Monday, February 29, 2016

TOR-CH, of Blessed Memory

In the previous decade, my mornings in the hospital seeing consults, would be interspersed with use of the hospital computers for other than its intended purpose, though never challenged.  While now my marketplace for ideas has become SERMO, a comments site devoted to physicians for which medical licensure is required for participation, in that decade the diversion from work though not quite the time sink that SERMO can be, went to a list-serv operated by the Jewish Theological Seminary known as TOR-CH.  I never learned what the acronym stood for, but not only was I a regular contributor but its founder graced AKSE with a guest presentation on establishing the relatively nascient internet as a forum for exchanging Jewish opinions.  The forum was intended to be a source of moderated though relatively unrestricted commentary on Conservative Judaism as Conservative Jews lived it.  Subscribers filled a polyglot of the self-declared Conservative Jewish adult population, nearly all of us in our professional prime.  There were a few Rabbis who seemed to be taking the pulse of their constituents but were pretty careful not to use their professional status to leverage other posters, a few who had agendas to float by, but they were few.  There were the usual organization loyalists and defenders, some defectors like me who had never really altered their ideology but got fed up enough with their local experience to deep six it in favor of a more observant milleau than the local USCJ affiliate could provide.  There were those like me who had adverse experience and defensible contempt for a large fraction of the leadership.  And there were trolls, not the Arab disruptive sloganeers who invite a click of the IGNORE option on more open sites, but a few mainstream Modern Orthodox men trying to tell the audience why they offer more than the Conservatives do, much like a return to the Debate Nights of the 1950-60's era when Orthodox and Conservative Synagogue representatives would meet to convince newcomers to the growing suburban communities that their synagogue was the best affiliation option.  Those few people were highly moderated as some of the comments could come across as insulting, while I could pretty much post what I wanted, as critical as I wanted of the Rabbinical Assembly, which deserved it as a deterrent to learned lay participation in the movement.  I did have to be polite, if sometimes not fully respectful, and I was.

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You get to know some of the people and their special skills, both Jewish and professional.  While private messages were discouraged, a few contacts asked me how to get the most out of their doctors and I quizzed some organization mavens about how to get some synagogue issue properly considered.  There were a few people proficient with the computer, a few Federation types.  Since I never was really a part of the Conservative Movement during my participation though very much a person who transplanted a Conservative mindset upward, if not just elsewhere, I did not get to meet any of the participants panim el panim except for two, on by invitation, the other by chance, yet became a Facebook friend to another.  While the intent of the project had a business purpose and perhaps one of the best opportunities for people in charge to gauge what the semi-loyal base of Conservative Jews might find meaningful, its reality became more the type of Kehillah that the Movement now seeks, though without the dues payment that it expects its kehillot to provide.  There weren't a lot of young people posting, mostly folks my age in the prime of their careers with tuition payments and mortgages to meet, people who liked to grapple with a question that had no real answer, whether of Talmud origin or synagogue branch point origin.  Every day I could expect to find something from somebody else that I would very much like to think about and respond.

Yet for all intents and purposes, it is no more.  The environmentalist Rabbi still sends an occasional insight.  Every winter the Hilchos Christmas spoof gets recycled.  But the candor about the Conservative Jewish experience, the type of comments and proposed interventions needed to stem its more widespread decline, these are no more.  My last post a couple of years ago got zero response.  If I might hazard a guess at its turning point, it would be the effective disinviting the three Orthodox missionaries to their cause.  They are the conversation makers, the disruptive innovators in a movement that too often shields itself from critique, even internal critique.  It allows those who remain to tell each other how wonderful they all are as mediocrity infuses inward.  I've not found a replacement peer forum anywhere else in Judaism of comparable quality and ongoing potential.  I miss the electronic conversation, something so readily available and vibrant medically through SERMO which in many ways has become the next destination, that TOR-CH like analog where all minds are welcome, restrained only by Derech Eretz

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Not Invited

My wife had yahrtzeit for each of her parents this week, each passing away at approximately the same week on the Hebrew calendar though many years apart.  Our synagogue struggles to get the ten men needed for a minyan twice daily, so as a symbiotic approach to create the minyan they offered to announce by list-serve who will be coming for kaddish on a particular day, so that their friends might have an incentive to pitch in and secure the minyan.  It has been reasonably successful, though the only times I have gone for anyone else has been when somebody personally came over to me and asked for my presence.  And I never turned the request down if I could physically get there at the assigned time.

Our Cantor took ill so AKSE is scrambling to get capable volunteers to read Torah.  If an invitation comes my way and it is within my realistic capacity to learn the portion, I never turn the invitation down.  However, for broadcasts of "we need Torah readers" it's not really directed at me personally.  Haftarah invitations come, Shacharit invitations come, all accepted unless there is a barrier to helping out.  They asked me to conduct a class this winter.  I did that too.

For every personal invitation, though, there are multiple which read we would like to have people attend, it could be you, it could be somebody else, we just count the money from the tickets and keep score.  Much like a giant trough to immerse one's snout to relieve hunger of some type.  They want participation but who participates matters less than how many.  In the last seven years, the Rabbi has never personally invited me to do anything.  Even the invitations to shabbos dinner in his sukkah are directed to my wife.  The last two Presidents have never asked me to do anything.  No doubt each has an A-list since there are people who give guest divrei Torah or who get assigned to direct a fundraiser.  But other than some bimah activity the individual invitations to me are either zero or not much above that.

So we perhaps do a head count on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur.  A lot of people attend.  Scanning the pews and the folding chairs behind them, there are people of all ages, or certainly a younger average age than would be found on any other occasion.  Women attend in large numbers, men in even larger numbers.  For every Ark opening two adult men are called up by name, each receiving a personal invitation a few weeks earlier from our High Holy Day chairman.  I do not know what fraction of the men accept or how many follow through with an implicitly expected minor contribution but I do know it is the only time of the year in which people in large numbers are individually asked to participate in a specific task.  Most then disappear until next High Holy Days when their Peticha usually gets recycled to them.  The reality of so many men responding to the invitation from one year to the next with minimal attrition supports the value of the personal invitation while the absence of any other invitation suggests an opportunity to grow congregational participation that was just not appreciated.  They might just need another invitation before the next New Year arrives.  And their wives too.

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Thursday, February 11, 2016


Image result for respectMy hospital got its docs a new device called a Dragon Dictation System where I can speak into a microphone and mostly correct text appears.  It is modified for the reality of having learned spoken English in the Bronx.  It has two options for text, one general English and the default of an Endocrinology vocabulary as nearly all its use has been to dictate patient consultations.  I tried dictating a more general article once, ended up typing it myself, but this week took another shot at something I've been meaning to prepare into an article called "The Places I Like to Daven".  It's mostly past tense, but for all my Beth Sodom and Aliyah Sound Bite quips of my contemporary shabbat morning options, there were and to a lesser extent are places that serve as prime destinations on a shabbos morning.  Eventually as a youngster I got to like our shul's Junior Congregation, despised the teen experience, and would inconvenience myself to leave home early to get to that shul now 100+ miles away if possible when passing through the area.  WashU and Penn Hillel could expect my presence most shabbos mornings.  Beth El Quincy, z"l, for my final year of residency.  Beth Tfiloh in Baltimore once a quarter, again at a little personal inconvenience and needing some advance planning.

I tried to tease out common themes.  Like the Rabbi?  For sure at the adult synagogues but the Hillel experiences had no Rabbi.  Friendly congregants?  After multiple visits to Beth Tfiloh the total number of people who have come over to me sitting by myself and chatting with me is ONE, their assistant Rabbi who serves as Torah reader.   Personal participation?  I've been a very active Bimah participant by default at my current shul and the one before it, neither of which makes my must be there list while often serving as the destination of my many verbal harpoons.

After pondering the Why as I dictate the Where, the common thread seems to be the level of respect that I have for the composite experience and the people that I am with.  The JCC of Spring Valley, my Bar Mitzvah congregation, seemed bimodal.  It distilled to how I was treated.  Contemptuously by the teen director who played favorites, inconsistently by the Rabbi who presided over my  Bar Mitzvah, to be followed by a Rabbi of my later high school years who endeared himself, not only to me, but forty years later when high school classmates post photos of their wedding, his picture appears with a note of his kindness and sometimes his professional competence.  Services were done expertly.  Those in attendance were were more my mother's friends than mine, but as a an adult visitor who made time to stop there while in transit from the Delaware Valley to New England these people gained my respect for their ongoing dedication even as their congregation was aging and eventually failing.

Hillel I was more a part of.  People were happy to have me there whether they needed another tuchis for a minyan or not.  There were interactions about exams.  My first Kaddish obligation was fulfilled there.  It was the custom that mourners should not stand alone, a custom exported by me to subsequent places.  Not having a Rabbi, the Hillels brought out the best in what Jewishly committed students could do.  There were no fights over Mechitza, just a recognition that the Orthodox needed one and we would set our own druthers aside to enable their worship.  Somebody had to prepare Torah reading, even if an Organic Chemistry test loomed in the near future.  People rose to the occasions.  I'm very respectful of that to this day.

I only lived in Quincy for one year, my final year of residency.  The town at the time had a kosher butcher which folded a few months after we arrived.  My first experience at Beth El occurred for the Holy Days which might have been my last as the Rabbi rambled and the crowded sanctuary could have used better climate control.  But while I spent the summer at an arduous hospital assignment, my wife attended shul, assuring me that the spectacle of Rosh Hashana did not occur on shabbat.  As my medical assignments got a little more tame, I started going with her.  The experience was the closest I've ever had to a Hillel duplication in a Conservative synagogue.  Personable, knowledgeablle, interactive Rabbi.  Cantor davened and read Torah expertly without the flourishes of a Cantorial institute alumnus, having acquired his skill in Europe.  Not a lot of congregants but enough, ranging from Harvard professors to younger people who had just escaped the Iranian Revolution but still had family left behind.  The role of women was in transition then but both my wife and I got invitations to be among the haftarah readers.  Kiddush was mingling and chat time, something never duplicated for me since.  Then mostly home and rest afterwards.  If they had macher swoops I was unaware of them.  I know they had a benefactor, an owner of a small regional home improvement chain.  I never met him and never sensed I was being manipulated in any way.

So those are the basic models, diverse but with a common theme of being among people who I basically admire.  Sounds like something fairly easy to duplicate or at least aspire to, though strangely elusive.