Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Grooming Leaders

Jewish leadership of my generation has left me underwhelmed.  Institutions already existed for worship, camaraderie, support of communal educational and social needs, burial.  They came from somewhere by people who often created something from nothing, people of vision and energy who got some measure of deserved kavod as their reward but the work had value without the public honors that came their way.  Like any successful entrepreneurial venture, these institutions reach maturity after which maintaining takes priority over innovation.  Thus we have my generation now holding the senior synagogue and communal positions, groomed as clones of the people who groomed them, no longer receptive to the challenges, analyses and clashes that brought about the original success, or at least trying to keep an arms length from disruption and marginalize the people who may bring that disruption about.  It has not been a good outcome, or maybe it has depending on what you like to measure.  Head count has certainly declined over my adult lifetime.  There is more alienation and considerable cynicism from some of the best potential contributors around.  Those that keep in the loop have more resources to commit, which they do.  Whether the kingmakers' empires are really bigger or smaller can be rationalized both ways.

What seems beyond argument, though, is that Jewish leadership grooming has become less of a meritocracy than it was a generation ago, with more accusations of self-promotion or exclusion of the best and brightest in favor of the most loyal or obedient to the agenda.

We see this in a rather public way with recent reports of a central conclave of USY leadership.  For readers unfamiliar with the background, USY has been a successful USCJ arm designed to keep teenage members of Conservative Judaism attached as they head off to college and beyond.  I was a nominal member, participating primarily in weekly bowling league and basketball where my team was invariably The Skins.  Some of my friends from there are my FB Friends today.  No religious requirements were imposed upon me and none were pursued.  The one or two times I went to a meeting, there were officers, though I was never notified of an election or invited to be a participant in anything.  We had a kosher home, attended shul on shabbat though I would attend school events on shabbos and practice on Saturday morning a few times a year with our All County Orchestra.  Nobody ever asked me which girls I found the cutest so they could apply a shiksa test, something first starting to emerge in the mid 1960's just a few years after the publication of  "The Vanishing American Jew" in Look Magazine, z"l,  the year of my Bar Mitzvah and treated by the congregational rabbis much more harshly than now.  I do not recall ever seeing the USY officers in shul with me on shabbos.  This organization served as both an effective recruiter and effective deterrent to seeking out college Hillel once parents could no longer insist that you go to meetings or services on shabbos morning.

With maturity came formality and litmus tests.  Shabbos was the big one, so that participants in the high school athletic, dramatic, and music extracurriculars that conflicted with shabbos forfeited their eligibility to be officers, irrespective of the talent or dedication they bring to the organization.  And so compliance gets you on the A-team and self-fulfillment gets you on the B-team.  You can still be a member and your basketball team might be designated The Shirts but you still wore that invisible yellow star with six points that had JOCK inscribed in the middle.  That same form of thinking never quite changed.  Woody Allen once observed that 80% of life is showing up.  Show up on shabbos morning and your chances of being a USY officer then or a congregational officer now were pretty good.  And as intermarriage became more common and more difficult to apply shunning effectively to offenders, another set of litmus tests arose, one that depleted the interest of some very fine talent in a way that really cannot be recovered, though we could argue whether the honchos now sitting on the organizational dais really want to recover it.

So where did the talent that was gradually depleted over my generation and continues to be alienated from the central institutions in my children's generation end up instead?  Some of us stand outside the tent and pee in.  Some write a perfunctory check on request though for a smaller amount than they might have if they had more personal commitment.  Some nominally stay with the organization but nurture a small cadre of associates with only minimal regard for where the larger organization tries to position itself.  Others go the way of the writers of the Jewish Megatrends anthology and reassemble to embark on new ventures.  But by and large, this just does not really look like the kind of circumstance that generates G'Dolim B'Dor.

Most institutions will have a time of formation, growth, maturity and senescence.  The Federations will plod along as mature organizations that no longer have a concept of disruptive innovation as something beneficial. Many synagogues, mine among them, have become organizational zekainim, though without the wisdom that should accrue with years.  Yet is seems like we put a lot of effort into perpetuating what perhaps we would be better off disrupting.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Morning at Chabad

It's been a while since I was last at Chabad on shabbos morning.  While my quest for an uninterrupted Torah reading was not fulfilled there either, I very much enjoyed being there, partaking of the differences between expected Orthodox services and the minor liturgical variations which their tradition uses.  About half, or perhaps somewhat more, had at one time been members of AKSE, most of whom I had not seen in a while but pretty near 100% came over to greet me.  They gave me the honor of Hagbah, done a little differently in their tradition but explained to me.  I then had to sit with the Torah through the Haftarah and prayers preliminary to it's return, something that got a little heavy, but maybe an incentive to me to get back in better condition.  The Rabbi's son did Musaf, lovely voice, and to be a newlywed soon.  Aliyah Sound Bites, three of them, done by the Assistant Rabbi, longer than AKSE's, of perhaps slightly more erudite content, and wonderful dvar Torah by Rabbi Vogel, the Rebbe's shaliach in Delaware.  Simple kiddush, with a little schapps offered to me by the Rabbi.  I selected the partially home made one, Polish potato vodka which he infused with etrog.  Definitely different, enough citrus to notice.  Updated overdue acquaintances, then moved on for the rest of the day.  It felt like shabbos morning.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Finding What's Important

My state has a peculiar requirement for medical license renewal.  Physicians are required to pursue twelve hours of Continuing Education on patient safety in each two year license cycle, something I do on line and largely in the last 4-6 weeks before the due date.  They give a certain amount of latitude in what qualifies, things from infection control to domestic violence to minimizing medical errors.  One of the self-study articles turned out to be a widely applicable seminar on geriatrics, which is something I do a lot of.  Specialists like myself tend to practice within disease guidelines, in my case diabetes, though optimal disease management may undermine the goals that some of these people have.  So if the goal of an elderly person is independence with a drivers license, too much insulin or a complex glucose-lipid-blood pressure program may keep that from happening.  So goals need to be established, even if optimal disease management sometimes has to be sacrificed.

Of course, this principle has widespread applicability to most activities.  There is process and there is outcome.  So what might I really want out of my Jewish experience?  Camaraderie?  Learning? Challenge?  Engagement?  Spirituality?  Acceptance?  Lot of possibilities.  I'll start with an uninterrupted Torah reading, a pet peeve perhaps but one to which approaches to the baalebatim have been literally ignored.  I think being ignored may be more of an irritant than the Aliyah Sound Bites themselves.  Maybe it's the interaction, the give and take that has been the Jewish tradition from Talmudic times that has been too dormant at AKSE.  Maybe it's respect for my mind and my knowledge that has eluded me there.  The worship part, at least, cannot meet goal and has to be replaced.

Can a synagogue really survive as a club if the worship component gets written off?  There are social activities, classes, cultural events, flyers to be made, budgets to balance.  So probably.  But it will be a less important place.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Welcome 2015

Calendar year turns over once again.  It's an artificial demarcation of time, of course, but still useful as a transition point for reflecting backward and forward.  I fortunately have pretty much what I need: family, meaningful work to pursue most days, a decent economic position, no major health limitations, too much stuff.  Not always taking these assets to their best advantage though.  That's what needs some work as 2015 progresses.