Observations Along the Road

Theatre Writeups, Musings on the News, Rants and Roadkill Along the Information Superhighway

Category Archive: 'judaism'

Learning from Political Compromise

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Sep 14, 2013 @ 2:12 pm PST

userpic=tallitFor the past umpteen years, when I go to High Holyday services, I bring additional reading with me. No, it’s not a paperback novel. It is companion books like “Gates of Understanding 2“, S.Y. Agnon’s “Days of Awe“, the Pirke Avot. Gates of Understanding 2 is particularly interesting, as it is “A religious commentary to help High Holy Days worshipers unlock the message behind the liturgy. Covers the history and tradition of the prayers, music in the service, synagogue poetry, the role of God, sin and repentance and much more. Also includes comprehensive notes to Gates of Repentance and a thorough index.” In particular GoU2 describes how this particular machzor (prayerbook) came to be in its present form — what was included, what wasn’t, and why.

This was highlighted for me last night when reading the history behind Kol Nidre, and its inclusion — or non-inclusion — in the Reform prayerbook. Kol Nidre is a mystical prayer dating back to the 12th century in Germany that nullifies vows made in anger or in haste. It was controversial for Reform because it implied to the larger community that Jews could not be trusted with their vows. So controversial was this discussion that in 1949 it was included in the first printing of Union Prayer Book (UPB) II, and then removed. Just that page was replaced with a double spaced prayer, the hebrew words for “Kol Nidre”, and in small type “The Kol Nidre Chant”. Even today an exact translation of the prayer in English is not in the prayerbook.

So today at services I brought with me the usual GOU2, but also a collection of older High Holyday Prayerbooks: UPB II, the Hillel prayerbook “On Wings of Awe”, and two prayerbooks produced by Temple Emet in the early 1980s. As we went through the service, I discovered that the current prayerbook was drawn from hither and yon (for example, Unetaneh Tokef was only in the YK Afternoon Service in UPBII), and many things were not translated the same.

So why am I telling you this? Any prayerbook — any service — is a political compromise. What you see on the page is the product of committees wrangling about what should be in or out to express a particular dogma or political point. Essentially, this means that you can’t pray wrong. If you don’t say the words, that’s OK. If you omit a particular prayer, that’s OK.

So what do you do? Again, the answer is in the prayerbook. The Torah portion from Deut. 30 (at least for Reform; traditional uses Lev. 18) emphasizes the need to make the right choice. The Haftorah, from Isaiah, does similar. Actions speak louder than words. Don’t just mouth the political compromise words about correcting failures. Change how you act and you behave. Don’t believe that sitting in a building twice a year will do it for you. Work to improve every day.

[And, to tie this back to the other themes I’ve discussed: Don’t just talk about a congregation being friendly and welcoming. Go out and welcome a stranger. Go out and make a friend. Don’t just talk about the connections that exist — make new ones, and strengthen existing ones. Let your actions be your prayers, and you can remake the world.]


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The Role of Criticism

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Sep 14, 2013 @ 8:49 am PST

userpic=soapboxThe place where I work has as its underlying goal “mission success”. Our goal is to help ensure that the mission (which I don’t need to state here) succeeds, and we work with the parties on both sides to make that happen. This means that we often point out flaws in reasoning or performance. Yet that isn’t criticism, because the goal is not to tear down, but to build up — to help the other parties succeed.

I’ve been musing about this as the service swelled around me last night. It relates to my discussion yesterday about the growth of sadism on the Internet and Internet bullying. It also relates to some discussion on Bitter Lemons (here, here, and here) about the roles of critics, the roles of professional critics, and whether certain individuals have been behaving appropriate.

What is the role of a critic? For that matter, what is the role of a troll? Often, what I see is that the role is perceived to be one that tears down. You’re not a critic unless you can see the flaws and highlight them. You’re not a troll unless you attack and hurt. But does simply identifying problems — whether out of love for the craft or the joy of hating — help in the long run? I don’t believe so.

To me, our goal in whatever we do should be mission success — that is, to ultimately help the mission succeed. If you are at work, you work to make your organization’s mission successful. When I write theatre reviews, it is to make the product better — I try not to just indicate a problem but to suggest (either direct or implied) ways to correct a problem. I won’t say — this show is bad. I will say — this is how this show can be better. The same is true of anything I write. When I wrote about the trolls, my goal was to find ways to make the problem better. When I write up high holyday sermons, it is not to find fault, but to indicate how they can be better.

Far too often, I see folks that believe criticism must be negative. Over at Bitter Lemons, there has been a touch of this — the implication that critics must not only see shows they like, but must have some they hate. I disagree — which is why perhaps I’m not a professional critic. I think that if you are going to write criticism, you must remember to put the adjective “constructive” before it. We must work together to build things up, to make people better, to make society better — to do better in everything we do.

This relates directly to today, Yom Kippur. At services, we enumerate our flaws and failures. We do this not to tear our selves down and belittle us in front of others, but to acknowledge where we can do better, and to vow to — in the upcoming year — work on correcting those failures. I know this has always been a goal for me: acknowledge what works well, work to fix the failures.

Let us work together to battle those whose goal is mission failure — who just want to bring down the mission, who just want to tear down people, who just want to make themselves superior by making others feel inferior. Let work together to make things better.

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RH Sermons 5774: What I Didn’t Hear

Written By: cahwyguy - Thu Sep 05, 2013 @ 4:19 pm PST

userpic=tallitThis year’s Rosh Hashanah services are over. I indicated in my last post that the most meaningful part of the service for me is the sermon, and so I thought I would share with you some thoughts on the sermons I heard. More important, I think, I what I did not hear, or what I heard between the lines. A lot of this was heard through the filter I’ve been doing recently for $mens_club.

Erev RH. The Erev (evening) Rosh Hashanah sermon talked about the efforts at $current_congregation to create a caring community — and more importantly, how people tend to refuse any offered help out of a fear of appearing weak or less than.  The point being made was that it is just as important to accept offered helped as it is to offer help. This was a good subject to talk about. It demonstrated that the congregation was one that cared about its members.

But to my ears, I was hearing something a little different. After all, caring communities exist in other forms of Judaism. In particular, within Orthodox, the caring community just shows up when needed — no questions asked, and “no” is not an acceptable answer. So, just as the Rabbi related in her personal story, not only do we need to teach people that it is OK to ask for help, we need to go out and give help when it is needed, with no opportunity for refusal. If you look at the community building in the mega-church community, this is what is done, and this is the goal.

The other thing I did not hear was how we go about finding out that people need help. After all, you can’t get to the point where they can refuse the help if you don’t know they need help in the first  place. There needs to be a proactive relationship with the members of the congregation where we are reaching out and helping each other, and some mechanism where people needing help can be identified, even if they are too proud to ask for it themselves. This requires some sensitivity — it requires knowing people well enough to tell when something is off — to read between the lines.

RH Morning (Rabbi). This morning, the Rabbi did a whole talk about what Reform Judaism is, and why it isn’t ReformED Judaism. I agreed with him 100%, although I did wonder why he didn’t draw the distinction between Reform and Orthodox, and Reform and Christianity (perhaps the latter might have offended?). If you are not familiar with the difference: Orthodox believes that Torah is the literal word of God — and therefore it must be followed as written. Reform believes that it is Divinely Inspired, and must be reinterpreted in the context of the times. This is a critical distinction, and why you can have someone who is Orthopractic and Reform, and someone non-practicing who is Orthodox. As for Christianity, Christians just have a different conception of the nature of God and Messiah than Judaism. That doesn’t make it bad; it just makes it not-Jewish.

What I didn’t hear, however, was why we were getting this particular message? Are we seeing a movement of people out of Reform to non-denominational Judaism? To Orthodoxy? It didn’t answer the question of why it is important to be involved with the official denomination, especially as there is a growing number of congregations that are no longer affiliated with URJ.  Useful questions to ask, but unanswered.

One thing I did hear was an emphasis on how Reform Judaism was “authentic”. I believe this was an attempt to reach out to the GenXers. If you recall, in my last $mens_club post I indicated how GenX is believed to be searching for more authenticity. They could be jumping to Orthodoxy or other approaches believing them to be more authentic. This could have been an attempt to combat that flow.

RH Morning (Congregational President). This was a pretty good talk about how the congregation is a sacred community, and how it builds relationships. I was pleased to hear a number of key words that fit with what Ron Wolfson and Synagogue 3000 folks are doing. However, there were two things that caught my ear for not being present.

First, both on RH Morning and the previous evening, the congregational board speakers emphasized how their relationships came out of the bonds from Religious School. The school brought them in, and they built relationships from there. That works for many. But it doesn’t reach out to the underserved communities — the empty nesters, the intentionally childless, the singles? For those not growing up in the religious school, how do we build the relationships?  How do we reach out to those, and how is community created for those people? That’s a good question, and one that needs to be answered. [I believe that one answer is to build those relationships through various affinity auxiliaries. $mens_club and $sisterhood are a great starting point. I remember the days of Couples Clubs, and there can be other groups that build the relationships other than the schools. Of course, to do this, you need to know your members and their passions.]

The other thing I didn’t hear related to building those relationships. $Congregational_president encouraged people to join committees, to get involved, and to suggest programs and events. I heard that as being the wrong direction. To build the relationships, the congregation needs to take the action. Call members on a regular basis to see what is happening with them, and to see how they might get involved (this addresses the Erev RH call to find people that need help). It also shows the congregation as caring, and doesn’t depend on the people on the margins to take action. Telephone trees were important for a reason — they are a person to person outreach that overcomes inertia on the margins. Secondly, the emphasis on programming and events is the old model of limited liability — it emphasizes that the value (read dues-paying-value) of a congregation is measured by its programs, not the community it creates. Create the community, the programs will come from there. One other thing that wasn’t said: The congregation also needs to ensure that once these new people come to these programs / committees / events, they are welcomed without question. That hasn’t always happened in the past, and just as one must overcome margin inertia, there’s an equal (and opposite?) clique inertia, where people only want to deal with those they like and who don’t welcome and almost push away those not in their circles. Welcoming must be universal, and that takes training.

In any case, that’s what I heard over the last two days. If you attended services, what did you hear?

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Jewish News You Can Use

Written By: cahwyguy - Thu Sep 05, 2013 @ 7:57 am PST

userpic=camelsToday is Rosh Hashanah. Happy Birthday to the World; you turn (according to tradition) 5774 today. According to science? Well, that’s a different story. In any case, World, here’s a special Rosh Hashanah birthday present for you — a collection of Jewish-themed news chum to entertain you, before folks go off to services:

  • Jews in Politics. If you’re Christian and in Congress, it’s easy. You go to church, the media follows, and you get to show people how pious you are. But what if you are Jewish? The Washington Post has an answer to that question, exploring how Jewish members of Congress balance piety with their National responsibilities. I found this a real interesting story. I never knew, for example, that Barbara Boxer was an observant Jew (for those not familiar with the lingo, those tend to be code words for someone who is more observant than the typical Reform Jew — that is, either Conservative or Orthodox (which are both Jewish movements)).
  • Rethinking the Bar/Bat Mitzvah. The New York Times has a fascinating piece — well worth using as one of your limited number of free articles — on how congregations are experimenting with what the b’nei mitzvah of the future should look like. The problem is best put by Bradley Solomon, director of the new effort: “We didn’t realize it,” but we sent the message to families that if you want to be a bar or bat mitzvah, you have to join the synagogue. And what they heard was, ‘When you’re done, you can leave the synagogue.’ We’d like to go back to our roots and say, How can we make it a point of welcome and not the exit point that it’s become?” Basically, they are battling the “Religious School Industrial Complex”: Reform leaders say American Jewry unwittingly sowed the seeds of its own stagnation in the 1930s and ’40s when synagogues, to expand their membership, began to require three or four years of religious school attendance as a prerequisite to the bar mitzvah. Synagogues built classroom wings and charged tuition, which became a vital income stream for congregations. Children and their families go through what some rabbis call an “assembly line” that produces Jews schooled in little more than “pediatric Judaism,” an immature understanding of the faith, its values and spirituality. Most students deliver a short speech about the meaning of the Torah passage they were assigned to read, but they never really learn to understand or speak Hebrew, only to decode the text. All they understand is the party, and that’s a bad thing.
  • High Holiday Music. To tell you the truth, I don’t get much out of High Holiday services. To me, the sermon is the most interesting part. The prayers are high sounding but devoid of meaning, and the music … well, to some it is inspiring and lifting, but to me, it tends to drive me to auxiliary HHD reading such as this or this as it drones on. But perhaps that is changing. Here’s an article on how younger Jews are attempting to reshape High Holiday music. As one of the Cantors involved in the effort, Basya Schecter, says that in many traditional synagogues, the cantor’s prayers are “the wings that everyone else would ride on,” and what the community sang was given less weight.  “And, in our generation, it’s really about the energy and the momentum of the entire community together, creating space for people to have their own experience, whatever that is.” I’d love to see the music revitalized — the problem, as I see it, is twofold. First, there is tradition inertia, especially around the HHD, where people don’t like to change the tradition because it is tradition and their only connection. Second, the problem is the Cantorial leadership, for the HHD is one place for a Cantor to shine and show off, and this might reduce the number of moments of “all eyes are on the Cantor and choir”.
  • A Historic Meeting. This one is a little tangential, but given the KKK has targeted Jews as well, I think it fits in. There was recently a historic meeting where a top representative from the KKK met a top representative from the NAACP. It took place in Casper WY, between the President of the NAACP in Casper and a kleagle (Organizer) of the Klan. Why did the meeting take place? For months the NAACP hadbeen hearing reports that black men in Gillette were being beaten up. Invariably the men were with white women when assaulted. Then Klan literature showed up around town. The NAACP president considered rallying against the Klan, but then decided to try something different: talking.“If you want to talk about hate, get a hater,” the President said later. “Let him tell you something about hate.” So they met. Will it change anything? That’s unknown, but even if it doesn’t reduce the hate, it may reduce the violence. My favorite line is the explanation of why the Klansman joined the Klan: “I like it because you wear robes, and get out and light crosses, and have secret handshakes. I like being in the Klan — I sort of like it that people think I’m some sort of outlaw.” Sigh.  Still, the meeting shows the value of doing something unexpected to battle hate. Let this inspire you for the new year — instead of hating, sit down and learn about the other person. Spend the year trying to see people as people, and not ideologies. Help make the world a better place.


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New Year Observations

Written By: cahwyguy - Wed Sep 04, 2013 @ 3:41 pm PST

userpic=tallitRosh Hashanah starts tonight at sundown (I was going to say “For those who are Jewish”, but Rosh Hashanah starts whether you are Jewish or not; you just may not observe it). If you didn’t read my “L’Shanah Tovah” post of last evening, go read it. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Great. That post talks about customs, but it doesn’t say what Rosh Hashanah is. If you are like most people reading this, you probably don’t know (hell, you probably just think of it as a day a number of people aren’t at work, or a day you might get off of school). Rosh Hashanah (“Head (Rosh) of the Year (Ha-Shanah)”)  is just one of four new years observed historically by Jews. Here are each of them, with a description (from the Soc.Culture.Jewish FAQ):

Rosh Hashanah (Tishri 1)
Also known as Yom Hadin, Yom Hazikaron (Day of Remembrance) and Yom Teruah (Day of the sounding of the shofar). In traditional congregations, the shofar is not sounded when Rosh Hashanah falls on the Sabbath. This holiday celebrates the creation of the world, and as such is the new year for calculating calendar years, sabbatical and jubilee years. This holiday is characterized by the blowing of the shofar. During the afternoon of the first day, many follow the practice of tashlikh, symbolically casting away sins by throwing stones into the waters. Rosh ha-Shanah, the 1st of Tishri, never falls on a Sunday, Wednesday or Friday, in order that Yom Kippur should never fall on a Friday or Sunday and Hoshana Rabbath should not fall on the Sabbath.

The one practice unique to Rosh Hashanah is the sounding of the shofar, in accord with the biblical command “… it is a day when the horn is sounded” (Num. 29:1). Since it falls on the first day of the month, when new months were proclaimed by the Sanhedrin on the basis of the testimony of witnesses, there existed an uncertainty as to when exactly Rosh Hashanah would be. Even when the Temple stood, it was sometimes necessary to celebrate two days of Rosh Hashanah due to the late arrival of witnesses. As a result it was decided to celebrate two days every year. Unlike other holidays, this is unrelated to the diaspora.

Rosh Hashanah is also known as yom ha’din, “the day of judgement”, when according to the Talmud, God determines who will be inscribed in the “book of life” and who will be inscribed in the “book of death” for the coming year. The decision is made on Rosh Hashanah and sealed ten days later at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. One’s behavior in the interim can supposedly alter a harsh decree, thus the period from the beginning of Rosh Hashanah to the conclusion of Yom Kippur is known as the Ten Days of Repentance. During the Middle Ages, it also became common to refer to Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur as the Days of Awe.

After the service in the synagogue, it is customary for worshippers to wish one another le-Shanah tovah tehatem ve-tikatev (May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year). It is traditional to eat bread and apples dipped in honey followed by the meditation, “May it be Your will to grant us a good and sweet year.”

In Ashkenazi communities, a special custom known as Tashlikh occurs; it invokes the recitation of biblical verses and a prayer near a body of water. It is performed on the first day of Rosh Hashanah (unless the first day falls on the Sabbath, in which case it is deferred to the second day). The custom symbolizes purification of sin in the water.

Tu B’shevat (Shevat 15)
The day designed as Rosh ha-Shonah la-Ilanot – the New Year for Trees. This day was set aside in the Mishna on which to bring fruit tithes. It is still celebrated in modern times. Fruit that began to grow after the flower stage (or to ripen, according to Maimonides and the geonim, before Tu bi-Shevat, belongs to the previous year. Fruit reaching the stage of development after Tu bi-Shevat belongs to the new year. The consequences of this determination is whether ma’aser sheni, the “second” tithe (first, second, fourth, and fifth years of the seven year cycle), or ma’aser ani, the tithe for the poor (third and sixth years of the seven year cycle) are to be taken from the fruit. The importance of this determination stems from the prohibition against setting aside fruit from the new year’s crop as a tithe for the previous year’s crop. To facilitate compliance with the commandments of orlah and fourth year’s fruits, this date is used to determine the first four years that the tree bears fruit. Tu bi-Shevat also marks the beginning of the second year in a tree’s life, so long as it has taken root some time before Tu bi-Shevat. This date was chosen “because most of the winter rains are over” (RH. 14a) and the fruit has begun to ripen.

In the Diaspora (exile), Tu bi-Shevat has lost its halakhic and agricultural significance, yet it is still regarded as a festive day. Thus, no fasting or eulogizing is permitted, nor is the Tahanun prayer recited. Rabbi Yitzchak Luria of Safed and his disciples began the custom of eating fruit on this day. For this purpose, they composed liturgical poems (piyyutim) and a seder for Tu bi-Shevat eve, during which they drank four cups of wine. This custom was adopted first by varios Sephardi communities, and then by Aschkenazi Jewry who initiated the custom to eat on Tu bi-Shevat the fruit for which Eretz Israel is famous.

In modern Israel, this is the day when children plant trees in the forests and in public places.

New Year for Kings (Nisan 1)
Nisan is the first month of the Hebrew calendar; in Mishnaic times it was celebrated as the New Year for Kings and months. In biblical times, kings reckoned the years of their reign from the first of Nisan. If a king mounted the throne on the previous day, then the Ist of Nisan marked the beginning of the “second year” of his reign. In addition to this “new year”, the Mishna sets up three other New Year’s: Elul 1, for animal tithes, Tishrei 1 (Rosh HaShanah), and Shevat 15, the New Year for Trees/fruit tithes. Ever since the Babylonian diaspora, only the Rosh HaShanah and Tu B’Shevat are still celebrated.

New Year for Animal Tithes (Taxes) (Elul 1)
This day is set up by the Mishna as the New Year for animal tithes, which roughly corresponds to a new year for taxes. This is similar to the tax deadline in the United States of America, on April 15. The date is disputed; Some authorities claim that it was observed on Tishrei 1 (Rosh HaShanah). The actual date is now merely academic; This holiday has not been observed since the Babylonian diaspora.

Every year, Rosh Hashanah reminds me… that I’m part of a minority religion. I’m reminded every time someone schedules a meeting or event on the first day of Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, effectively (unthinkingly) excluding most Jews from attending. I see this happening at work, where we have multiple applicant interviews scheduled, and major conference are taking place. Now look at the few major Christian holidays — Christmas and Easter. Are these typically work days with meetings scheduled? In fact, Christmas is even a National holiday! Yes, we have official separation of church and state — which means there isn’t an official state religion — but Christian values are still infused throughout our society (and America is one of the most religious countries, even without a state religion).  Here’s yet another example.

So, to my friends observing Rosh Hashanah, a Happy New Year. I hope you don’t miss too much while the world goes on around you. To my friends not observing Rosh Hashanah…. I wish you a Happy New Year as well. May you find in this new year what you need to find in life. May you be healthy, may you be happy, and may find love/continue to be loved.

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L’Shanah Tovah – Happy New Year – 5774

Written By: cahwyguy - Tue Sep 03, 2013 @ 5:40 pm PST

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, starts tomorrow night. Thus, it’s time for my annual New Years message for my family, my real-life, Blog, LiveJournal, Google+, and Facebook friends (including all the new ones I have made this year), and all other readers of my journal:

L’Shana Tovah. Happy New Year 5774. May you be written and enscribed for a very happy, sweet, and healthy new year.

For those curious about Jewish customs at this time: There are a number of things you will see. The first is an abundance of sweet foods. Apples dipped in honey. Round challahs. Honey cakes. The sweet foods remind us of the sweet year to come. As for the round challah. Some say they it represents a crown that reflects our coronating God as the King of the world. Others suggest that the circular shape points to the cyclical nature of the year. The Hebrew word for year is “shana,” which comes from the Hebrew word “repeat.” Perhaps the circle illustrates how the years just go round and round. But Rosh Hashana challahs are not really circles; they are spirals… The word “shana” has a double meaning as well. In addition to “repeat,” it also means “change”. As the year goes go round and round, repeating the same seasons and holidays as the year before, we are presented with a choice: Do we want this shana (year) to be a repetition, or do we want to make a change (shinui)? Hopefully, each year we make choices for change that are positive, and each year we will climb higher and higher, creating a spiritual spiral. The shape of the Rosh Hashana challah reminds us that this is the time of year to make those decisions. This is the time to engage in the creative spiritual process that lifts us out of the repetitive cycle, and directs our energies toward a higher end.
[Thanks to Aish Ha’Torah for these insights]

There are also apologies, for during the ten days starting this evening, Jews examine their lives and see how they can do better. On Yom Kippur (starting the evening of September 13th), Jews apologize to G-d for their misdeeds during the past year. However, for an action against another person, one must apologize to that person.

So, in that spirit:

If I have offended any of you, in any way, shape, manner, or form, real or imagined, then I apologize and beg forgiveness. If I have done anything to hurt, demean, or otherwise injure you, I apologize and beg forgiveness. If I have done or said over the past year that has upset, or otherwise bothered you, I sincerely apologize, and will do my best to ensure it won’t happen again.

If you have done something in the above categories, don’t worry. I know it wasn’t intentional, and I would accept any apology you would make.

May all my blog readers and all my friends have a very happy, healthy, and meaningful new year. May you find in this year what you need to find in life.

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A Sacred Brotherhood

Written By: cahwyguy - Thu Aug 29, 2013 @ 10:10 am PST

userpic=levysA few weeks ago, I indicated that the President of $mens_club at $current_congregation had given me some books he had ordered at the recent MRJ (Men of Reform Judaism) conference. I’ve been slowly working my way through them, writing up my thoughts as I finish each. While on vacation, I finished the third book in the stack: “ReThinking Synagogues: A New Vocabulary for Congregational Life” by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman. This is, in many ways, the twin of the previous book “The Spirituality of Welcoming: How to Transform Your Congregation Into a Sacred Community” by Ron Wolfson. Both are reporting on the conclusions of the Synagogue 2000, now Synagogue 3000, effort on rethinking what synagogues should be in the 21st Century. I’m trying to figure out how to apply this effort to the organization that was once called “Brotherhood”.

The basic notion that I’m operating under is that $mens_club should be a role model, just as a father is a role model to their children. If we can internalize the ideas from these books, we can work to improve the congregation. I touched upon this notion in my second post. I also probably approach this issue differently than most, bringing an engineer’s perspective to the issue — in other words, I want to figure out and solve the underlying problem, as oppose to just applying bandages to the situation. This seems to be the goal of Synagogue 3000 as well.

The basic goal of the effort was to turn congregations into what were referred to as “Limited Liability” organizations into Sacred Communities. A LL organization is one where people go to get particular services and don’t expect more. I go to a theatre to be entertained; I go to the YMCA to exercise; I go to shul to pray and get my kids a Jewish education. Essentially, it puts the congregation as a “fee for service”, and creates the question of “What do I get for my dues dollar?” That’s not an attitude that improves either the members or ensures congregational survival. The ultimate goal should be a Sacred Community — one that builds long-term person-to-person relationships that make people want to stay. Building relationships will also move people towards greater participation, and will move them to improving the sacred-ness in their lives. Now I don’t necessarily understand all the spiritual side that Hoffman talks about — because I tend to only be spiritual at camp — but I can understand building relationships. Here’s a great quote that captures this:

Synagogue is not a building, it is the set of sacred relationships that constitute the community and the equally sacred acts that flow from it.

In terms of $mens_club, the question becomes “What is the spiritual purpose of $mens_club?”. How do we make $mens_club a sacred space? Does $mens_club exist just for the purpose of raising money for the congregation, or is there some deeper purpose? How do we go beyond the traditional mens club, doing traditional “mens” activities (gambling, drinking, sports, burning meat)… or how do we make those activities sacred? My contention is that the answer is in building relationships. Every activity that $mens_club does should serve to (a) build relationships between the participating members, and (b) encouraging those on the periphery to start establishing relationships. As part of this building relationships, we also need to remember that Judaism treasures differing opinons (think of Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai). One opinion will win out, but all must be treated with respect.

So what does $mens_club want to be? I can detail what I think it should be: An organization that values every member, that strives to build personal and enriching Jewish relationships between members, and in doing so, serves as a role model to the remainder of the congregation in how to be welcoming and moving people to greater spirituality and participation. But that’s my view. I do think we should start having dialogues to see what the active membership wants. Are they happy being a traditional Brotherhood by any other name, golfing and BBQing to raise money for the congregation? Is the real emphasis the BROTHERhood, as brothers care about each other as a family. One line I particularly liked: “Cease being communities people join as consumers, buying services with dues.”

To do this, $mens_club needs to understand what it is. What practices serve to regulate behavior to address a problem that occurred in the past (I’m thinking many financial practices are likely in this category, as well as some of the election rules), and which practices are constitutional, defining what $mens_club is and what it does? Which of our traditional activities (Pancake Breakfast, Poker Night, Golf Tournament, $mens_club Shabbat, Yom HaShoah Candles, Shabbeques, Mens Only Discussions, Mens Only Seders, and monthly meetings) are traditional / non-traditional? Feeding the spirit / Feeding the coffers? For those that aren’t spiritual, how do we adapt them to build relationships?

One thing emphasized in the book was the importance of seeing people as people, not adversaries. Get people to tell their stories. Learn what has happened in their life since the last time we saw them. Also emphasized was the importance of the sacred side. Connect the activity to Judaism — bring a little Jewish thought to everything you do. Basically, the notion was to embue every activity with 5 components: Prayer, Eating, Study, Action, and Check-In (stories). The movement needs to be to a God- and Prayer- (and People-) centered community, as one that thinks in terms of “programs”.

The book also discussed the importance of finding out member’s gifts and what they are passionate about. Discovering the “gifts” allows people to give in ways other than just money (this is important for the people that don’t have a lot of money to give). People that have BBQ-ing skills can cook; those who build things can work on the infrastructure; those with IT skills can help with webpages and such. Discovering passions allows people to share them, and then to form smaller affinity groups to find others in the group with similar passions (which builds relationships). There’s no reason there can’t be subgroups within $mens_club that share love of various activities, and then share the stories of what they are doing with the larger group.

One complaint that Hoffman has is the atomic nature of congregations and groups within congregations. Basically, the issue is moving from thinking of oneselves as competitors in a business to elements of an overall community. Translating this to $mens_club terms, the question is why don’t we work horizontally with other boards and entities within $current_congregation — developing activities to build relationships, promoting those activities, etc. Why is it all little fiefdoms? Thinking larger, why aren’t we working together with the other mens clubs in the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles. There’s no reason why we can’t build relationships with men in other congregations for the overall betterment of the community — we’re not businesses trying to keep our customers to ourselves at the expense of others. I personally can’t think of a reason we shouldn’t have relationships with the nearby congregations.

The book also noted that synagogue transformation depends on how well rabbinic leaders work with the laypeople. To that end, I think we should be working with the rabbi and cantor to figure out how to do role models right.

In doing this, it is important to recognize the style of the congregation. In terms of style, the book discusses three: corporate (400-500 members at an event), program (200-350 in attendance), or pastoral (under 150 people). It also distinguishes public from private religion — private caters to the spiritual life of members; public states out public claims in worship style or action (think “the gay congregation”). There’s also the issue of leadership style: charismatic, traditional, or rational. The first has a charismatic leader; the second has more of a traditional “king”; the third operates by rational rules. Understanding where you are helps you move to where you want to be. In particular, it is important to recognize and see problems with the congregational culture, and to work against “but we’ve always done it this way”. It is also important to take risks, and not be risk adverse (hmm, sounds familiar). Far too often, congregations are scared about scaring off a single member, without realizing that you might lose one or two, but make a change that brings in a lot more. I’ve seen this in practice: $current_congregation-2 was scared about moving away from Classic Reform. They took a risk and brought in a Charismatic young rabbi that increased membership. However, it was too much of a cultural change. The Rabbi left… and the congregation, though surviving, is slowing shrinking and providing traditional services at low cost…. on life support but hanging in there. The important point is that they tried something, and (I think) learned from that failure.

Lastly, the book explored how to reach GenX, which is looking for something very different than the Baby Boomers (my generation). GenX, according to the author, likes to sample and not to commit. They distrust organizations (leading them not to join easily), and crave experiences that are authentic and not plastic. They also want to see excellence in something before they commit. Far too many synagogues are not authentic — “marble houses of plastic people”, and this turns off the GenX until they have a specific need — and then they only commit as long as it takes to meet that need. Working the group to build relationships and make things authentic is important.

This post has probably gone on too long, but I learned a lot of useful stuff from this book. As always, I welcome your comments on the subject.

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Being a Role Model

Written By: cahwyguy - Mon Aug 12, 2013 @ 6:21 pm PST

userpic=levysI’ve written recently about how I was given a number of books to read by the President of $mens_club at $current_congregation (in my role as a VP). In my last post, in particular, I wrote:

The book emphasized being better male role models — and that I can see as being beneficial. For many, our fathers were good role models, but for many others, the father wasn’t a role model or was absence. This is something we can teach.

That dovetails with my thoughts after reading “The Spirituality of Welcoming: How to Transform Your Congregation into a Sacred Community” by Dr. Ron Wolfson. In this book, an outgrowth of the Synagogue 2000 (now 3000) work, he explores how to make a congregation a welcoming space, drawing lessons from all sorts of organizations such as Walt Disney, Chabad, and Pastor Rick Warren’s megachurch. I’ve heard mention of making the congregation more welcoming at various meetings at $current_congregation… but it hasn’t fully been working. They’ve been doing slow improvements, but I still see that visitors are turned off by the attitudes, and often the attitudes in the groups become insular and cliquish… which turns away newcomers. I also see that as they bemoan a declining membership, they aren’t doing activities that will draw in new members, or (at least to my eyes) make existing members more committed.

This is where $mens_club, I think, can make a difference. After reading this book, we should try to make $mens_club an example of a welcoming space in the congregation (and perhaps it can spread to $sisterhood as well). So if the congregation can’t get its act together, we should “man up” and show them how it is done. We need to be welcoming at our meetings, at our events, and at Shabbats.

The following are some of my specific thoughts after reading this book:

  1. We should build a profile database of our members, and in particular our supporting members. Find out what they are passionate about, so we can have activities that will play to those passions and get them more involved. The book also recommended building a “face book” in the original sense of the term — remember that Facebook started as an electronic place where you could put faces with the names. We should work to publish a roster of members where we not only have names and addresses, but faces so that people can be recognized.
  2. We need to revitalize the $mens_club Facebook group, and have all active $mens_club members be friends with each other. We should know what each other is doing, so that friendships can strengthen the intra-$mens_club relationships. We should also appoint a Social Media Chair (this might be a great job for a younger male) to nurture online contacts, encourage event participation, and rally support for members when necessary.
  3. One of the notions in the book was Community / Crowd / Congregation / Committed / Core as circles of membership. Community is the pool of “potentials” – the unaffiliated. In $mens_club terms, they would be the male members of the congregation. Crowd is the people who show up for the occasional service or program, but nothing more. Congregation would be the people who go so far as to join — that is, give financial support. Committed are the people that regularly come to meetings. The core would be the people that, essentially, go to everything. Not only do you need to draw people from the community into the crowd, you need to work to get them to move up the commitment ladder. Of course, as we do this, they will be getting more involved in $current_congregation, and quite likely the Committed / Core will become key members there. As we plan events and do the social media, we need to think how to move people up, and which people are in which category. This also raises the question of exactly who are the target members for $mens_club? Is it just the men of the congregation? Young males with families? We need to design the outreach to get the people we want… and who would want to associate with the current Committed / Core members. How can we, as a bunch of older men, come up with activities the younger men want?
  4. The book talked about the notion of creating relationships — essentially, figuring out how to get people to change from thinking about “the $mens_club” to “my $mens_club”.  This can then go to a problem that has existed of showing the value of $mens_club (and $sisterhood) to the larger core of the Board. The value of these auxiliaries is not just as another source for funds when $current_congregation needs them. It is to create deep relationships of members to the auxiliaries, and thence to the larger congregational community — essentially, we are moving them up the circles of membership. Being smaller groups, it is much easier for people to get to know each other and build these relationships. We need to emphasize this value to the Core … as well as advertising it to the existing membership as a way to “get started” in being welcomed. This might also be a way to utilize the left-over wine tasting glasses in a good way — for new paid members, have a $mens_club or $sisterhood member personally visit them and give them a set of glasses to personally welcome them and invite them to an upcoming $mens_club or $sisterhood meeting.
  5. Although not in the book, one other avenue of being this welcoming role model is to go after welcoming members when the congregation doesn’t. $mens_club (and hopefully $sisterhood) should be at the forefront of getting booths at community events where we can be out there welcoming people and inviting them to join us. If the megachurches can do this as a form of outreach, there’s no reason we can. We can talk about what we find passionate in $current_congregation and draw people in to try it.

As always, your thoughts are welcome on this.


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