Monday, July 23, 2018

Judaism's Gospel of Wealth

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As a high schooler, I received an assignment in history class to read and report on Andrew Carnegie's Gospel of Wealth.  He took the position that certain projects of public benefit needed concentrations of money to be effective.  To distribute small amounts to everyone would leave everyone unserved but investment in a large project could be accessed by everyone.  The Jewish World has taken that position, creating a very effective network of social services and advocacy that is highly dependent on a few large donors.  In exchange they acquire a certain amount of influence and can hire talent of lesser personal means to implement programs.  The price, though, may be resentment by the nobodies, some of whom become somebodies, unwelcome without wealth and disinclined to sign on when they now have wealth.

Jay Ruderman, scion of the Meditech fortune that makes my hospital function and director of the Foundation that received the proceeds, issued a blog in the Times of Israel expressing legitimate concern for how these institutions will continue their good work as the top talent begins to retire and as the next generation turns interest to hospitals and museums instead of Federations and synagogues.

As I retire from clinical practice soon, having spent about half my career in the Catholic health system, I'm haunted a little by how much better they treated me from one institution to the next than the Jewish organizations did.  Even as a nobody, my Jesuit medical school and Catholic residency hospital instilled some importance.  They wanted me.  Jewish Federation wanted my possessions, be it my treasure or the medical degree that would be parlayed into treasure later.  I felt convenient at times, troublesome at times, but never unconditionally important the way I was in my medical environments.  Undoubtedly my assessment of my experience gets played out many times over in the form of attrition and a desire to leave Judaism to their and my betters while I pick and choose those Jewish menu items attractive to me at the time with no serious instilled loyalty.

Yes, Andrew Carnegie imparted an important lesson that was adopted by the Jewish people of means to be generous in community needs.  Where they may diverge, though, is the expectation that anybody could go to a Carnegie library or a Carnegie Hall to derive benefit.  He made sure there was no aristocracy.  That does not seem to be true of Jewish wealth which seems far more inbred with a current uncertainty of succession and a participation that seems a fraction of what it could have been.  Money will only get you so far.  I've been a member of two synagogues that were highly endowed but eventually did not have people for a minyan to read Torah on shabbos.  Money to sustain programming and initiatives matters but talent and loyalty makes the organizations vibrant.  We seem to have sacrificed that.  It may be hard to recapture, especially if leadership takes on the form of a cloning experiment.  I agree with Jay Ruderman that the face of Judaism is a lot different now than when the original benefactors took charge.  I would be a bit skeptical though to think that the generosity to social nobodies is any different.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Gone without a Word

Image result for harley parking spacePeople come and go.  A shabbos candle lasts about an hour, a yarhtzeit candle about 24 and a shiva candle about a week, then the flame disappears, though the attraction of the flame usually peters out long before it reaches its end.  Not so with our congregant, a person always noticed, a colorful and omnipresent fixture for his tenure in a place that really lacks of interesting characters.

He arrived unobtrusively, I cannot even remember when or how.  Nearly all our members are from big cities, with a now negligible representation from the European shetl's.  This fellow developed his speech pattern in Arkansas, he mentioned a town that had a small Wikipedia blurb, and entertained us in private conversation and a few pretty good divrei Torah.  I never pressed him on where else he had lived or how he migrated to Wilmington, though I knew he was a military veteran who had medical appointments at our VA.  He had a Harley and pick-up truck, the latter parked in the lot of the synagogue on occasion and the former, which I never actually saw, acquired a designated space in our parking lot right next to the Rabbi's space.  I assumed he is a convert, called to the Torah as ben Avraham, but of adequate proficiency with the blessings and Torah choreography.  His divrei Torah coordinated contemporary themes with the broad theme of the weekly reading though without much detail from the portion itself or from learned sources.  Never asked if he had a job.  He was able to attend morning and evening minyanim pretty much daily, which goes against having to be someplace else during customary working hours but the modern world running around the clock, there are people who have the days off and work after dark.  And while he had served in the military he did not look physically disabled though many a pension comes from PTSD which would not be apparent to a social associate. 

During his years with us, not a lot, he contributed a good deal more than most, despite his somewhat enigmatic presence.  On site twice a day.  When we needed cooking, whether for cholent on shabbos or an occasional barbeque to entice people to congregational meetings, he obtained the supplies and did the cooking, presumably with some kashrut supervision from others more familiar with the rules.  The food was always wonderful.  He would drive the visiting Cantor to the train at the end of shabbos, presumably in the pickup rather than the motorcycle.  I never paid attention to whether he took wine, grape juice or schnapps at kiddush.  But he was both omnipresent and a little obscure.

Then one day the Rabbi asked if somebody could transport the Cantor to his train after Havdalah.  It's a semi-rhetorical request, as everyone has a car and nobody has any other pressing obligation after dark on any Saturday night.  Somebody would get him there, but not his usual ride in the pick-up truck.  It's owner, our curious congregant, had slid out just as suddenly and unobtrusively as he had arrived.  His whereabouts were announced as Georgia, no mention of why.  Wife remained locally.  As tempting as it was to check out whether the extradition laws between Delaware and Georgia were looser than other interstate agreements, I didn't, or more correctly wouldn't know how.  He just seemed curious when here, curious when gone, but a great contributor to the few years he blended among us.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Elusive Kavanah

My Kavanah got up and went.  There is a certain detachment  as I observe the proceedings on shabbos morning.  There is a lot of keva, or set time to do something, and not a lot mental or spiritual immersion into what goes on around me.  It's not really boredom, more a lost opportunity to be doing something else.  Embracing-Engaging-Enriching, the congregation's logo, has not been what I think of in the chapel on shabbos morning or at kiddush afterwards.  It's not work, not that I would want to be at work instead.  It's not recreation, there being ample other times for that.  It's not ruach, at least for me.  As I stare at some of the other people there, it may not be ruach for them either, though I never took a poll.  The Board or Ritual Committee probably never took a poll either.  Attendance speaks for itself, at it has stabilized though never expanded.  That's probably a decent surrogate poll.