Sunday, September 28, 2014

We'll Go There for the Holy Days

Once a year my wife and I have our entry into Transdenominationalism.  For the past twenty-five years a dedicated cadre of observant Conservative Jews, still members of their USCJ congregations, depart from what can be an irritating experience, conducting something akin to what I aspire to, almost a College Hillel for the Alumni of the College Hillels at Rosh Hashana.  No Rabbis.  No new clothing from the fancy outlets.  No reserved pew seating.  Nobody checking tickets.  They have an honor system to pay $18 to cover the cost of building and chair rental, along with a small kiddush.  Nobody asking for pledges.  No interruption of the service to honor the congregation's machers and raise money at the same time.  Aliyot and petichot and gabbaim assigned that morning with no expectation of a donation for the honor.  No chazzan or Symphonic Choir, though each volunteer baal t'filah has been outstanding.  Sermons also superior in content and analysis from what I have come to expect of our congregational Rabbis.  No kvetches about faulty air conditioning or having to park the car too far away.  And we got done with the service in its entirety at least a half hour before our home congregation did.  It's the shabbos experience transposed to the Holy Days when the realities of congregational experience often corrupt what the congregation should be aspiring to.  If only they knew about it and did not mind either the drive or the gender equality, AKSE would not be competitive on the days the Board depends upon most for people to have a favorable experience.

Much can be said about shopping down.  When I need a new cars or house or suit, I look first at the ones I cannot afford, noting their special features that are most important, some of which are preserved in the offerings more readily available to me.  Synagogue membership has become a big ticket item, one rather expendable if the only thing derived is a three day, four service appearance that can be had for $18 a person per year.  Unfortunately for some, that outstanding experience invites other outstanding experience, which means ponying up for the membership which at its best includes some means of molding the congregation.  People can observe the Holy Days for free at any Chabad but they cannot influence what Chabad has become.  Congregational members can impact on who the Rabbi is, what the Rabbi does, the social activities that go on through the year, the educational offerings, maybe even the finances.  Inability to do that, particularly in those Beth Sodom's that have kingmakers or macher swoops greatly devalues the cost of membership, as many a congregational leader now grapples with membership retention as the ultimate goal with membership participation as the element that cements retention.

So as RH transitions to YK, I return to AKSE as a Torah reading participant, a curious listener to hear what the Rabbi has to say about the Pew Research Report, his announced pre-Yizkor topic and perhaps even a minor league schmoozer at the buffet that follows shofar blowing.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Rosh Hashana Solicitations

Since I do not attend minyan on weekday mornings, I do not get to hear the Shofar to mark the approach of the Holy Days.  On shabbat morning twice a month, my current AKSE ration,  white adornments on the Aron and scrolls send their message.  But for those who do not show up at all, which is apparently much of the Conservative world and a fair fraction of the AKSE membership as well, the mailman brings a daily reminder of the season.  For the month of Elul I can expect a variety of requests for donations, some in exchange for calendars or greeting cards for the upcoming New Year, promoting a variety of global causes and many highly sectarian agendas.  I harvest the calendars, set aside the greeting cards, most of which have given way to e-cards and avoid relentless clutter by opening each envelope but making the recycling bin its next destination.

I suppose how I react to these endless solicitations notes characteristics of me that change a little on a long time trend but are resistant to the calendar driven transitions.  Many of these letters come from Haredi sources, promoting basically decent projects like relieving the effects of poverty in their community without pursuing things like employment that are more effective at reducing poverty itself.  There are requests to support their Yeshivot whose graduates admittedly have contributed to Jewish insight over time.  One organization gets a small gift each year, basically to support a retirement community for their men but for the most part I find myself sufficiently irritated by the underpinnings of what that same leadership does the rest of the year.  Their own Rav Dessler, whose lived in the first half of the last century and whose Michtav M'Eliyahu is still widely studied for its Torah insights, was fifty years ahead of candidate Romney in dividing the world into Givers and Takers.  I see my old school district which afforded me the opportunities that have had for my adult life being trampled by these people who do not use the public schools themselves by begrudge the education that the taxpayers gave me to the current students.  No, I will not support their yeshivot if that is the way they view entitlement to education and the investment required for it to succeed.  This summer we read about brave Israeli soldiers meeting an untimely end.  The security of the Haredi community there cannot come primarily with the blood of Russian immigrants.  Friends of the IDF gets a check from me.  Masorti gets a check from me.  Haredi solicitations go into the recycling bin with a hostile thought connecting my frontal lobe with my right hand as I toss it there.  You can learn what a person really thinks by inebriating him, irritating him and asking for money:  Koso, Kiso, Ka-aso.  Don't need any schnapps for this one.

Another genre of money requests come from international organizations, often with tribal undertones to resist anti-semitism of some type.  We've seen it emerge primarily in Europe but my friend's father's Kosher butcher shop in Philadelphia also fell victim to this.  Definitely something decent people want to try to reverse, but it's hard to purge what is actually in somebody's kishkes.  These various organizations do something very useful this season, however.  They take people whose Jewish identity is always there but largely dormant and offers them a brief opportunity to put themselves into the Giver class, no matter how transient.  After all, it is what is in their kishkes too.

A variant of this comes in the mail every Thursday when our community receives its weekly advertising from the local supermarkets.  One particular grocer dominates the Jewish shoppers in our community but which one varies from town to town.  Each supermarket ad has a half page or so of sales, or at least availability, of traditional fare that makes the Holy Days both festive and unique.  They sell grape juice and round challot with raisins and yahrtzeit candles and gefilte fish and honey.  Other than the challah being twisted, my household uses these products regularly, though jarred gefilte fish has become an expendable luxury for me.  But there are plenty of Pew Research expatriates who remain privately Jewish in their homes but have largely abandoned the institutions, other than this time of year.  And when they have finished their chicken soup and dipped the apple in honey, they will be asked to asked to press down the pledge tabs for an Israel Bond and donation to the congregation, not by daily junk mail but by a public Bimah request from a live person.

"To all things there is a season..." [Eccl 3:1]  Ironically, Kohelet neglected to include fundraising in his list.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Scheduling Shabbos

Since I elected to ration Saturday morning at shul to twice monthly, having been pretty much done in by the Aliyah Sound Bites and maybe the decline in physical comfort that comes with moving the weekly service from the main sanctuary to the homier chapel to make it look more crowded than it really is, sometimes I have to choose which two shabbatot.  It has been my custom to select the first two, modified for platelet donations which I usually do toward the beginning of a month or other special circumstances like a Bar Mitzvah which I assign to a shabbos off.  These are uncommon.  Thus my pattern has become two on, two or three off.  I'm thinking of changing that to first two on odd numbered months, last two on even numbered months making it effectively four on, four or five off.  Doubt anyone other than myself will know the difference or recognized my absence when not there for a full month.  Not a good season to experiment with this, as YK falls on a shabbos early in the month and October is usually a platelet donation month for me.  Reconsider as 2015 and its new projects approach.