but at the expense of adaptability to the constituency.  Personally, I am down to my last medical organization, The Endocrine Society.  The JCC membership gave way, I have been repulsed by the experience with our local Federation and the Federation Types, my synagogue gets my dues but not the talent or creativity of thought that has far less value to the leadership than does the money.  I used to be a participant in all of these things and with the exception of Federation and maybe a previous synagogue, I did not really find any of the organizations outright objectionable, yet I am very much a part of their membership depletion.  To a large extent I am part of their talent depletion.  Ironically, the only medical organization left is the one where I would be regarded as too paltry a maven to be a serious intellectual contributor.

I find it difficult to detect a common thread that would not only capture me personally but a much larger population of former participants.  Rav Eliyahu Dessler divided people into Givers and Takers.  Maybe we are all Takers who found nothing worth taking.  Maybe we are fundamentally rebuffed Giver wannabes.  Each organization, Jewish or professional, exacts a serious financial commitment for which there is little return.  Certainly synagogue fees have escalated to where it really is not a good consumer purchase.  Medical organization fees usually run a few hundred dollars which is not really exorbitant relative to other professional expenses.  JCC is really  more of a consumer purchase of facilities and services while Federation expenses are to some extent voluntary.  No, I think the attrition has more to do with the value of connectedness than it does of expense, with the exception of the synagogue where some of the fees can be daunting and to some extent interpreted as a form of extortion to purchase a Bar Mitzvah.

Since it is easier to write about me personally than to generalize in the absence of assessed data, I'll go that direction, with a reasonable assumption that what I experience and act upon, others experience and act upon.  I used to attend Shabbat morning services every week unless I was on medical call or out of town.  Now I force myself to go about half the time to my own congregation, make a few entrances a year at other congregations, some more to my liking, some not, and for the last few years have dedicated one Saturday morning a month to my recreation, usually in the form of a day trip.  Guilt level = zero.  Number of people who have tapped into my mind to assess this transition also = zero.  And if they did, I'm not sure I could tell them.  But as an observer I feel little connection to the Rabbi or the relative triviality of the comments, I have found the operations of the governance sometimes offensive and have other outlets to enhance my engagement with Judaism.  Spending two hours enduring a series of Aliyah Sound Bytes does not measure up to what I could be doing instead, whether that be a schlep to Beth Tfiloh in Baltimore where I return with a shabbos that I could not otherwise duplicate or a day taking in the pleasantries of Hershey Park.  Shabbos, or really a form of half-shabbos, has not disappeared.  I do not write, service the car or use electronics as my form of reverence to the concept of avoiding melacha but I am not feeling any obligation to revisit some relatively negative encounters and impressions of synagogue leadership during limited time that I largely dedicate to myself.

For many years, as High Holy Day Torah reader, my very consistent observation was that the VIP olim had a generous generous handshake for embrace for each other but a perfunctory handshake for me from about half.  The work that went into this for their honor was their due.  Or they never quite captured Ben Zoma's concluding aphorism:  Who is Honored? One who honors all living things Avot 4:1.  And lets not omit USY which had its ongoing cliques that endure at a price.  But they also have a leadership that excludes holding office kids who opt for being on the high school athletic teams on shabbos.  They value obedience over talent.  Before long they find themselves with neither.

So yes, the organizations have depleted numerically.  But the people who depart for elsewhere or sometimes nowhere, as the much commented upon Pew Research report attests, take away talent and energy that could have been tapped but wasn't valuable enough or convenient enough to either seek out or accommodate once identified.  Cloning more of the last generation's leadership mindset only invites more attrition.  Reb Pogo's observation has been vindicated many times:  "We have met the enemy and he is us."

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Annual Meetings

June brings two recurrent gatherings, one for the synagogue which I get to attend for free, or at least as a benefit of exorbitant dues while the other costs a bundle to attend though the very modest dues afford me a discount close to what I actually shell out to belong.  Both organizations have an upper class that technically I have a vote to approve and both organizations conduct organization business during the gatherings, though most people in attendance, myself included, are very much separated from that business.

What we hope to derive from membership, however, differs drastically.  The Endocrine Society provides a modicum of professional affiliation, which I value, and my principal source of professional advancement, which I regard as essential.  Well worth the membership dues even on the years I do not attend the meeting.  The meeting itself gets me to a place I might otherwise not visit, immerses me amid productive nominal colleagues who do things that make science and medicine better, engage me in conversation about their efforts, expertise and aspirations.  While much of the 3.5 days involves sitting amid a crowd of strangers in huge lecture halls watching the speakers' Power Point slides on a big screen, it is the interactive moments that stand out.  You have immediate access to experts and to peers.  And there is an exhibit hall where vendors show you real advancement, which is often commercially driven.

The synagogue functions on a very different plane.  Its purpose seems more elusive and the fees for affiliation cannot be regarded as a valid consumer purchase the way Endocrine Society membership or attendance at the Annual Meeting can.  It should be a more interactive place than the Endocrine Society meeting with its thousands in attendance, yet it is not.  Experts on anything are in short supply.  Much of the activity does not seem purposeful and the need to actually assemble more difficult to justify.  So attendance is in the dozens.  For good reasons, it last just a few hours instead of a few days.

So can the synagogue meeting, or its ongoing operations, extract the lessons of the Endocrine Society to make the experience more alluring?  I think the most striking difference has been the how the two organizations view what they present.  In order for the Endocrine Society to serve its purpose, there has to be ongoing productivity to present.  People spend the year expanding their expertise, not just the upper tier, but the people in training or obscure clinicians and scientists working very privately in their clinics and labs. Moreover, there are thousands of people who want to partake of what has been achieved.  The synagogue annual meeting does not really focus on achievement or innovation.  These are in short supply, as all but a few of the members lurk in the background, neither adding to what could have been achieved but wasn't nor particularly eager to take advantage of what others have done.  So the meeting becomes a perfunctory by-laws obligation to vote on an officer slate that nobody really elected and to see the budget that will fritter away the dues and fundraising revenues with little to show for it next year.

Solution, if there is any, would be to create a forum to showcase achievement and value it enough to personally invite people of talent to display what they have done Jewishly.  But changing the way people think, particularly those with leadership responsibilities, can prove a daunting undertaking, one that is not always welcome but pays off in a grand way when it succeeds.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Elders of Zion

J Street didn't make it into the Conference of Presidents.  The Elders of Zion just would not have it.  Not that I think the political position of J Street carries a banner of mainstream Judaism, but neither does Alpha Epsilon Pi Jewish College fraternity which had a role in blackballing them.

Silencing or stonewalling opposition, the implementation of technique or sometimes force to deny Jews their seat at the table has been a work in progress for some time.  Certainly at the synagogue or Federation level there have been people who count from the USY cliques to the macher swoops.  One may be convenient or inconvenient, but not inherently important in your own right.  The market place of ideas that has made Judaism thrive can be too restrictive, as the Conservatives of the past half century should have learned from the Pew Research Study outcome.  Once excluded with a safe landing elsewhere, people do not necessarily desire re-entry.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

In Shul

My semimonthly appearance at services for shabbos morning took place yesterday, at least semi-monthly at my shul but I rarely attend any other shul as a supplement.  I used to go more, like most Saturday mornings if I was not on medical call or a platelet donor, tracing back many years.  I would either sleep in periodically and a few years ago set one weekend day aside for a day trip, so the lack of attendance probably accumulated gradually more than abruptly.  It is probably for cause, though teasing out the cause seems less than straightforward.  The people who attend are basically decent folk, dedicated to carrying on the proceedings as best they can.  There has been some attrition of talent without replacement, and I miss it.  But fundamentally a service is a service with a beginning a middle and a conclusion followed by a kiddush.  The Rabbi's mind does not really engage my mind and I still abhor those Aliyah Sound Bites that disrupt the natural cadence of Torah but that's not really a reason for boycott.  And I do not really see myself as boycotting, just preferring to be someplace else those mornings I am not there.

My respect for the capabilities of the synagogue leadership has greatly faltered of late so perhaps my lack of enthusiasm for my principle AKSE activity classifies as a negative transference reaction.  But on the other hand, perhaps I would not go at all if I did not pay money to belong, and quite a lot of money at that.

But I think the real reason for my own attrition is that the experience has not been engaging.  We process through shabbos morning, told that it is sacred but not living it as sacred.  That comes from a measure of personalization which needs to extend to all elements of synagogue engagement and effort to make the experience interactive.  Not very high on the agenda of the Board or the Nominating Committee.  It shows in any number of subtle forms.