An Ages Old Tradition

userpic=tallitToday, my congregation participated in an ages-old Jewish tradition that many felt was a long missing tradition, and others found incredibly offensive. So what did they do?

Did they sit the men separately from the women?

Did they not let women sing or lead from the bimah?

Did they swing a dead chicken around their head to get rid of sins?

Nope. None of those. They did a congregational fund-raising appeal on Yom Kippur morning.

Now at many congregations I’ve been at, fund raising during the high holy days is a common tradition. One morning service you get hit up for Israeli Bonds. Another morning the Temple President (or designee) would get up after the Rabbi to appeal for the needs of the congregation. People were used to it, and they planned and gave every year. At our current congregation, however, that wasn’t the practice. There would be a supplemental annual appeal at the end of the Tax Year, and various fundraisers through the year. So this year’s appeal was a new thing — and as such, uncomfortable for those not used to it.

[At this point, the small Rabbinic voice in my head says: “But isn’t that the job of religion: to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?”]

The thing is: the appeal is needed. As with most non-profits, subscriptions and memberships only cover about 70% of expenses. The rest depends on annual giving, and low giving means things like deferred maintenance and deferred dreams. It can also lead to little things like “temporary” lines of credit that can create even more deferrals.

So we did the right thing: We brought back the annual High Holy Day appeal.  We made the attempt. We swung at the pitch.

Did we hit it out of the park? I have no idea. I know for some it struck just the right tone; for others, it was too much, too heavy handed. Here are some thoughts of mine:

  • A very wise Kindergarten teacher at Wilshire Blvd Temple, Lillian Fisher, taught me when I was her assistant that the first time you do something it is not a mistake. There is a distinct possibility that today’s pitch was too heavy handed. But at least we tried, and we can fine tune the presentation over upcoming years.
  • Someone else who is very wise — perhaps Mark Twain somewhere on the Internet — said that 90% of everything is not in what you are saying, but how you say it. I certainly think that was the case here. I do believe that how the message was presented could be improved, but it was vital that the message get out there. We just need to work with people to enable them to look past the manner or length of presentation and focus on the underlying message and need.
  • Yet another person who is very wise — our current congregational president, Gail Karlin — taught me a very important lesson with respect to appeals like this. The most important thing is not the amount given, but the fact that you participate. A person or families’ participation in an appeal or fundraiser — at whatever level is comfortable for them, even if it is just $1 — is what is truly significant. Participation demonstrates you are part of the community, and that you are willing to give something to support the cause. Alas, far too often we structure our fundraisers to focus on the big machers, and push away the small givers. The message must get out that all participation is equal and valued and necessary.

So do I think doing the appeal was wrong? Nope.

Did I participate? Yep, at a level I was comfortable with. As they would say, you can “count me in”.

Did I particularly like how it was said and presented? Not fully, but I was able to see past the presentation to  the need and the message, and I hope that other congregants and supporters can do the same. The need is too great to let a little mishandling of how they present it get in the way. Presentations are ephermeral and tactical. The focus must be on the ongoing need for annual support that is necessary for the strategic long term.

[ETA, for those unfamiliar with the terms: Tactical == short to mid-term, what you need to do now or shortly. Strategic == long-term, the overall end-game approach.]

P.S.: How could they have done it better? Some were uncomfortable with the Rabbi participating in the appeal build-up with his sermon, seeing that more as the role of a Board member. I can see that, but this was the first year after a long dry spell of appeals, and it could be tied in well to the Jubilee year theme. I do think it went on a little long, but I’m a “tell ’em what your gonna say, say it, tell ’em what you said” kinda guy. More significantly, I think the Board Member ask should have been after the Rabbi but before the Cantor’s song, so as to allow people to fill out the cards while the Cantor was singing.

P.P.S: You want to help? You can donate to the congregation here.

P.P.P.S.: Another way to help is to support the Men of TAS Annual Golf Tournment, which helps MoTAS help TAS.


2 Replies to “An Ages Old Tradition”

  1. These appeals are among the things that turned me off to conventional High Holiday services years ago. (The other thing was the medieval imagery of a deity who passes annual judgment on everyone. Some 30 years ago, while sitting in a stuffy synagogue on Yom Kippur, I had perhaps the only genuine epiphany of my life. I suddenly knew with certainty I could no longer believe in the theistic concept of a “personal God.” Or at least not one who could be propitiated with medieval Hebrew poetry via Morris Silverman’s florid pseudo-Elizabethan translation. But I digress.)

    The appeal in the synagogue in which I grew up seemed entirely at odds with the supposed purpose of the High Holidays. As this congregation was an affluent area, many of the contributions were substantial. Thus, the rabbi and Board made a Very Big Deal of reading the names of contributors and the amounts they pledged. And they did it twice, for Israel bonds and the synagogue itself. That gave the unpleasant impression this exercise was about providing wealthy people with an opportunity to flaunt their wealth, to aggrandize themselves and to impress other members of the congregation.

    I fully understand that synagogues (and the State of Israel) need money to operate; and also that Yom Kippur is when synagogues have their largest “audience.” So it’s entirely sensible to have fundraising appeals on Yom Kippur. Unfortunately, the resulting ritual of Reading The Names seemed inappropriate and even offensive, particularly in light of Isaiah’s very clear and very stern message (ostensibly on behalf of God) in the day’s haftarah. It certainly left a very bad taste in my mouth.

    If it’s necessary to read contributors’ names– and I understand why it’s necessary– I think it would be more appropriate not to specify the amount they gave. Not only would it reduce the hypocrisy, but as you noted it would likely encourage many more people to contribute modest amounts that might be embarrassing if the amounts were announced.

    1. Luckily, this wasn’t a “read the names of the contributors” (although there were some pictures, but not names, outside on signs). I’ve never been in a congregation that read names. This was more of: (a) there’s a long tradition of people giving money to support the community, going back to the tabernacle; (b) dues don’t bring in everything, and we need funds to do repairs and such; (c) there’s an envelope under your chair, and (d) no amount is too small, we want everyone to participate.

      So in that way, it was much more palatable.

      In terms of affluence, this is much more mixed. Some are affluent, but we have almost half on some form of dues assistance.

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