Why is the Synagogue So Expensive?

September 17, 2014
Temple_Israel_Memphis_Chapel

Temple Israel, Memphis, TN

Why is synagogue membership so expensive?

• Synagogues run on membership subscriptions because that allows for predictable cash flow and budgeting.  Every synagogue has its own formula for setting dues.

• Costs vary by the cost of living in an area, by the size of the staff (salaries are usually the biggest single budget item) and by the services offered. A small synagogue that rents a room in a local strip mall one day a week and has no rabbi can operate very cheaply, and it will have low dues. It may be a wonderful Jewish community, but it will not be able to offer many things that people want from a synagogue.

• IMPORTANT: Most synagogues offer “dues relief” when needed. If you want to join a synagogue with dues of $2000 a year, and you can’t afford it, say so! Please do not assume that you are not wanted, or that it is a synagogue only for “rich people.” Explain that you want to belong to the synagogue, but that that amount will not fit into your budget. They will usually have a way to meet you at a level you can afford.

• Sometimes people ask why they should pay for services they don’t personally use. For instance, why should I pay the full membership rate when I don’t have children in religious school?  Educating the children of our community about Torah is a basic Jewish value, and it is the responsibility not just of the parents, but of the whole community. If you think the synagogue is spending your dues on something foolish or unfair, talk with a member of the board and learn about who uses that program and why it is a priority. If you still think it foolish, you can talk to more board members about examining those priorities.

• They call it a “membership” because you become a member. Once you join, at whatever dues level, you are not merely a consumer. Look for ways to keep expenses low by being a good member: cleaning up your messes, helping with set up and clean up, serving on committees, volunteering, and participating in events like congregational meetings and fundraising.

For more about how to be happy with the synagogue you join, I’ve written How to Succeed at Congregational Life: Ten Tips.

I have a bias on this subject: I don’t work for one, but I’ve been a member of a synagogue for twenty years. When there’s trouble, I call the rabbis; when I have good news, I share it with friends there. My beloved and I were married there. It is my Jewish family, my first and primary tie to the larger Jewish world.

Don’t let sticker shock drive you away! There are ways to make it work. Synagogue membership is one of the great bargains around.


Are You Curious About Judaism?

September 11, 2014
A Jewish group studying text together

Class with Rabbi Adar

Are you curious about Judaism? Interested in getting a basic introduction to the subject? Considering conversion, or just want to figure out your in-laws?  It’s that time of year again, folks – “Intro” classes are beginning in many synagogues!

I teach two such classes in the East Bay Area of CA: “Exploring Judaism” starts this Sunday at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. The class meets for an hour each Sunday, starting at 10:10am. For more information, click on the link which will take you to the registration page. My other class “Intro to the Jewish Experience” will begin October 22 at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, CA. That class meets for an hour and a half on Wednesday evenings, starting at 7:30pm. For more information or to sign up, check out the class page in the online Lehrhaus Judaica catalog.

Don’t live in Berkeley or Lafayette? Check with your local synagogue or Jewish Federation to find out what classes are starting in your area.

Some concerns I hear every year:

  • Will you expect me to convert? [No]
  • Will you burn me at the stake because I’m L, G, B, or T? [No, I'm a lesbian myself.]
  • Will you be mad if I don’t believe in God? [No, we'll talk about the many different Jewish ideas about God.]
  • What are you “selling,” rabbi? [Nothing other than a learning experience.]
  • This class is very expensive! [If it is too much for you, say so. Financial aid is often available.]

If you have questions or needs, speak up. This is your first lesson in Jewish community.

My classes have multiple entry points. If not now, maybe then! Get in touch for more information.

I hope that you find an “Intro” class in your area! If you will be taking one of mine, feel free to leave a comment and say “Hi!”


The Worst Day to Visit a Synagogue!

September 8, 2014
Purim

“Purim in Stamford Hill,” by Alan Denney

There are three days of the year when synagogues are weird. Services are not typical. The crowd attending the synagogue is not typical. Even the clergy may not be their usual selves.

In other words, those are bad days to “shul-shop,” to visit a prospective synagogue. Here they are:

3. Purim

Purim is fun, if you are a member of the community. But it is an evening when people wear masks, get rowdy, and may be a little tipsy. There may be a play, a “Purim Shpiel,” with lots of inside jokes that won’t make any sense to you. In the daytime, there will be a children’s carnival, with hordes of sugar-crazed little ones. Don’t visit for the first time on Purim – it could be the nicest shul in the world but you will want to flee screaming.

2. Rosh HaShanah

Rosh HaShanah (Jewish New Year) services are beautiful. However, they are also very long.The rabbi’s sermon will be longer, too. Like a church at Easter, every member is there and more dressed up than usual. The service, and the music, are different from regular services.  Tickets are usually required. Don’t visit for the first time on Rosh HaShanah – it may be pretty, but it just isn’t typical.

and now, for the VERY WORST DAY TO VISIT A SYNAGOGUE:

1. Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is the worst possible day to visit a new synagogue. Nothing is normal. The evening service, Kol Nidre, is much like Rosh HaShanah: everyone dressed up, solemn music, lengthy sermon, a huge crowd. And in the morning service, it is all that but even more so: no one has had any coffee. If you are already part of the community, then misery has company. We do the work of the day (praying), we kvetch about our caffeine headaches, services go on and on and on. The music is still beautiful. But it is no place or time to take the temperature of a synagogue, because the singers are hired, the clergy is tired, and no one has had any coffee.

When is a good time to shop for a shul? Any day but those three days!


What to Wear to a Jewish Funeral

May 6, 2014
A funeral is a time to be present for the mourners.

Funeral clothing doesn’t need to be elaborate.

The most-read post on this blog is “10 Tips for Attending a Jewish Funeral.” A lot of people find that entry by Googling “what to wear to a Jewish funeral” – so I thought it might be helpful for me to expand on the subject. When a person is in a new or uncomfortable situation, it helps to feel that one’s clothing is right.

THE MOST IMPORTANT THING is not your clothing, but your presence. It is better to show up in clothing that is a little bit “off” than to stay away.

THE BASIC PRINCIPLE IS RESPECT. We attend a funeral to show respect for the dead and to comfort the family. Therefore it’s important that our clothes show that respect: be clean, be tidy, and avoid anything flashy or attention-getting. The star of the show should be the departed, not someone in the third pew.

THE IDEAL FUNERAL OUTFIT for men or women is subdued in color, appropriate to the weather, and low-key in general. Think “subdued business clothing.”

SHOES should be comfortable, and if you are going to graveside, remember that you’ll be walking on plushy grass. Stiletto heels are stupid and dangerous in a cemetery. However, your favorite Nikes are a bit too casual unless your only other shoes have 4″ heels.

MODESTY is another way of showing respect. If the funeral is Orthodox, everyone should dress in clothing that covers at least shoulders and knees. Men should wear a head covering or accept a kippah (skullcap) if offered. It may be the custom for adult women to cover their heads as well. If you do not own a nice hat, carry a scarf so that you can put it on if needed.  For an Orthodox funeral, women will be wearing skirts.

Even if the funeral isn’t Orthodox, a funeral is not a place to wear a sun dress, your shortest miniskirt, or shorts for either gender.

IN VERY HOT CLIMATES (say, Las Vegas in August) you may want to wear a hat that will give you shade and carry a bottle of water. Again the basic principle is that you don’t want to draw attention, so stay hydrated and shaded so that you don’t require EMT’s.

CELL PHONES should be SILENT.  If you are a physician on call, set your phone or pager to vibrate. Otherwise, just turn it off and leave it alone for the service.

A TIP: Death comes periodically in every circle of friends, and often does not have advance warning. Figure out ahead of time what combination of clothes in your closet would be OK for a funeral. If you don’t have anything that would “do” for a funeral, it may be time to add something to your wardrobe. Accompanying the dead and comforting the mourner are important mitzvot, and when the time comes for you to go to a funeral, you don’t want to be worrying over fashion.

Finally, remember: showing up is the main thing. If the only way you can get there is in your bunny slippers, show up in bunny slippers.

Still have questions? You can add to the usefulness of this entry by asking your questions in the Comments below.

Image by Tony Alter, some rights reserved.

A Little Yiddish?

March 13, 2014

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Nu, you’ve noticed that around your shul they use a bissel Yiddish?

(So, you’ve noticed that around your synagogue they speak a little Yiddish?)

Yiddish is the language of Ashkenaz, the Jews of Eastern European descent. It sounds a little bit like German, a little bit like Hebrew, and it is written in Hebrew letters. At one time there were Yiddish theater, Yiddish radio programs, Yiddish newpapers, and it was the language for a flourishing culture. That ended with the Holocaust in the 1940’s. But still there are people keeping the language alive, and it survives in words and phrases around many American synagogues. Here are 25 words you may hear from time to time:

A bi gezunt - “So long as you’re well.” Meaning: “Don’t worry so much. You still have your health.”

Alter cockeran old person, not a compliment. “I’m just an alter cocker, don’t listen to me.”

Brucha – a blessing, a prayer. “We asked the rabbi to say the brucha, so we could eat.”

Bubbe – grandmother  – “Sarah was delighted to be a bubbe at last.”

Bubbemyseh – Old wives’ tale. “Hey, the healing power of chicken soup is no bubbemyseh!”

Feh! – An exclamation to express disgust. “You let the cat walk on the table? Feh!”

Goyishe – Adjective for not-Jewish. Goy means “Nation” in Hebrew, but in Yiddish it means “Non-Jew.” Non-dairy salad dressing may be perfectly parve (neither meat nor dairy) but if you put it on pastrami, someone might mutter about your goyishe tastes.

Kvell – To beam with pleasure or pride “They kvelled over their grandchildren.”

Macher – An important person. “He thinks he’s such a macher, driving that car.”

Maven – An expert. Sometimes used sarcastically, but not always. “Mike is a real financial maven.”

Mensch – A person of high character and a big heart. “Abe is a true mensch, you can always count on him.”

Mishegas – insanity, nonsense. “I’m sick and tired of this Daylight Savings mishegas.”

Mishpocha – Family. “Don’t be shy – we’re mishpocha!”

Naches – Joy. “A brilliant daughter like Susie must give you such naches.”

Nu? – It can be translated “So?” It can also be used as a greeting, “What’s up?”  In general, it’s a particle that calls for a reply: Nu, so you are learning a little Yiddish?

Nosh – can be a noun or a verb, means “snack” – “Are you noshing on the salad before I’ve even put it on the table?”

Oy vey – Short for “Oy vey iz mir!” – “Oh woe is me!”  An all purpose response to anything bad.

Punim – Face. A shayneh punim is a pretty face. “I saw Rivkeh’s baby: what a shayneh punim!

Saykhel – Good sense, wisdom. “We would not have survived the recession without Bob’s leadership and saykhel.”

Shabbes – Sabbath, Shabbat. “Goot Shabbes!” is a common greeting meaning, “Have a good Sabbath.”

Shmutz – a little dirt. “He had a little shmutz on his shirt, so I put a fresh one on.”

Tsuris – Serious trouble. “It broke my heart, to hear they had such tsuris.”

Yuntif – Holiday. On a Jewish holiday, someone may greet you with “Goot yuntif!”

Zayde – grandfather

Zai Gesunt - May you be well, good health to you


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 Some rights reserved by Contemporary Jewish Museum


The Power of Small Talk

March 10, 2014

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After watching people at many synagogue gatherings over the years, I am convinced that one reason some members don’t talk to newcomers is that they never learned how to “small talk.” Small talk is an important skill when I am interested in building my community. Small talk is also a way to fulfill the mitzvot of hospitality and kindness, by making someone comfortable at my synagogue or gathering.

The next time you see someone standing alone at the oneg Shabbat (cookies, etc after services), here are some tips.

1. BEGIN WITH COMMON GROUND. You are looking to connect with another person. Go for the things you have in common, rather than the differences. “Wow, long line for the coffee! By the way, I’m Ruth.” is not great literature, but the long coffee line is something you have in common. The room, the weather, the service you both attended, the speaker – all are potential opening moves. Avoid divisive topics (politics, for instance) and don’t focus on ways the newcomer is different.  An alternative, if you can’t think of a common ground, is simply to say, “Hi, I’m Ruth – have we met?”

2. VOLUNTEER ONE PIECE OF INFO. “I teach Intro to Judaism classes in Berkeley,” is a simple beginning, but it gives them a comforting advantage: they know my name and something about me. It also gives them an easy comeback, “Hi, Ruth, I’m Joe and I am visiting from Cleveland.” This is not the time for major autobiography, though – offer one or two conversational “hooks” and then settle in to listen and find out who they are.

3. GO SLOW! Repeat the person’s name and ask for more about the thing he told you: “Nice to meet you, Joe! What brings you to my town?” Or you can share more about yourself if you see common ground: “Joe, my grandfather grew up in Cleveland! The family name was Levi, and they were members at the Temple in Cleveland.” Chat a bit, pay attention. Listening is more important than talking. How long you chat depends on the two of you: if it’s interesting and comfortable, you might chat a while. If you can’t seem to connect with this person, then move on to Step 4:

4. MAKE SURE THEY MEET OTHER PEOPLE. Introduce them to someone else, providing one piece of information about them if possible. This gives you another opportunity to use the newcomer’s name, which increases the chance you’ll remember it: “Joe, I’d like you to meet Adam. Adam sings in the choir. Adam, Joe is visiting from Cleveland.” It also assures that the newcomer will  meet more than one person there. If they let you know they are looking for a synagogue, you may want to introduce them to the rabbi, the membership chair, or someone on the temple board.

5. MAKE YOUR EXIT. One graceful way to move away from another person is by saying, “It was nice to meet you, Joe. I need to…” and then fill the blank with  anything from “Get some water” to “leave early this evening” or “talk with someone.” The idea is to let them know that you enjoyed meeting them, and that something is now drawing you regretfully away. If you can leave them with someone new to talk to, that’s the best scenario.

For the newcomer, all the same rules apply: Start with the setting, introduce yourself (“coming out” as a visitor or newbie), pay attention and repeat names, and look for common conversational ground. If there’s something you want to know, ask.

Most congregations advertise themselves as “welcoming.” To be truly welcoming, though, a congregation needs to acknowledge and engage the people who come in the door. That takes small talk, the social skill that is not really so small.

Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by raiznext


Never Say This When You Welcome a Visitor!

February 28, 2014

Conversation

You may or may not be able to tell from my “voice” here on the blog, but my speaking voice includes a Southern accent. I have lived in California for over 25 years, but my Tennessee accent remains. It fades in and out, depending on my emotions and my energy level, but it’s always there.

When I first moved west, I tried to get rid of it. I was making fair progress, when an acquaintance said, “I’m SO glad that you are losing that ignorant-sounding accent.” I replied in my best Southern-lady voice, “Martin, you have just guaranteed that I will go to my GRAVE with this ignorant-sounding accent.”  In that moment, I decided that I’d rather be myself, southern accent and all.

Odd cultural fact: I get more comments about my accent from other Jews than from any other group of people I encounter. They comment in different ways: they ask where I’m from, or say that they “love the cute twang,” or jokingly speak to me with an exaggerated “Beverly Hillbillies” sort of accent. I used to shrug it off; lately I’ve come to realize that regardless of the intent behind them, all are “micro-aggressions:” subtle ways of reminding me that I’m an outsider.

As I became more conscious of these micro-aggressions, I also began to notice the ways in which we inflict them on many other people. Well-meaning members of a congregation welcome the visitor in a wheelchair by talking about wheelchairs.  If a visitor has an unusual accent, they are questioned about it. Dark-skinned visitors are quizzed for their story: not born Jewish, right? All of this is done with the idea that it is friendly, but it’s counterproductive. Commenting on differences, even in a “friendly” way, is not a friendly act. I realized to my chagrin that I, too, had the habit of making small talk out of the very things that would make a person feel least at home.

There have been times and places when Jews had good reason to be nervous about strangers, but 21st century America isn’t one of them. If we want to be truly welcoming of newcomers, if we want them to come back and be a part of our community, we need to unlearn this nervous habit.

The best way I’ve found to unlearn it is summarized in three words: Seek Common Ground. Instead of commenting on the things that make a person different, I look for topics that we have in common. I can start with that old chestnut, the weather (we do have it in common, after all) or with a shared experience, “I enjoyed the music tonight, what did you think of it?” but the important thing is that it is something shared.

Shared experience is what binds a community together. By offering another person a conversation about what we have in common, I build my community. We can still disagree about plenty of things, but by looking for the common ground, we give them the most basic message of welcome: we assume that they’re “one of us.”

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