Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Projects for the Half Year

Six Months ago I changed my traditional planning categories to give a longer perspective, some things I'd like to complete, others open-ended projects that benefit from effort.  I completed three of twelve for the current half year and move onward.

  1. Friends:  Contact an old friend each month
  2. Family:  Dedicate special time each month for my wife
  3. Financial:  Finally computerize my assets
  4. Self:  Go on three day trips
  5. Home: Declutter once and for all each room
  6. Purchase: Cosmetic upgrades to the kitchen
  7. New Frontiers: First draft of the book I'd like to write on Jewish institutional attrition
  8. Travel: Drive to Florida
  9. Long Term:  Engage in my post-retirement activities
  10. Community:  Participate in two Jewish organization
  11. Health:  Get my weight under 155 pounds
  12. Mental:  Make my blog interactive

Will I actually do these?  As usual, some to completion, some not but worth the effort.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Keeping People Immersed

Image result for engagingFrom time to time a published essay captured my attention along with my imagination of what might be but generally isn't.  This essay from Rabbi Alex Greenberg of Pittsburgh found its way to the USCJ site, interestingly in a section on developing congregational finances.  His remarks, My commentary.

Everyone wants to have a welcoming shul. Everyone thinks they have a welcoming shul. But, it's time for Beth El to no longer be a welcoming shul. It means nothing to be welcoming, if we are not engaging. Our goal, from now on, is to be more than welcoming. I want us to be known as an engaging shul.
Can't say I've ever been chased out.  I have sat through many a service wondering if my shabbos morning could have been utilized better.
    To “engage”: To attract and hold, to cause to participate, and to connect with. More members are not enough. Having a bunch of names on a piece of paper does not make a synagogue. We could have the largest synagogue in the nation; but, if we don't engage our members, then that's all they are - some letters on a piece of paper.
Our Executive Board doesn't even know who our members are.  They count how many credit cards they debit for dues.  While each household usually has only one checking account, they typically have multiple individuals with different needs.  One need only to scan the sanctuary of shabbos morning and count the half couples in attendance to figure that out.  Some things are a little harder to figure out, particularly one household member extended invitations for multiple elements of participation while another with the same checking account never gets invited personally for any activity.
    What is the ideal Conservative synagogue? Not the largest one, but rather the Conservative synagogue in which its members are willing, learning, and striving Jews. The perfect Conservative Jew is not perfect. The ideal Conservative Jew is always a work in progress. The ideal Conservative synagogue is filled with not Jews who are perfect, but rather filled with Jews who are willing, learning, and striving. It is not about the numbers, but rather about the people and how we engage them. Joining Beth El is not success, success is what happens next.
That probably applies to any organizational effort from workplace to political campaign to school to place of worship.
    We do not have an apathetic synagogue. We have a passionate synagogue, filled with passionate people. We are filled with willing, learning, and striving Jews. And that is our goal - not more members, but more passionate members. We have greeters at the doors, but do we have engagers in the seats? Every single member of Beth El must be an engager. Part of engaging in a Conservative shul is about outreach to our own membership. About 1/4 of our congregation has been members five years or less, 25% of our congregation is new. We have a responsibility to fulfill the needs of all congregants within the Conservative movement. The Conservative movement is not a special, secret club where you need a secret handshake to get in. It is a movement that respects all, the traditional, the observant, the liberal, the intermarried, and so on. Judaism is not a democracy, it is about pluralism, always has been, always will be. And, the Conservative movement is the place where pluralism is cultivated.
We do not seem to have a passionate membership at AKSE.  The Board's behavior to say the least has been more members.  Disciples of that medical cult book, The House of God whose motto was "We're Not the Best but the Most."  I think our baalebatim would give one of their relatively marginally functioning gonads to have a situation where a quarter of the people are new entrants but I doubt if they would look at that as a source of new talent.  More likely it would be a subsidy for those entrenched longer.
I would challenge the comments about the essence of the Conservative movement.  It only recently became pluralistic and to this day creates various litmus tests that stratify people based on Kashrut observance and intermarriage.
    We are a lay led congregation. We are engaged. But, how can we teach engagement to others? How can we instill it? Motivate? Invigorate? Engagement is accomplished through participation over performance. Engagement is having a congregation where everyone has a say, where we recognize that being a good Jew has nothing to do with how kosher you are or how well you keep Shabbat, but rather how well you treat your fellow human being.
The restrictions on office holding at USY differ from that suggestion that Conservative Judaism is a meritocracy.  And I must say, machers who swoop to override more general consensus within many a Conservative kehillah and at the intercongregational level do not seem to have their honored and disproportionate place at the table challenged because of what many would regard as misdeeds, many of them prime contributors to their movement's loss of adherents over a generation.  But as Speaker O'Neill observed, all politics is local and within a large collection of kehillot there will be some places like Rabbi Greenbaum describes of his and some Beth Sodom's in the mix as well.
Our shul, being independent of a formal movement, does not have that banner.  How well you treat people seems to matter less than how often you attend morning minyan, as a few key individuals can and do leverage that important but precarious niche to impede a more overriding need of the congregation to offer more to women, the one visible element of AKSE that has inhibited any realistic attraction to the younger families.  And they do it with the consent of the last two Rabbis.
If you look at the Nominating Committee slate, it has been recycled officers for the last three slates.  Who else may have been invited but turned the invitation down.  Doubt if anyone was.  And you cannot ignore performance.  Probably a mistake to regard Mediocrity as the Promised Land.
    Judaism is a religion of action over belief, of deed over creed. Words are cheap. We engage by being engaged. We walk the walk. We lead by example. We are one congregation, one community. We are a team. The question is not how do we get more members, but rather how do we get more members who care. How? By embracing our synagogue. If every single person in our shul is proud of being a member of our shul, then we will attract more caring members. All we need is a bunch of Jewish people who are happy where they are. (sounds easy) We must believe in ourselves. A synagogue only exists for its members, not the other way around. A synagogue cannot be engaging, only its membership can be. Beth El is no longer a welcoming synagogue. We are now an engaging synagogue. Watch out, because we're coming for you.
This is where the Rabbi needs to be at the forefront.  Beth El may be putting forth the effort to draw its passive members into its pageant.  AKSE does not seem to have a parallel initiative at the top of its agenda, at least in observable evidence.  They probably should and it can only happen if the Rabbi insists upon it as part of his tenure and pushes the structure among the baalebatim that enable its success.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Hillel Locked

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Few Jewish organizations have commanded my loyalty as the St. Louis Hillel, where as a med student I would worship on Shabbos morning, sometimes walking three miles in each direction through Forest Park, study on Sunday afternoon, call schedule permitting, to be followed by a generous sandwich at their weekly Kosher deli night, which attracted the local community as well.  Their director, Rabbi James Diamond, z"l, became my Rav and we kept in touch after he relocated to Princeton.  My first donation with money given to me by the Boston Court system for testifying as an intern went there, as did many subsequent to that.

Trips to St. Louis have been few since returning east after graduation.  In 2007 I attended my alma mater's reunion which left me with a free Saturday.  I bought a day pass for the Metrolink Transit with the intent of starting with shabbos morning where I once attended regularly.  The train took me to the Skinker stop and I walked through the relatively uninhabited Washington University main campus to 6300 Forsyth only to find the building closed as the university had some sort of hiatus that October week.  With my son graduating from Washington University, I returned to the campus for Commencement.  After the proceedings concluded I elected to walk back to the Hillel building just a few blocks from the university Quadrangle, only to find it locked again, though this time with a few cars in the back lot.  I could have rung the bell to be let in, and may have had I been alone but with family less eager to relive my old time, we moved on.

Just a few days later I had visited the Mizzou campus where they also had a Hillel, a much smaller enterprise, part of a multipurpose building.  We just walked in, looked around, asked directions to the Six Columns and resumed our exploration of the campus.

As a college and medical student, the Hillels were open, welcoming places.  My college Hillel even voted to become a Miklat or refuge for draft dodgers where people could just come in during usual business hours.  In St. Louis, would just wander in, sometimes go to the living room to watch TV which I did not have in my apartment, sometimes take a text book into the library, eventually renamed in honor of my Rav, dividing my time between my medical studies and whatever was on the Hillel library shelf.  Barriers to entering the building just weren't there and maybe they aren't on shabbos when people are expected to stroll in at various times for services.

Security needs have changed and Jewish organizations in particular can be targets of violent attack.  Even in my college years, kids from the neighborhood would enter the sukkah and help themselves to the hanging produce as a snack.  Yet the balance of keeping threats out while not impeding those who derive benefit from partaking of what is offered inside remains a challenge to the organizations' boards.  How much of a barrier is too much.  Despite my enduring fondness for St. Louis Hillel, even ringing the door bell to explain why I wanted to be let in with no guarantee that I would be let in exceeded what I was willing to do to relive what had been an essential element of my past.