Sunday, November 23, 2014

Shopping Downward

As I was finishing med school and needed to start looking presentable for patients, a best seller called Dress for Success by John Molloy had gathered considerable public interest.  He described how one's appearance correlated with one's future employment and promotability, something very relevant to me at the time.  I got the book from the library and read it over a few day, absorbing the hints of how to make clothing fit and select colors and patterns that added 10 points to one's virtual IQ.  Needless to say, the senior executives made a lot more money than senior executive wannabes and got where they are by adapting to the sartorial pageant of where they worked.  Peasants of lesser means, including myself to this very day, had to give the illusion that they were purchasing good stuff without actually spending money that they did not have.  He suggested a form of shopping down, wandering through Brooks Brothers where the boss shopped, noting what is on their most expensive racks, then going to the less expensive racks and seeing what features were maintained and what were deemed expendable.  Then onward to the Value City where I really shopped for clothing and trying to duplicated as much as possible from the upper end.

This strategy has served me well for a long time, not only for clothing but for my cars and my house, pretty much every large purchase except universities for my kids where I bought the real thing.  Shopping down seems similarly tempting though with my ultimate synagogue purchase predetermined, what I really get are a few shabbos mornings of the type I'd like to have most but not really the chance to purchase the closest facsimile available.  In order to do that, there would need to be a menu of experiences with different values to choose from, something not available in my community for some time.  But you take what you can get, which for me is a lovely morning at Beth Tfiloh, none of which is transferable to my usual shabbat morning.

I got there as they were starting the repetition of the Amidah.  This particular shabbat was not only a bar mitzvah, something I've come to expect but the BNai Mitzvah of a male-female twin set.  The boy excelled with flawless Torah and haftarah chanting and very appropriate speech about what it is like to  be a twin, the tension between being bundled with another person and the need to protect one's individuality.  Lest her sister remain subordinate, she had her own limelight within the local parameters, chanting the first two Aliyot from the next Parsha, as section about twins.  She then spoke of being a twin, followed by the twins speaking jointly, sometimes in unison and sometimes in alternating sentences.  Not to upstage Rabbi Wohlberg, the Dvar Torah drew on a current event, the passing of President Reagan's astrologer and the interface between fates that you cannot control and personal efforts that guide destiny.  Many parallels to this in the Parsha.  And extraordinary kiddush when it ended.  No interaliyah Sound Bites.  No contrivances like changing your seats so the Rabbi can look at everyone when he speaks.  No, it was a service suitable to college graduates who mostly work all week and could have been doing other things on Saturday but opted for the experience of shabbat morning worship.  That's what I aspire to and will have to relocate myself on shabbos morning to get a little closer to that ideal.

As Theodor Herzl noted, "If you will it, it is no dream; and if you do not will it, a dream it is and a dream it will stay."  Our baalebatim don't seem to will that type of shabbat experience and our Rabbi's style cannot deliver it.  So I think it might be time to will it for myself.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


Ran into a synagogue acquaintance at Shop-Rite this weekend, wanted to pose a question to him but we ran in different directions in our quests for nutrition and bargains so  it did not materialize.  I thought about telephoning my question to him later in the week, looked up his phone number and still might, but decided to save it until I see him on shabbos morning at Chabad, which will probably occur soon.  This fellow does one critically important project for AKSE, almost entirely on his own, the relatively thankless job of arranging our High Holy Day proceedings, contacting large numbers of men to honor with Ark openings and making sure the Rabbi has an accurate list to announce from the Bimah.  He does this exceptionally well and with an attention to detail that eludes most of the AKSE participants.  During the year he will take his turn as haftarah chanter, maybe two or three times, and show up a handful of shabbatot beyond that, but for the most part he can be found at Chabad near his home on shabbos morning.  At the moment I can only speculate why.  Similar reaction to the experience of sitting in our sanctuary on Saturday morning?  Being more absorbed into the Chabad community?  Having meaningful things to do at Chabad that occur more than once a year?  Just have to ask him.

In anticipation of his soon to be released series of essays on Continuing Education for Rabbis, Rabbi Hayim Herring has presented a series of You Tube interviews on the subject.  One explores the difference between broadcast and social media.  For a broadcast, you partake of what you are given but you are on your own to accept, reject or pursue what is given to you.  Social media is more interactive, more personalized, as is blogging.  My disappointing shabbos morning experience can be traced back about three years through my blog.  In one respect it is what it is, a presentation to me of shabbos, take it or leave it.  That's not very hard to deal with.  I find it much more irritating to try to express what I encounter, its negative consequences which diminish community, only to have multiple layers of baalebatim never even acknowledge the comments.  That is no more community than a bunch of fans watching the home team as an aggregate of individuals at a stadium, at least until they express themselves by booing as a group.  Yes, shabbos morning at AKSE is less than it once was, it is less than it once was for cause, and those doing something else instead, myself among them, could be a kehillah in its own right if we had a way to interact other than disappearing into the woodwork as individuals.

There is also the illusion of community.  Shabbos dinner and kiddush do not make a kehillah unless discourse occurs there.  Being responsible for each other, being sensitive to each other, enabling talent to emerge without suppression, that creates community.  By that definition, which I think is accurate, the grand American community may be in decline in parallel with AKSE's shabbos morning.

So what are my kehillot at the moment?  Primarily work and Sermo.  I'm a contributor to both.  People tolerate my mind, people at both do not hold a grudge when that mind becomes an irritant.  Nobody at work has invited me to dinner or any other social activity outside of work.  I've only met a handful of the grand collection of fellow physicians on Sermo.  Yet both are forms of pageantry that welcome whoever comes by, irrespective of what they think.  Nobody gets marginalized at either.  There are some basic rules of Derech Eretz, but not a lot of them, and nobody can say they are ignored because of what they think.  That's a functional kehillah, one that I do not think the leadership of my congregation is really prepared to pursue.  The Rabbi probably might if he understood it better.  But for now, it seems the right circumstances to join my congregational amigo at Chabad for a while.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Grass Roots Shabbos Morning

We almost did it.  Rabbi away for a family simcha.  Cantor present for shacharit and Torah reading.  Everything else either not done, particularly those annoying Aliyah Sound Bites, or done by volunteers including a wonderful D'var Torah, simple, insightful and with a piece of herself revealed, not something looked up on the Internet during the week.  One of the better experiences on a shabbat morning, much like the congregants of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El getting together, ditching their very capable clergy, and creating a fully traditional shabbat morning experience.  I understand fully why transdenominationalism is taking hold and maybe understand a little better why the AKSE service is underattended, or at least why I have been rationing my mornings there.

There was an intriguing presentation on a few years ago:

The speaker was not talking about Rabbinical Judaism, which is how we function, but the experience of dealing with an ordained class of people as focal points.  There is certainly great demand for the right Rabbi in a congregation or community which may be why Rabbi searches are often contentious and why placement organizations insist on manipulating the selection process.  But once in place, it is not entirely clear whether these people augment or mar the Jewish experience.  I am certainly rather uneasy admitting to a more satisfying experience without the Rabbi, though that is the reality repeated a few times for certainty.  That grass roots experience of shabbos morning at university Hillels conducted entirely by students has never been surpassed at any dues paying congregation that I have attended either as a member or visitor.  I've limited my attendance in the past based on disappointing if not unfavorable experience and I've gone so far as to change congregations once, but never with the formality that I do now.

This all has implications, of course.  Congregations like AKSE struggle for membership looking at their membership as a source of revenue with volunteer participation as a bonus.  Yet that membership has to be contingent on deriving something of value from it, be it worship, learning, fellowship or social action.  But ultimately the experience is rather fluid and not that hard to individualize.  If shabbos morning fails to inspire me, I can either remain uninspired or replace the experience, which is what I seem to be doing.