Thursday, August 28, 2014


Rosh Hashana approaches once again.  I have my assignment as YK Torah reader, do not yet have an invitation to open the Ark on YK, the only day I will be at AKSE.  It has become a minor fundraiser.  Two people who merit some form of real honor were named as High Holy Day honorees, a real fundraiser for AKSE.  For the first time in memory, whatever committee selects them opted for two men instead of the usual man and woman though I can think of a few women who the congregants would donate generously to honor.  Rabbi probably writing the drafts of his various messages.  Last year he spoke about a book that inspired him.  Not being there, I asked later which book.  He told me, I read a few reviews and decided to read other things instead.  I think we went to different colleges.

Despite last year's good intentions, I'm probably not very much different than I was as the self-examiner last year.  Cynicism must be in my kishkes, though undoubtedly re-inforced by actual encounters.  Each year I get tempered in some way, often by reading about what could be but isn't in the Jewish literature, this year by witnessing what the Mormons have done through their passion for excellence and seeing the gradient in our dedication to getting by.  Religious organizations probably have kishkes too.  If your core involves welcoming, you will be welcoming.  If your core offers the illusion of being welcoming while it is really the more exclusive USY clique that remains at the core, that will eventually be expressed inevitably in its various forms.  The introspection of Elul and beyond allows us to recognize that a little more readily and perhaps make some attempt at upgrade.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Visiting Temple Square

"Ben (the son of) Zoma said: Who is wise? He who learns from all people, as it is said: 'From all those who taught me I gained understanding' (Psalms 119:99). [Pirke Avot 4:1]

Time away often enables a new perspective.  For me, the summer escape brought me to the enclave of biologic and geologic nature that we call Yellowstone, productive farmland of Northern Utah and Southeastern Idaho where I encountered people who remained personable even while they reasoned like Republicans, and finally to the core of Mormonism.  Temple Square posted the religious tenets right out front, our Decalogue on the left, respect for rightful authority and individual opportunity in the middle and a declaration of faith on the right.  Nothing about being politically correct, nothing about avoiding intoxicants including my beloved coffee or craft brew while respecting my personal desire to enjoy them.  People visit Temple Square from all over the world, from missionaries on temporary assignment to tourists in Salt Lake City for a short while whose destination was really one of the National Parks. 

Temple Square exudes excellence.  There is chochma, wisdom imparted by the founders to be offered to believers and non-believers alike.  There is tzedek, an obligation to bring justice to the world with respect for law and to not trample the freedom of others.  There is kehillah, with Temple Square serving as a gathering place for young and old.  Young missionaries wore name tags with flags of their countries of origin.  There were a lot of different flags but all shared a common dedication to promote Mormonism.  Even if geographically isolated or dispersed, they could count on being part of their religious community.  The combination of these evokes kadosha, or holiness.  Temple Square exists and its participants excel at what they do, be it creating extraordinary edifices, treating all comers to superb music, keeping the grounds and interiors immaculate and welcoming visitors unconditionally because the participants believe they contribute to divinely inspired projects.

These criteria of performance do not come from the Book of Mormon, however.  They derived from the aspirations for Judaism expressed by the editor of Jewish Megatrends.  I'm seeing the desire for chochma, tzedek, kehillah and kadosha in my Jewish world but I'm also not seeing the quest for excellence or consistency in its pursuit they way I experienced it at Mormon headquarters.  While visiting their main chapel, I asked the tour guide who got to sit in the ten seats of honor on their bimah, facing the congregation.  The young missionaries did not really know.  No doubt in their world they were esteemed elders.  Seen through my American Jewish lenses, they were machers.  My congregation does not have respected ambassadors.  We have Rabbis with agendas, some with real accomplishments, more with little more than a certified seminary pedigree.  They have young people valued for their energy and dedication.  In my Jewish world obedience will trump talent every time starting with report card grades from pre-Bar Mitzvah Hebrew school where the docile kids find their way to the honor roll while the challenging ones get reported for their behavior instead of their intellect.  While I am not much of an enthusiast of cathedrals, there is much to be said about worshipping in an atmosphere of physical beauty, something recommended by none other than Maimonides and expressed in Torah where people volunteered to beautify a Mishkan and in Tanach where people were conscripted to create a Temple.  We have slouched to a building where some of the insects on the windowsills should be sent to a museum for carbon dating to see how long they have been lying there.

Yes we have our Federations and our elders who give their time and money.  But we also have a very large constituency that are more convenient or inconvenient to those self-directed elders, never quite inherently valuable unconditionally.  People can sense that and walk away as they have with secular Judaism for some time in the same era that Mormons seems to retain people who continue express enthusiasm for their affiliation.

Our shul recently generated a nice sum from a fundraiser.  It would not be unreasonable to take some of that and send the Rabbi, President, and Building VP to Salt Lake City for a few days to give them a better sense of what excellence and enthusiastic participation can be achieved with the right perspective.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Disbursing My Treasure

When I put myself of Federation's Do Not Call list fifteen years ago after some experiences that justified my becoming one of the Pew Research Center Study drop-outs, I did not pocket the donations but distributed them myself, first bi-monthly for a couple of years, then monthly until last year, and now quarterly, though monthly was better.  Quarterly allows me to spend too much time on my figurative High Horse from which I tease out relative worthiness and themes.  So last quarter I sent checks to support Israel's security and Jewish camping to the neglect of people in my community whose lives are currently a little more precarious than mine.  So this quarter it looks like the checks will go to forms of outreach, some religious, some social.  I think randomness of support, or really inclusivity of support, better reflects the concept of Tzedakah, so I think I will return to the previous format next month


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Suggestions to the President

Our congregation elects a new President every June, according to the By-Laws.  It actually doesn't.  There is a Nominating Committee Cabal that creates a slate of indefinitely recycled VP's, then since all are non-promotable by virtue of the Peter Principle, a search then goes underway to merge the two attributes of capable and willing.  The slate arrives in the mail of each member and a perfunctory election much like takes place in the Third World has the new group of honchos installed by acclamation.  Then each VP presents his or her achievements for the past year and keeps an extra copy to present next year.  The By-Laws technically mandate a congregational historian, but I don't think anyone really wants any history majors pouring over documents and drawing learned conclusions from them.

So like every place else, we have a few glories and an abundance of could be betters.  They have to come to terms with the Women Thing, AKSE's perpetual Achilles Heel.  The kiddush crew seems pretty well established and Sisterhood initiatives raise money and create an element of gender camaraderie.  But that's not the core mission of our synagogue.  On a broader perspective, making the various activities attractive enough for people not already there to show up, or at least minimize attrition of people who used to show up but no longer do, needs to be a very high priority.  As the great Chacham Woody Allen noted, "Showing up is 80% of life."  I show up a lot less than I once did.

So some real suggestions:

  1. Get the committees in order and list them on the Web site along with contact information.
  2. Invite people to do things.  
  3. Have a really candid and private discussion with the Rabbi on what his vision for advancing the congregation is and make that publicly available either from the bimah or from the Web Site.
  4. Solicit feedback from the defectors.
  5. A few Golden Handshakes to VP's who do not have a meaningful agenda.
  6. Take attendance.
Giant sigh.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

YK Torah Reader

Have not been a Holy Days participant in some time.  Over the years I've chanted both days of Rosh Hashana's Torah portions and the Yom Kippur portion and have done Haftarah once but gave it up when the billed me $400 for the maftir aliyah that went with it.  In more recent years I've attended a transdenominational offering for Rosh Hashana, a very pleasant experience each time where I've been there, serving as a makeshift gabbai once, returning to my own shul for Yom Kippur.  But I've been more of a spectator.  Sometimes the time there irritates me, sometimes the Cantor and other participants impress me with their skills and dedication.  Generally these have not been the Rabbi's finest hours but unlike the Conservative Shul, the experience of the Holy Days never portends the degree of member satisfaction the rest of the year.  Board discussions on the congregational feedback take place, and some real modifications take place but mostly cosmetic or choreographic adjustments more than revision of content or structure.  Shabbos still rules at AKSE.  We have the good fortune to be an all-year-round congregation where the Holy Days are just one more event in the calendar.  We're not a place where the machers emerge from the woodwork to give each other an annual hug or where people hit the beach outlets the month before to get something with a Gucci label to display at their yearly shul appearance.

We do have our shrinkage, some demographic, some for cause, some driven by the diminishing value of dues as a consumer purchase.  With attrition goes a measure of talent, not desirable turnover of talent but more of a one way drive off the exit ramp with nobody else entering the entrance lane.  Our Men's Choir once had teenagers, now off to college and beyond.  The Cantor had to take over shacharit for lack of an understudy.  But people held the fort for Torah reading, until this year.  Not a very strong bench but not yet an empty bench.  So when it came time for a reshuffling of assignments the opening arrived, making me the most logical insertion.  I'm back.  Photocopy the portion next week and relearn it.